One of the most distinctive voices of the past twenty years both vocally and lyrically, Kelly Jones had an extraordinary and unexpected 2019 involving two albums – one with his band the Stereophonics – and an acclaimed solo tour working with new musicians in intimate venues around the country. But it almost didn’t happen. Ben Lowe’s new documentary which premiered at the BFI Southbank on the eve of lockdown inadvertently became the opening and closing film of the Doc’n Roll Festival pending a now postponed cinema release.
It has been a tough year for cinemas and for film festivals forced online by a pandemic that has once again closed arts venues just as they were resurging. The handful of screenings the BFI managed during the London Film Festival were enthusiastically received in their Covid-safe and socially distanced cinemas and they have long championed diverse programming that has often included music retrospectives. Lowe’s documentary may only have been seen on a big screen by the hundred or so people at this event, but will appear online along with the remainder of the Doc’n Roll Festival.
Structure: Authenticity in Adversity
No ordinary musician movie, Don’t Let The Devil Take Another Day is about the cost and importance of storytelling, the creative process and cumulative pressures of performance across a career spanning two decades. Part fly-on-the-wall insight into Jones’s solo tour, part biography and part exploration of the personal and professional challenges that 2019 brought, Lowe successfully side-steps the cliched tour bus approach of endless concerts, wild behaviour and backstage dramas as well as the semi-spoofed interactions of difficult personalities and creative differences.
Instead, Lowe uses the structure of the solo concert – also titled Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day – to delve deeper into the stories that Jones tells throughout to explain and explore the influences and experiences behind the music. The song selection for the tour reflected what Jones considered the key moments of adversity and crisis in his career, so in structuring his insightful film, Lowe adopts a dual stranded architecture; the first is a time-based approach that anchors the wider purpose of the documentary in what appears to be a single version of the concert comprised from several nights of the tour as it evolves across a handful of UK venues. With this in place to guide the shape of the story Lowe is telling, it allows the director to break out into a light-touch history of the Stereophonics to reveal the cathartic nature of the creative process in composition and songwriting, considering what it means to perform and hear the songs as Jones contemplates a cross-roads in his musical development.
Referenced in the opening moments of the film and explored in more detail in some of these contextual sections, there is a triumph over adversity sub-narrative at play that sits beneath Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day as the reason for the solo tour and the existence of the film itself is eventually explained. But, coming to Lowe’s attention only after original and location filming was complete, it is a theme that is modestly explored, a private challenge included with empathy but without sensationalism in a series of matter-of-fact sequences that are central to but do not solely define a film driven by contemplation of the inspiration for and consequences of live performance.
The strength of this approach lies in its authenticity, tying the film’s structure to the revealing intimacy of the concert programme and the work ethic of its creator. Lowe’s ability to understand and reflect that on screen gives the film its genuine depth and heart, elevating the material beyond the standard gigs and gossip narrative.
The Creative Process
Most of all, Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day is a film about the creative process, how a burgeoning idea is informed by everyday experience, shaped and honed into a musical product before recording and performing it. And these are two related by distinct activities, as Jones explained in the subsequent Q&A – the music comes regardless of the opportunity to perform. And the film is about challenging the status quo to a degree so we see Jones not only working with a different group of musicians on stage but collaborating with Dwight Baker and Patricia Lynn from support band The Wind and the Wave. Having always written alone and changing little in the edit, the quiet process of working through melodies and lyrics – which Lowe captures in dressing rooms and studios – with two other songwriters is a revealing one, pushing the more instinctual creativity of Jones to revisit ideas while challenging the scrutinizing Lynne in particular not to overthink the songwriting process.
But the creative act can also be a difficult one when the concept of performance itself becomes a taxing experience. And here Lowe returns to the adversity sub-narrative using personal iPhone footage, a supportive voicemail from Tom Jones and several expert talking heads to reveal a new level of anxiety in the months preceding the tour. Used to capturing a song in two or three takes during album production, Jones openly struggles when recording the album Kind and the film is compassionate in its portrayal of vulnerability in these moments, looking with balance at how ongoing success in the music business – and to have delivered an album every other year for more than two decades is remarkable in itself – as well as an innate need to compose and create becomes both a point of crisis and engineers a more optimistic future.
