Paul Elliott, Sean Lamberth/ UK/ 2018/ 113 mins
@Cameo, Edinburgh, Part of Doc’n Roll Festival
If you think back to some of the most memorable TV themes of the 70s and 80s, it’s surprising to learn that they often weren’t composed specifically for those shows. In fact, they were selected from a vast collection of pre-existing tracks known collectively as library music. Composed by prolific and versatile musicians, mainly in the 60s and 70s, a committed subculture of collectors and enthusiasts has sprung up around this eclectic archive. One of these devotees is Shawn Lee, a musician and J. Mascis lookalike who guides the viewer through the musicians, record labels and collectors of this phenomenal treasure trove.
The documentary is initially fascinating as the sheer delirious enthusiasm of the presenter and his interviewees prove as infections as some of the grooves that form the soundtrack that acts as a constant backbone. The stories of some iconic themes such as Grandstand, Wimbledon and Vision On, straight from the mouths of the musicians who created them trigger all those lovely nostalgic switches. The fetishistic delight the collectors take in these records as artefacts themselves will also moisten the palms of anyone who has ever experienced the tactile frisson of amassing a serious collection.
There is however a lack of narrative flow to The Library Music Film (the title itself is indicative of a lack of imagination). The individual scenes explored; French, Italian, British and American, are all marked by a certain type of character with similar working methods and similar tales to tell. Besides the younger collectors and DJs, they are all old white men. This raises questions the film never sees fit to address: principally, what has happened to this industry? Is this type of music still being commissioned and recorded? If so, where and by whom? Where were the female practitioners?
The longer the documentary goes on the more it feels like an illicit glimpse into an exclusive old boys’ club, and the less engaging it becomes. It soon devolves into an endless ejaculation of superlatives and back-slapping. This lack of narrative sensibility is exemplified by the periodical interruption of a Top 10 of Library Music recordings. Bafflingly, this moves from numbers 1 to 10, which makes zero dramatic sense.
The Library Music Film does have its moments. Some of the music is entirely worthy of anyone’s attention, and some of the interviewees are certainly interesting characters, such as DJ Johnny Basil. Basil looks like a less leathery, but an equally shirtless, version of Iggy Pop, who speaks with the demented intensity of the true believer.
Ultimately, the documentary is too aimless and hermetic to fully engage any neophyte to its subject, which is really the bare minimum that any film on a niche subject should aim to achieve.