Film Review: Elephant Days

Filmed over two years, James Caddick and James Cronin’s Elephant Days takes a refreshingly alternative approach to the music documentary. As well as being a record of the creative process that resulted in The Maccabees’ fourth album Marks To Prove It, it is also a portrait of the multicultural community in Elephant & Castle, south London, the area in which it was recorded and which helped to inspire it.

Bookended by short bursts of The Maccabees performing their exhilarating new album live in front of an audience for the first time, the feature interweaves the band’s struggles to create the album in the studio with snapshots of local people engaged in their own activities in an area undergoing massive redevelopment.

The Marks To Prove It cover depicts Rodney Gordon’s Michael Faraday Memorial (a stainless steel box-like building in the middle of one of the E&C’s notorious roundabouts – an urban myth once had it that Aphex Twin lived inside), while the videos for the title track and Something Like Happiness feature the area’s fast-changing urban landscape. Though there are no explicit references to E&C in the album’s lyrics, some of the themes in the songs echo the lives of people shown in the film.

Like The Maccabees evolving from cult indie band to a more mainstream following, the E&C is in a transitional phase of regeneration. It may be a run-down area best known for its pink-red (or white elephant?) shopping centre, high-rise Brutalist estates and traffic congestion, but as this film reveals it’s also home to a diverse community that is experiencing, if that’s the word, gentrification.

Building on the breakthrough success of their previous Mercury Award-nominated album Given To The Wild, we see Orlando Weeks et al going through a painfully protracted process of developing new songs, writing, re-writing and testing out ideas collaboratively, which eventually led to Marks To Prove It being released in July and reaching Number 1 in the album chart.

In between, we follow the occupations of a variety of locals: a couple creating a community garden in the half-demolished Heygate Estate; the Peckham Prides basketball team for disadvantaged kids being given discipline and motivation by a committed coach; a jazz musician ordering a made-to-measure suit from an old-style craftsman-tailor; a widowed healer praying for those in need in an international church; and the hundred-year-old institution Arments pie and mash shop.

The film-makers (who previously produced the NME Award-winning video for the track Can You Give It from The Maccabees’ second album Wall Of Arms) have created a surprisingly poetic picture – with some beautiful gleaming night cinematography – of a concrete jungle in the midst of huge physical and social change. And somehow The Maccabees’ music that suffuses the soundtrack seems to reflect the vibrant spirit within it.

Elephant Days is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2015 at Cineworld Haymarket, Screen 1, on 12 October at 18:30, at the Ritzy, Screen 2, on 17 October at 15:45 and at the Vue Islington, Screen 1, on 18 October, 20:45.

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