Feeling nostalgic, I found myself watching Daniel Warren’s film again, and appreciating it even more, particularly the sections filmed at the Arches, which was closed down, unforgivably, three years later. Like the album and the book, I still think it stands up as a beautiful piece of art in its own right, rather than an add-on or a document of the live show, which tended to be thought of as the main event for obvious reasons.
If you’ve never seen it, you can watch it on the player above. Here’s a DVD extras style chapter-by-chapter commentary…
Chapter 1: Ruth and Tom dancing
The film opens with a short sequence showing Ruth Mills and Tom Pritchard in rehearsal at the Arches, just before the show opened. The set is already up – three stages plus screens, dancing pole, and sofa – and there’s a lovely, very Arches moment when you can hear a train rumbling through Central Station overhead (if you ever saw a show in the Arches you’ll know that sound very well). The sequence Ruth and Tom are practising is for Cora Bissett’s song If You Dance With The Devil and – spoiler alert – you can see a more finished version later on in the film.
Chapter 2: Dark Skies, by Emma Pollock
This was filmed much earlier on in the rehearsal process (down in the basement of the Arches, in a room where countless numbers of theatre shows were born) and will be of particular interest to fans of Emma’s 2016 album In Search of Harperfield, where the song finally ended up (although it was originally written for Whatever Gets You Through The Night). It was, I think, the first time Emma had ever been filmed singing Dark Skies – she’s clearly still reading the lyrics off a piece of paper – and it’s lovely watching the other people in the rehearsal room – director Cora Bissett, actors John Kielty and Frances Thorburn, and dancer Steve Ryan – figuring out the harmonies. Dark Skies is one of the best things that came out of the whole project, I reckon – and I often think the video that was made for the song last year would have slotted into the film perfectly.
Chapter 3: All the things that make you want to disappear, by Swimmer One
This is the point at which the film takes on a life of its own, and I’m not just saying that because it’s my band. It’s the first part of the film that doesn’t consist of footage from the live show, or rehearsals, but something else entirely – an evocative, dreamlike sequence (a perfect fit for the lyrics, which are basically a stream of consciousness description of a dream) of us playing the song live in a theatrical props store above our studio in Granton. We were completely upstaged by that room really, with all its multicolour junk shop charm, and I’m absolutely fine with that. It was filmed at night, not that you can really tell, but the feeling it evokes for me is of being sound asleep and wide awake at the same time, your head buzzing with strange images that keep blurring into each other.
Chapter 4: A new case / For the maudlin, by Withered Hand
The original concept for this was that Dan Willson (aka Withered Hand) would play a song on the night-time ferry to Orkney, but it turned out to be too noisy to record there, so instead you get footage of a wee gig he played on the island during the trip (to, by the looks of it, about five people – which is an amusing and unusual way to experience a live show by a man who regularly fills the Queen’s Hall). Dan is the only person in the film who gets to do two songs, which is fitting given his importance to the whole project (he gets two songs on the album too). It was his generous, natural interactions with the actors in early rehearsals, and his ability to write songs on the hoof in response to script ideas, that first made us feel confident the whole concept was working. Most of this sequence in the film was shot at night – except that, being Orkney in Spring, it doesn’t really get dark. I can’t decide which part I like more – the early version of A New Case (or We Let Our Lives Go To Waste as it’s listed in the credits) before all the brass parts and the harmonies were added, or watching Dan singing For the Maudlin, the closing song from his first album, solo in a church (a location that, given his famously intense religious upbringing, has all kinds of resonances).
Chapter 5: If you dance with the devil, by Cora Bissett
Cora was so busy directing the show that it took us ages to get round to rehearsing her own song properly. We were still a bit all over the shop by the time we filmed this, and there’s a howler of a mistake in the first verse (we considered trying to edit that out of the film but decided it was part of the moment’s charm so left it in). Anyway, the first bit was filmed in Swimmer One’s studio in Granton, where the song was recorded. The rest was filmed during the final rehearsals at the Arches (you can see Hamish trying his best to keep everyone in time), with a dance sequence by Tom and Ruth. Both bits feature the brilliant RM Hubbert – a year before he won the SAY Award for 13 Lost and Found – playing a mean flamenco-style guitar.
Chapter 6: Live at the Bongo Club, by Wounded Knee and Bigg Taj
Another sequence filmed, poignantly, in a venue that doesn’t exist anymore, the Bongo Club in Edinburgh, during a club night called Trouble. Putting Drew Wright (aka Wounded Knee) and Bigg Taj together was a stroke of genius on Cora’s part and the two of them went on to collaborate on another film project by Daniel. In their first rehearsal together they improvised a soundtrack to a hilarious drunken club scene that spilled out into the street and ended with somebody throwing a bottle – a scene that became a highlight of the final show. So it seemed like an obvious idea to film them in an actual club. That said, much of the time Dan’s camera lingers on the clubbers themselves, as they dance, hug, flirt, and pose. It’s like a really good wildlife documentary – not one of those cheap, exploitative ones that encourage you to laugh at the animals, but one that shows a deep interest in their habits and habitat and wants you to understand them. I think it’s a beautiful snapshot of Edinburgh nightlife. Look out for a fleeting, Hitchcock-style cameo by Andy Richardson, the DJ and promoter behind long-running Edinburgh music night Limbo.
Chapter 7: Chips and cheese, by Eugene Kelly
In the live show this became a ridiculously OTT spoof of a Broadway-style musical number, with dancing, jazz hands, and a brass band parading through the audience. I played organ and some nights I added a bit of Jesus Christ Superstar at the end just for a laugh. I never did find out what Eugene Kelly made of it all, but we’d taken such liberties with his song that we were really glad to have the man himself in the film, singing the song as it was intended to be sung, accompanied by Chris and Bob from Belle and Sebastian. Having spent substantial amounts of time in brightly lit recording studios late at night, I like the burning-the-midnight-oil atmosphere of this, and I like to think it was was happening at the exact same time as the accompanying scenes of drunk people staggering about Glasgow city centre. See if you can spot anyone you know.
Chapter 8: Lonely taxi 2am, by Rachel Sermanni
I think this might be Rachel’s best song, and is my own favourite piece of music to come out of Whatever Gets You Through The Night. And this is a lovely piece of footage of Rachel and her friend Jennifer Austin trying out the song at Watercolour Music in Ardgour in the West Highlands (and a different version of the song to the one on the album). There’s a great bit towards the end when Rachel suddenly looks up at Jen and gives her a big grin, obviously delighted at what they’ve managed to create together in that moment. Rachel wasn’t able to take part in the Arches show in 2012 because of other commitments (Frances Thorburn sang the song instead, accompanied by me on piano and Hamish on guitar, meaning that I got to know it very well) so from the beginning we were keen for her to have a presence in the film at least. What we didn’t know at that point was that we’d get to do the show again at the Edinburgh Fringe the following year, and that Rachel would be able to perform the song with us every night.
Chapter 9: The muckle sang, by Wounded Knee
This song didn’t feature in the live show, or on the album. The connection is that Daniel filmed this performance at night on Loch Lomond, where the show’s climactic scene – a monologue written by Stef Smith, with an improvised score by Wounded Knee – was set. Stef’s story is about an old man, alone at night, scattering his wife’s ashes over Loch Lomond, and without trying to recreate that (we didn’t include any of the scripted material in the film, instead focusing on the music) I think Daniel still captures some of its poignancy. There are moments here where you can barely see Drew, a dark shadow against a dark, silent loch, his deep voice ringing out. I was at a friend’s party in the north of Scotland earlier this year, listening to people singing Gaelic songs late into the night, by the light of a campfire. It made me think of this, and the power of a single human voice singing in the darkness.
Chapter 10: Set in negative, by Talkingmakesnosense
We used a short version of this for the first Whatever Gets You Through The Night trailer. It is, basically, a long sequence of moments filmed at night on various CCTV and other surveillance cameras, from crowds protesting to fleeting encounters between dog-walkers. It is the only part of the film, I think, that was also used in the show – projected on to the three big screens as a backdrop to a scene about a lonely night security guard, set to music by Withered Hand. It’s a great illustration of the versatility of all the elements in the whole project – in the show, Talkingmakesnosense’s music was put to a completely different use, soundtracking a hilarious scene set in a yoga retreat by Annie Griffin. On the album, meanwhile, the music is the moment the sun rises.
Chapter 11: Embassy approach, by Errors
This is actually the end credits, but it’s a rare chance to hear a different version of this Errors track to the one on the album – a version that we received after the film was finished, but that did end up in the show. A little treat for Errors fans, then. I like that both versions use a lot of the same ideas, but in completely different ways.
And that’s it. Enjoy. The reason the film is in chapters, in case you’re wondering, is that the ten different sections were designed to be shown in any order, or even on their own, perhaps in combination with live performances. Sometimes I think we missed a trick by not making them available individually on YouTube. But I also think there’s something special about seeing them all together in this order, in the same way that there’s something special about listening to a carefully sequenced album in the right order, rather than just cherrypicking individual tracks. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts – something I think is equally true of the show, the album, and the book. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to work on anything quite like it again, but I hope I do.