All About the Music
Jones has always created music that reflect his own experiences and state of mind (increasingly so in recent years) and, during the Q&A, the singer admitted that his lyrics are now more openly reflective of his state of mind than some of metaphor-shrouded songs of the past. Anyone listening to Kind, the anxious recording of which is shown in this film ahead of it release last autumn, will notice how directly Jones confronts the work of the past two decades and its effect on his mental health. ‘So much responsibility / Sometimes I cannot breathe’ he sings in This Life Ain’t Easy in which the fast-paced pressures of modern life crowd-in on the protagonist as ‘the stitches in my skin keep falling out’ (Stitches). This is clearly an artist grappling with the bigger question of history, achievement, purpose and meaning.
Yet, these contemplative numbers have always been a part of the Stereophonics music, sometimes nestled among the anthemic focus of earlier albums but a consistent theme nonetheless. From the philosophical Is Yesterday Tomorrow Today (Performance and Cocktails) to fan favourite Maybe Tomorrow (You Gotta Go There to Come Back), Drowning (Pull the Pin) and No One’s Perfect (Graffiti on the Train), Jones returns again and again to these same questions about the path the band has taken and its personal consequences – something which Lowe’s film draws out extremely well in the particular programme selected for the solo concerts.
The openness with which Jones confronts the daily expectations to deliver and perform music, support family and the still noticeable absence of Stuart Cable are given subtle significance in Lowe’s film using archive material about the Stereophonics, home videos, backstage footage, commentary from Jones himself in direct retrospective interview as well as the stories he told the audience on tour. All of this expands on and reinforces the personal perspective of the show and ultimately the music itself.
And, while fans love the big stadium performance of Dakota (Language Sex Violence Other) or The Bartender and the Thief (Performance and Cocktails), some of the greatest moments in a Stereophonics tour are the reworked and stripped back acoustic versions of well known songs where just Jones’s distinctive voice fills the room. This was characteristic of the reworked simplicity of the songs selected for the smaller scale solo tour venues and Lowe’s film lingers on some of these performances, placing the astounding vocal quality centre stage. Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day includes extracts from Suzy and Katie from Jones’s only other solo album Only the Names Have Been Changed, You’re My Star and as well as a stunning extended performance of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make it Through the Night, a song Jones remembers his father singing in the clubs, filmed in close shot to emphasise the tenderness of the performance.
Lyrically contemplative, Lowe’s film also focuses on the how the musical composition of the Stereophonics and Jones’s skill as a composer has evolved and expanded since the band launched its indie rock sound in the mid-1990s. These have facilitated greater experimentation allowing each album as to act as biographical markers and milestones of musical development. With a solo tour band comprising drummer Cherisse Osei, violinist Fiona Bruce and multi-instrumentalist Gavin Fitzjohn, we also see the move towards a wider symphonic and orchestral sound that has led to diversity between albums releases. From Handbags and Gladrags to Sunny (Keep the Village Alive) and What’s All the Fuss About (Scream Above the Sounds) which has a complex Bond theme quality to the second half with a heavy brass section, this move beyond guitars and drums to multilayered scores and arrangements is captured in Lowe’s documentary in a focus on the wider selection of instruments appearing on stage with Jones.
Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day, Jones explained during the Q&A was intended to record the solo concerts, having grown out of plans in discussion since 2015 to document two decades of the Stereophonics. It was only subsequently that the underlying circumstances gave a difference resonance to the film, allowing Lowe to reorientate the narrative. By necessity, it makes the personal stories told on stage and its song selection even more meaningful, while clearly opening a new and fairly optimistic chapter.
There is much about this film that is unassuming, not least the personality of its protagonist, and Lowe is successful in delivering an intimately staged and shot 90-minute movie about a testing period of detailed self-reflection and transition. But this is always a film that is about that magical quality of music in performance and, having only recently been able to hear live music in an indoor venue again, this film will make you hunger for that experience of sound echoing and reverberating around you. Grounded in the specific music choices from the tour and the stories these songs tell, Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day explores the power of creative inspiration and the extraordinary potency of one distinctive voice.
The cinema release for Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day has been delayed until 11 December and will be available as a digital download from 18 December with an album released on 4 December. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog