d. Giles Borg / UK / 2008 / 76 mins
Viewed at: Screen 3 @ Cinema City

Still from 1234

There is no small amount of irony, I fear, in the fact that like the band within the film, 1234 played to a miniscule audience of five when I saw it in Norwich (a real shame for a city which supposedly has such a great DIY music scene). Nor is the irony lost on its director that, like a touring rock band, this film made its way around the country as part of Soda Pictures’ excellent New British Cinema Quarterly initiative.

And it might be about life in a rock band, but 1234 is actually an anti-rock’n’roll film in many ways, and one which will undoubtedly ring true with anyone who has experienced not only the cliched side of rock, but the much more honest, ‘in it for the music’ side, populated by millions of ‘starburst’ bands that simply never make it (as opposed to the the one in a million that does).

The ability for a film to assimilate itself within a particular music-led milieu has been something of a minor preoccupation of this blog in the last few months – especially in discussing Adventureland and (500) Days of Summer – and director Giles Borg and Co. could certainly show those Hollywood-led faux indie hacks a thing or two about taking an indie subculture and treating it with respect, rather than simply trampling all over it in the name of ‘cool’.

But as well as seeming rather more genuine than any Hollywood effort could possibly imagine, this film also stands apart from the normal preoccupations of the British independent production industry, a point driven home by recent, misguided comparisons with the social realism genre which loomed ominously over 1234‘s review in the April 2010 edition of Sight & Sound, (a review which, far from simply feeling a little unfair, seem to me to be downright lazy).

For starters, 1234 is a film which has grown from (and is about) a decidedly middle-class community – a fact made unequivocally clear in the film’s dialogue – a community far removed from those usually occupying a central place within social realist narratives. What’s more, far from possessing the social realist movement’s tendency to portray particular social or political causes, there is absolutely no suggestion here that the community at the centre of 1234 should be held up as any arbiter of British ‘type’.

The self-containment at the heart of this film plays off not only the middle-class neuroses of its central quartet of characters, but also exists as an apt reflection on the particular indie pop community it represents: a semi-underground movement that is both twee and resolutely DIY, and not at all concerned with sex, drugs and bags of money. In fact, the few moments in which 1234 does dwell on this better known face of corporate rock’n’roll – such as an early discussion about joining a band to meet girls – are also the few moments that the film falls truly flat.

And 1234 is not a perfect film by any means. Some of the dialogue is beset by cliche and a number of its references a cloyingly obvious – particularly when delving into one character’s love of art, at which point the filmmakers seemed to be stepping well outside their comfort/knowledge zone. In some ways, this also seems to reflect a certain ambivalence towards contemporary art in modern cinema. Whilst most of the negative comments about art in 1234 are drawn firmly from the opinions of its characters, the general sense of benevolence is severely tested when the film itself begins to ‘comment’ on the art world via a painfully cliched scene with a gallery owner.

But all in all, this is a remarkably solid effort in what is quite difficult filmic terrain, thematically and financially. And perhaps most importantly, 1234 felt like a genuine attempt to portray this rather specific indie pop milieu. And sometimes, I think, conveying a sense of honesty with films like this is really half the battle.

And besides, even if it had nothing else going for it, the fact that 1234 is about a band that – like the other 999,998 – not only fails to hit the big time, but never really makes any impact at all (and is more or less over before it really begins) is both refreshing and realistic.

And just because I dig them, here’s a video from a band who make a brief appearance in 1234, Betty and the Werewolves:

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