Director: Rob Reed and Paul Harris
Definitely not for everyone, this. But thought it was worth flagging here for people who are interested.
Basically, it’s a four hour (!) documentary about the making of Tubular Bells and the establishment of Virgin Records and their Manor Studio. You’ll know instantly if that’s something that appeals to you or not.
There was an excellent BBC documentary about six or seven years ago which told the story of the album very nicely. But it was only about fifty minutes long, and left the more rabid fans (like me) desperate for more detail and context. This new documentary, from de facto unofficial Mike Oldfield curators Rob Reed and Paul Harris, fills that gap very nicely.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the documentary style itself. It’s a perfectly efficient talking heads style piece, with just about every main character in the story giving lengthy and revealing interviews. The two most missed contributors are obviously Mike Oldfield and Richard Branson themselves, which is a shame, but would be too much to expect from an unofficial documentary like this.
But to be honest there is very little to distinguish this from a big budget BBC effort. It’s all very stylishly filmed and edited, extremely professional looking. Anyone who knows some of the detail behind Tubular Bells and the start of Virgin Records will recognise a lot of the key names here (Tom Newman, Phil Newell, Simon Draper, etc) and they all seem very happy to was lyrical at length at what seems to have been an enormously enjoyable creative period for them. There’s also input from musicians who were involved at the time, like Jon Field and Steve Hillage.
The style of interviewing is VERY relaxed, letting the key players waffle as long as they seem to want to. The worst offender is producer Tom Newman, who seems incapable of finishing a sentence without branching off into eight different sideline anecdotes. Not to say that Tom isn’t entertaining – you get some great stories like his initial bumbling efforts to build a recording studio for precocious teenage entrepreneur Branson, and his fleeting involvement with the Beatles’ rooftop concert. All grand stuff.
The idea seems to have been: just forget trying to whittle this down to an efficient documentary, forget the casual fans, let’s just do something for the REAL enthusiasts. The type of obsessives who actually want a four hour documentary.
Its sheer length makes it a tough watch, and probably impossible to take it all in in one session, but as I say you will know if this sort of thing appeals to you.
They don’t have permission to use the original Tubular Bells recording, of course. But they make up for that by producing an accompanying cover version of the entire album, roping in just about every prominent Mike Oldfield tribute act out there. It works well, and is used as the soundtrack for the film.
Interview-wise, I liked Phil Newell the best. He’s an amiable old hippy, and a real tech head. He has some fascinating insights into why the team at the Manor studio worked so well together – the techie people were allowed to do their thing and the creative people their thing, basically. He very eloquently describes how difficult it is to switch between the technical and creative sides of your brain, which makes teams like this essential.
And it all paints a very interesting picture of the young Richard Branson. Specifically, his “organised chaos” approach to things. You really get a sense of how good Branson was at picking the right people, visionary oddballs, to spark off each other. That skill seems to be a key skill of entrepreneurial people, just the instinct in knowing who to trust and give free reign to.
I’ve given a link here to the Tigermoth Records shop where this DVD can be purchased. Unfortunately, it looks like it is no longer available! I got it for about £12 a month or so ago. Maybe they will do another run if they get enough orders and enquiries.
To sum up, a looooooong documentary for obsessive people who want the FULL curious story behind Tubular Bells and the early Virgin.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
It has the feel of Sky Arts or BBC documentaries, if a bit more languid in pace. And if you like Mike Oldfield then it’s probably an essential watch.