A Life In Pop is an excellent, straightforward documentary about one of the most consistent and underrated pop acts of the last 20 years. If you have forgotten just how wonderful the Pet Shop Boys' combination of compelling beats and intelligent lyrics are, this could be just the package to remind you.
Despite having considerable success and probably greater recognition in the dance genre (especially in the United States, where a combination of their homosexuality and the emergence of Nirvana at the forefront of a white rock revolution cut off their mainstream success at a comparatively early stage in their career), A Life In Pop resolutely reminds us that the Pet Shop Boys consider themselves to be a pop act and, as it goes on to discuss, there is no shame in that.
There are two things in the favour of anyone seeking to document the career of an act like The Pet Shop Boys. Firstly they are artful manipulators of the media, who have created personae (the tall camp one in the long coat and the quiet one hiding behind hats and dark glasses) to enable themselves to perform effectively and achieve their artistic aims. Tennant speaks several times of creating their own world, with its own rules, into which everything they've done slots neatly, and of not doing things that don't fit into the Pet Shop Boys' world.
So even if you don't manage to pierce this facade the documentary subjects come with their own structure. Secondly over two decades they've made a film, done a musical, scored Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, put on complex, theatrical tours (one of them designed and directed by Derek Jarman) and made lots and lots of visually striking videos. In short there is a fantastic visual richness to draw upon, ensuring the eye is beguiled through the two hours and 20 minutes running time.
What I particularly liked about George Scott's approach is that it was very straightforward. There a lot of straight to camera input from the band themselves, and a tight selection of interview subjects who obviously gave considerable time to the project, instead of the usual selection of rent-a-heads. They are wisely chosen, representing several generations and the US and UK music scenes, from Trevor Horn, producer of their most recent album Fundamental, through the DJ who first broke West End Girls in the US to Robbie Williams, reminiscing about how his teenage hip hop tastes were turned around by Tennant's pure Englishness. The only one who seems to have little insight to offer is Jake Shears. That the Scissor Sisters dynamo used to go-go dance on the bar of New York clubs to New York City Boy is neither surprising nor of relevance - I think we can probably all guess that it was a popular tune in NY gay bars without this particular insight.
In the course of the film Tennant and Lowe each revisit places of importance in their early lives such as the Tower Ballroom and Pleasure Beach in Blackpool for Lowe and the Literary and Philosophical Society Library in Newcastle for Tennant, describing their younger selves, their interests and their musical history. David Bowie's name crops up an inordinate number of times. Both are articulate and self-analytical, and while the film is not deeply probing one suspects it doesn't need to be.
They are exactly what they appear to be - two clever northern boys, Lowe diligent in his early pursuit of a career in architecture, Tennant more of a poseur, fluffing his A-levels and starting out editing comics before becoming a music journalist, both drawn inexorably towards London. The magic of their chance meeting and instant friendship becomes apparent as they are interviewed together, picking up each other's trains of thought, listening respectfully to the other. Contrary to their personas, both talk equally.
Although one or two sections of their career are given short shrift (their 'Latin' period in the mid '90s around the release of Bilingual gets rather scanty coverage, as do other of the later albums) this is a film full of insight for anyone who quite likes the Pet Shop Boys' music. It's a thorough piece of film making, nicely rounded off ("I aim to be popastic," Lowe summarises, while Tennant quotes a friend who told him he achieved "depth through surface") and well judged. There's no shocking revelations, because the Pet Shop Boys don't do shocking, just tasteful and artistic. The one quibble I have is the lack of booklet information and the generally dull design of the packaging. Considering how strongly the band are identified by their visual image a badly compressed still of the two of them chatting is hardly enticing as a cover photo.