The appealing essence of the titular Britpop band is explored in “Pulp,” an artfully witty documentary that captures the “Common People” stars as they reunite for one final concert in their hometown of Sheffield, northern England, in December 2012. Predictably dominated by the original mind and angular physical presence of frontman Jarvis Cocker, the pic places South Yorkshire’s steel city at the heart of the story, cumulatively providing hints as to the band’s quietly awkward sensibility. The result is a beguiling celebration of humanity that could resonate beyond the nostalgic fan base.
German-born, New Zealand-raised director Florian Habicht (“Love Story”) signals from the get-go that his film aspires to more than the familiar mix of performance footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses and archival clips. The filmmaker proves just as interested in the city of Sheffield itself, and especially those inhabitants who are a whole generation older, or younger, than the ostensible subjects. (Cocker was born in 1963, achieving fame and success in his 30s.)
Sheffield is introduced early as a city that’s not easily impressed: The verdict “they’re all right” evidently sets the high bar for a compliment. Which makes this homecoming concert not the easy coronation one might expect, and the band — which took a break during the years 2003-11, having sold 10 million albums — seems genuinely nervous about the outcome. Hanging over its head: one particular 1988 performance, Pulp’s farewell to the city before relocating to London, which signally failed to live up to its pretentious multimedia ambitions.
An elderly female fan — one of numerous local senior citizens featured — describes Pulp as “more melodic” and “with better words” than their Britpop contemporaries Blur, while a younger German man later locates their distinct appeal as offering “moments from real life, and beautifully expressed.” Those descriptions feel about right, but it’s also Cocker’s curious sexual energy, seemingly at odds with his geek-chic wardrobe and beanpole physique, that is a key ingredient, celebrated in songs including “Underwear” and “This Is Hardcore.” As one woman offers in prophetic anticipation, “He’s going to be thrusting onstage!”
Cocker’s personal life is barely investigated in “Pulp,” perhaps because the 2007 “South Bank Show” TV documentary, filmed when he lived in Paris with his French wife at the time, already covered that ground. But the band members are winningly happy to talk about their frailties, both physical and emotional. Cocker isn’t the first singer whose confessional lyrics are the flipside to a hesitant inarticulacy in personal relationships, nor the first naturally shy person who is able to get past his self-consciousness most easily when performing onstage.
Overall, it’s the process of growing old that emerges as the film’s strongest theme, with Habicht deploying mature-ladies a cappella choirs to poignant effect, especially the Victoria Live at Home singing group’s rendition of the band’s “Help the Aged” while seated at cafe tables, reading celebrity-gossip and true-crime magazines. It’s in staged sequences such as this that the film’s subtitle — “A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets … ” — comes into sharpest focus. “Pop stars don’t have illnesses, they have drug addictions,” keyboard player Candida Doyle reflects ruefully about her own arthritis, with which she was diagnosed as a teenager. As celebrated in Habicht’s warmly human documentary, Pulp has always been defiantly different.