The eponymous pioneering Brit synthpop star moves across the Atlantic and stages a comeback in “Gary Numan: Android in La La Land.” This portrait doesn’t provide much of a career overview, let alone fill in the blanks for those who wonder just what he’s been up to in the 30 years or more since he was last significantly in the public spotlight. But if Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s documentary feature sometimes seems too transparently a glorified promo for a recent album/tour, its subject is winningly candid and guilelessly charming — a far cry from his cold, “android”-like original persona, which was at least partly taken up as a cover for his Asperger-related performing anxiety. The polished pic will primarily access fans old and new via home-format sales.
Numan (nee Gary Webb) started Tubeway Army as a London teengager in the late 1970s, getting them signed to a major label during punk’s first wave. But a chance encounter with a studio synthesizer enraptured him and turned his focus toward electronic music a la Kraftwerk, though he says he wasn’t aware of them or other predecessors until later. While his label was initially dubious about the shift, the immediately resulting albums (“Replicas,” “The Pleasure Principle”) and singles (“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” “Cars”) were international smashes. The elaborate futuristic atmosphere of his live shows, his “robotic” movements and emotionally remote demeanor were, he says, not just artistic decisions but also ways of coping with various mood and behavioral problems related to the Asperger syndrome he wasn’t diagnosed with until fairly late.
But his stay atop the charts was relatively brief, and the stage spectaculars’ escalating costs gradually put him in the red; such business-side difficulties triggered an eventual falling out with his father-manager. (The finances must have gotten worked out, however, since the houses we see Numan and family living in are quite luxurious.) He kept making records and touring, but the film delivers scant insight into his creative activities of the last many years — a missed opportunity, since for anyone but dedicated fans, his post-“Cars” history is pretty much a blank.
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Instead, the focus here is primarily on his gearing up to make 2013’s “Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind),” an album he sees as crucial to extending his career. In the end, it turns out to be his bestselling and best-reviewed effort in decades. But its creation is fraught with anxiety (not unusual for him, one gleans), particularly since he simultaneously moves with wife Gemma and their three young daughters from England to an imposing residential castle in Los Angeles.
Gemma is a bustling, many-hair-colored husband wrangler in the Sharon Osbourne mold, accustomed to minding the store for her grateful, somewhat neurotic spouse. But the most endearing character here is Numan himself, who these days performs in simple T-shirt and jeans (a big change from days of yore), and seems equally unpretentious in what appears a very sweet temperament. Numan is genuinely surprised and touched when latter-day stars like Trent Raznor cite him as an influence, let alone invite him on stage to access their large fanbases. It’s hard to believe this lovable bloke ever had a communication-ending rift with his parents. But then, “Android in La La Land” may well be less than a full-disclosure tell-all, despite its seemingly unfiltered portrait.
The film is slickly packaged, with audio aspects naturally first-rate.