A true English pop eccentric is the subject of the wittily affectionate documentary “Lawrence of Belgravia,” a years-in-the-making labor of love for musician-turned-graphic designer, photographer and filmmaker Paul Kelly. Single-monikered Lawrence, whose 30-year career in the bands Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart have left him an impoverished cult legend, reps a large enough character to fill the feature-length running time, but there’s little room for balancing perspectives from collaborators, friends or foes. Further festival action will follow the pic’s London bow, but commercial prospects are every bit as niche as its wayward subject.
Formed in 1979 by West Midlands teenager Lawrence (born Lawrence Hayward, according to some reports), Felt seemed well positioned to surf the early-’80s wave of brainy post-punk indie rock, thanks to its spare aesthetic, introspective song lyrics and appropriately angsty album titles, such as its 1981 debut, “Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty.” But unlike its more bombastic contemporaries, the gently lyrical Felt failed to grow its audience, and split in 1989 after releasing 10 LPs. Lawrence went on to form ’70s-pop-influenced Denim and novelty pop act Go Kart Mozart.
Kelly’s film begins with Lawrence packing up his belongings in his apartment in London’s Belgravia district, following an eviction notice. With an ear for an aud-friendly sound bite, the musician presents himself as a shameless elitist still awaiting his merited elevation. Using public transportation out of necessity rather than desire, he unabashedly declares, “I crave fame. I want to live in a celebrity bubble.”
Reportedly lensed over six years, the film presents its chronology of events in hazy fashion as it captures Lawrence rehearsing and performing with Go Kart Mozart, being interviewed by French journalists, browsing vintage clothes stores for a new hat, and finally redecorating his new digs. Along the way, he muses over his fractious relationship with former band members, his troubled love life (“It goes downhill the more I find out about her,” he says of one g.f.) and his eternal misfit status.
Missing is any effective probing of his past substance abuse, which presumably was responsible for the alarming decline in his singing voice. But then, “Lawrence of Belgravia” is an unapologetic collaboration between helmer and subject, with the latter clearly seeing himself as co-creator, as when he’s shown advising Kelly where to make a quick cut. Treatment of him is always friendly, sometimes deferential.
Kelly thankfully avoids the lazy docu template of celebrity fans offering fawning tributes, and keeps the focus firmly on Lawrence, at the expense of supporting interviews that might have better illuminated what makes him tick. The enigmatic artist’s determination to maintain his poise denies the audience the emotional connection offered by the likes of “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” Auds unfamiliar with Lawrence’s work might be left wondering if he really possesses a talent worthy of this much attention, but then, such doubters are probably never going to see it.