copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

Giving voice
Performance and authenticity
in the documentary musical

by Derek Paget and Jane Roscoe

Documusical: a "seriously playful" form

We have consistently argued in our work for the value and importance of popular forms that mix documentary and drama. We see the hybrid forms developed by television’s factual program makers not as a threat to "documentary proper" but rather as an exploration of its borders with other modes of representation. Exploration does not always mean colonization; it can also mean discovery and the opening of new horizons. We have claimed elsewhere that the best of the hybrids transform and illuminate documentary. We are suspicious of the critical lockstep that insists "dumbing down" is the only effect of recent developments in popular factual television.[1]

The subject of this article is the television "documentary musical" (or "documusical"). We use this term to describe television documentaries that use purpose-composed verse, music and song within a documentary setting. Four documentary musicals are currently extant: Drinking for England (1998), Feltham Sings (2002), Pornography the Musical (2003), and Songbirds (2003). All were directed by Brian Hill for Century Films, a London-based company. There are plans for at least one more. Hill is keen to make this one outside the UK (possibly in the USA, possibly at Angola Prison in Louisiana – where he has already done preliminary research).

We make a distinction between "documentary musical" and "musical documentary." Our view is that the latter term better describes films that feature music centrally in the diegesis or narrative (like D.A. Pennebaker’s 1966 Don’t Look Back). The U.S. has been slow to recognize the documusical. A recent HBO film Showgirls: Glitz and Angst, which explored the onstage and backstage lives of Las Vegas showgirls, was suggested to us as a possible example. However, by our definition this seems to have been a "musical documentary." It featured music and song, both in rehearsal and performance, but these were part of a pre-existing Las Vegas show, not purpose-composed.[2]

Brian Hill and his collaborators have pioneered an innovative form more provocative in many ways even than the mock-documentaries discussed by Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight in Faking It (2001). These jokey films are, after all, partly predicated on understandings of traditional observational documentary practices. As for the film and television docudramas discussed in Derek Paget’s No Other Way To Tell It (1998) and Steven N. Lipkin’s Real Emotional Logic (2002), these films begin to look positively respectable, even staid, when set against the documusical. Clearly, a "not a proper documentary" argument can be mounted against the form, but we believe it deserves to be taken seriously as documentary. We will argue that the documusical should be regarded as "seriously playful – playful in form; serious in content."[3]

Sound, word, music

The image has been a major analytical focus for film studies from its inception as a field of study. Academic writing on documentary film has similarly taken analysis of the image, with its indexical link to a pro-filmic historical referent, as a first principle. This has meant that analysis of sound, word, and music in film generally and in documentary particularly, while certainly not negligible, has been a relatively under-researched area. The activities of the microphone ear are somewhat sparingly treated in comparison with those of the film and video camera eye, whether the object of study is the feature or the documentary film. A mere glance at the chapter heads and indexes in any of the founding texts of documentary studies will bear this out.[4]

A further illustration of this neglect is furnished by the "Visible Evidence" international conference on documentary film and video. Over the past ten years, there has been one panel on music (San Francisco 1998) and none on sound.[5] It is not that the community of documentary scholars has failed to recognize sound’s inherent importance within the documentary experience. To give just one example from a founding text, Bill Nichols observes:

"The centrality of argument gives the sound track particular importance in documentary…. [It] relies heavily on the spoken word." (1991: 20,21 – our emphasis)

The visual has held a dominant fascination for scholars (the fact that the conference series is called "Visible Evidence" also bears out our contention).

Rick Altman’s 1992 collection Sound Theory Sound Practice tried to redress the balance a little. In it, he coined the important term "point-of-audition" to counter-balance the concept of "point-of-view." In classic film drama, he argued:

"We are asked not to hear, but to identify with someone who will hear for us. Instead of giving us the freedom to move about the film’s space at will, this technique locates us in a very specific place – the body of the character who hears for us." (1992: 60).

"Hollywood," Altman concludes, "uses the sound track to anchor the body to a single continuous experience" (62, again our emphasis).

More recently, Gianluca Sergi has argued that new sound recording technology and reproduction systems in high-tech multiplexes have done more than just "anchor" an essentially visual experience – they have transformed the auditor at a Hollywood movie into a species of "super-listener":

"a being (not to be found in nature) able to hear sounds that in reality would not be audible or would sound substantially duller."[6]

In documentary, how much more situating is a sound experience that carries rational argument? How much more a figure for alignment if not identification is the pro-filmic thinking auditor centering and ordering that argument? Often this individual is the filmmaker, putting questions to "characters" at the point-of-view’s very point-of audition.

In Altman’s collection there is one essay, by Jeffrey K. Ruoff, on documentary. Ruoff draws attention to the trade-off found necessary in television documentary. There is, he argues, a basic narrative intelligibility required by audiences in popular television of all kinds. It is carried principally by the sound track. For television documentary, this has had important repercussions, because classic observational film documentary favors a lack of clarity in location sound that can make films difficult to follow. "Fuzzy sound" has come to be read as authentic – seeming to be as "pro-sonic" as the documentary film image is "pro-filmic."[7] In TV documentary, this lack of clarity tends to be acknowledged in a kind of quotation of documentary convention. But is almost always softened as an effect. Intelligibility is rarely threatened (1992: 224-5).

