Assembling a musical “making-of” documentary is fairly easy, particularly with a compelling act in the foreground; actually finding any narrative of consequence behind the music — to pinch that hoary VH1 cliche — is a trickier ask. That “Blur: New World Towers” largely comes up trumps in this regard owes much to the enduringly scrappy charisma and inventive musicality of the ’90s Britpop titans — but also to the peculiar, semi-accidental recording circumstances of this year’s surprise reunion album “The Magic Whip,” which saw the once-fragmented foursome tacitly, even tenderly, mending past differences through performance. Shuffling appealingly between casually forthright interviews, intimate studio sessions and buoyant, to-the-rafters concert footage, “New World Towers” will thoroughly satisfy Blur nostalgists, but keeps the band’s image firmly in the present.
For director Sam Wrench, “Blur: New World Towers” marks a stronger foray into music-doc territory than his brief, Tribeca-premiered “Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions” earlier this year. Where that film felt very much like a multimedia album-package extra, this one is sufficiently substantive and narrative in nature to crop up in many a festival sidebar following its CPH:DOX premiere — and will likely earn a theatrical release in Blighty, where the band’s still-eager fanbase sent “The Magic Whip” to the top of the album charts in May.
Though Wrench largely skips the visual gimmickry that made Blur one of the most playful video bands of the ’90s, the pic nonetheless absorbs a measure of the album’s own mood-piece melancholy and keen engagement with location. The latter is a virtue that emerged by sheer happenstance: The spontaneous 2013 jam sessions from which the album was formed took place over five days while the band — having reunited in 2009 to perform, but not record — was holed up in Hong Kong on an unplanned tour layover. With frontman and lyricist Damon Albarn insisting that his songwriting was shaped by the territory’s unfamiliar, atmospheric street life, Wrench and his crew spend much time exploring the urban landscape themselves, lending woozy visual context to such gorgeous featured tracks as “Thought I Was a Spaceman” and “Ghost Ship.” (“Thank goodness we didn’t get stuck in Dusseldorf,” bassist Alex James quips drily.)
Back in the U.K., business is a bit sprightlier, as Wrench conducts lively individual interviews with the four band members, and looks in on their triumphant summer 2015 gig at London’s Hyde Park, where new material takes a back seat to enthusiastic renditions of such swelling pre-millennial staples as “The Universal” and “Song 2.” The interview footage concentrates, obviously enough, on Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon, whose personal and artistic rift (obliquely addressed in the new song “My Terracotta Heart”) prompted the latter to leave the band early in the recording of 2003’s dense, radio-hostile “Think Tank” album — their apparent swansong for over a decade. That it was the retiring, reticent Coxon who pushed for the Hong Kong sessions to become a complete album is a remarkable revelation to those familiar with the band’s history, and the film touches poignantly — if not too pointedly — on the healing properties of a protracted production process.
Coxon, still shy and shuffling on camera, and the smart, spiky Albarn project very different types of creative intensity. James, amiably chipper as he loafs about the kind of rural pile that was the very target of the band’s satirical 1995 single “Country House,” seems an intermediary presence; drummer Dave Rowntree, whose latter-day political career as a Labour Party candidate goes unmentioned, is the most laconic, and seemingly most bemused, of the four. Interviewing the band members separately highlights these contrasting individual temperaments, lending credence to Albarn’s statement that they only really become a collective while performing: “We leave ourselves at the side of the stage… It’s tantamount to magic.”
Tech credits are all thoroughly professional, with lensing and sound design conveying both the roaring, crowd-feeding energy of their live shows and the loose scuzziness of informal practice sessions where percussion is banged out on a coffee table. In either environment, it’s the elasticity of Blur’s songcraft — however long-winded its evolution — that the pic showcases most effectively.