By the time George Hencken’s “Soul Boys of the Western World” finishes, audiences won’t know Spandau Ballet’s favorite breakfast cereals, but that’s about all they won’t know. A vanity production composed entirely of pre-existing footage — producers Steve Dagger and Scott Millaney are the group’s manager and producer, respectively — the documentary traces the usual pop-band trajectory, presenting Spandau Ballet as the most iconic group of the 1980s. Hmm. TV-style and desperately in need of cutting, “Soul Boys” does convincingly position its subjects as key trendsetters, and their most memorable tunes continue to be enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, the film is timed to cash in on reunion concerts, and will be a gift to their fanbase.
The background story will be familiar for those who’ve watched practically any history of U.K. bands from the era. The five members, including brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, were raised in the outlying neighborhoods of central London, imbibing soul music along with David Bowie, Roxy Music and punk trends. They began playing together as teens in the late 1970s under various names, shifting styles while becoming increasingly prominent among the Blitz kids, those trailblazing hipsters whose outre fashions made them rulers of the club scene.
In 1979, when columnist Bob Elms reporting seeing the words “Spandau ballet” scrawled in a Berlin toilet, the band was rechristened, and its self-crafted, painfully cutting-edge sense of style propelled it to the forefront of the in-crowd. At this point, it seems, the musicians’ popularity had more to do with their New Romantic looks than any originality in sound – watch their unfortunate “Musclebound” video from 1981, in which the debt to Bowie is terribly obvious. But they appeared on the hit-making show “Top of the Pops,” and exposure to the world outside the Blitz crowd began.
The docu continues with “True,” the band’s major breakthrough in 1983 (“We really were the darlings of 1983”), then “Gold,” on through the Live Aid concert, and smack into the expected pressures of partying, hordes of screaming fans and the combustible nature of fame — especially volatile when one member, Gary, is a bit of a control freak. The Kemps’ decision to star in the film “The Krays,” just when the band was preparing a new album, didn’t go down well with other members, and the inevitable break-up happened in 1990, followed by legal wrangling when the non-Kemps sued, and lost, for royalty shares. Then, in 2009, they reunited: “Soul Boys of the Western World” ends with five minutes of concert footage from their 2010 Isle of Wight gig.
Was Spandau Ballet really the band of the 1980s? They admit to a rivalry with Duran Duran, and while Spandau began earlier, one could argue that Duran Duran was a bigger phenomenon. In terms of outlandish fashion, the band did cut a thrillingly counter-establishment figure in 1979-83, yet it’s hard, without the contribution of cultural historians, to say they were the era’s defining icons. Certainly in terms of bands that led the shift from punk to New Romanticism in both dress and sound, Adam and the Ants deserve some acknowledgment here (and musically, Visage and Ultravox).
The greatest hole in “Soul Boys,” however, is the lack of any music commentator who could properly place the band in context. Also lacking is an acknowledgment that Tony Hadley’s thrillingly plush voice was a vital component of the band’s success, notwithstanding some very clever songwriting from Gary Kemp. In this way, the decision to use only pre-existing footage serves the group poorly. Director Hencken, a longtime producer on Julien Temple’s docus, overloads the film with unnecessary insertions, so the line “We had all the majors chasing after us” is accompanied by an image of greyhound racing. And is it really necessary to show Steve Norman’s knee arthroscopy? Sound quality is tops.