Television documentary’s bias towards intelligibility ensures a greater control at the point-of-audition, effected primarily through speech (via, for example, presentational voiceover, direct address, and interview) but also through graphics (borrowing from television news codes). Music, as in drama, has a linking/ commentating function, driving narrative and providing emotional texture. As John Corner has observed, music in documentary "greatly intensifies our engagement with…images" (2005: 245 – our emphasis). Apart from graphics, linked strongly to speech, these techniques maximize intelligibility through sound for a less forgiving living-room audience. The documusical extends these aspects of control, comment and emotional color through its use of purpose-composed song.

Songs go beyond background music in heightening and intensifying the experiences being documented, in creating "space around" the documentary subjects or "characters." The overt theatricalization introduced through songs in documusical connects with Ruoff’s analysis of the 1973 US TV series An American Family. He compares Craig Gilbert’s famous program with Thornton Wilder’s meta-theatrical stage play Our Town (1938). In both works, he argues, "everyday events" and the characters inhabiting them are transformed so that "their ordinary significance [is] heightened." The "Stage Manager" in Wilder’s play thrusts on-stage events beyond their immediate naturalistic frame, comments reflexively in Brechtian direct address, and brings Wilder’s characters into a (then) new theatrical relation to their audience. In the TV documentary, it is not simply the direct witness of camera and tape recorder that presents the Louds’ lives. In marked deviations from observational film norms, the producer/director himself intervenes via direct scene- and attitude-setting narration and his "characters" also give perspectival voiceover narration (230-1).

Brian Hill and the documentary musical

The songs in Hill’s documusicals work in a similar way to "make strange" moments in his films. Indeed, they effect even greater heightening, even greater extension beyond the naturalism expected of television documentary just because they are songs. An especially provocative shift in spectator-position occurs at the moments when participants in documentary musical shift from documentary interviewee to musical performer. At such production nodes we are suddenly cut free from a conventional point-of-audition/point-of-view and aligned in an altogether new way with the documentary subject.

Thus, the sound track in this sub-genre is so fundamental both to the experience and to the information offered through it that it demands exegesis. In the context of her writing on Reality TV, Jane Roscoe has drawn attention to moments she calls "flickers of authenticity," in which the mask of performance falls away from the Reality TV contestant/ participant. Her phrase deliberately recalls Barthes’ notion of the "punctum" and Brecht’s "alienation effect." But the "event of the song" in documusical produces a kind of obverse effect to Reality TV's flickers of authenticity, abruptly breaking away as it does from the conventions of documentary and accelerating into, rather than out of, something altogether more theatrical. There is definitely a "flicker" here, but one signaling a new kind of life – that of performance.[8]

An example: in Hill’s first documusical Drinking for England, the very first song (lyrics: Simon Armitage; music: Michael Conn) occurs some fourteen minutes into the film when forty-year old Tony suddenly sings! Previously seen in conventional "talking head" interview he stands now, beer in hand, in front of a closed-down shop singing jauntily:

"Thinking’s a beautiful thing for a man,
Thinks from a bottle, thinks from a can."

The visuals to his song then montage this urban backdrop with its graffiti with scenes in the pub, a fish-eye lens thrusting the singer forward from his working-class fellow drinkers, just like a music video would. The performance, like others in the film, does not hide a "real" self, but rather enables, enacts, the version of himself he seems most comfortable to own. The self-mockery of the song’s words means he performs his drink addiction with unexpected self-knowledge and self-confidence. Take my attitude to drinking or leave it, he seems to say. His conventional pieces-to-camera are suddenly lifted to a new level of overt performance.

Whenever we show the film to students, there is usually laughter at this point – both song and singer are so unexpected. This is a documentary about drink, yet Tony is happy to be a drinker. A frisson goes through our student audiences, the moment of pure surprise effecting an almost palpable exhilaration, expressed invariably through delighted chuckles. The space Hill makes through the device of song for this appreciative laughter is a formal reminder that constructing people as victims can sometimes say more about watchers than subjects. Trailing a history of sober (sic!) discourse, any documentary on drinking almost has to disapprove. We think that is why our students laugh. Documusical capitalizes on audience expectations of TV documentary, and takes a significant step into full-blown performance in order to deconstruct conventional expectations.[9]

Hill and his company Century Films also make "documentary proper" and drama. Like any innovatory form, the documusicals have provoked discussion and doubt. As far as the filmmaker himself is concerned, doubts about category only irritate. To him, the documusicals are first and foremost documentaries:

"Some people are quite snobbish about the documentary musicals that we do. The Amsterdam Documentary Festival wouldn’t accept them – I’ve never had anything [like this] accepted at Hot Dox in Toronto, or at any American festival."

His best-known film is the 2002 theatrical release Nobody Someday. This featured the singer Robbie Williams:

"Amsterdam accepted the Robbie Williams film but not Feltham Sings – which is a much better film. They took the Robbie Williams because they knew it would play to packed houses – which it did. It sold out every time they showed it."[10]

In 2003 Feltham Sings was thought good enough for BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Art) to give it the Flaherty Award. Century had success in the USA with Facemakers (made for BBC1 and Discovery in 2000). This won the US Circle of Excellence Media Award for "Best Medical Documentary" and was also a finalist in the 2001 New York Film Festival’s "Best Humanitarian Documentary" category. But Hill did not direct the film, nor was it controversial.[11] In summer 2005 Hill was a little bitter about what he called "the cartel that runs international documentary festivals." There seemed to him to be a determination to ignore what he regarded as his best work. We also deplore the failure of festival curators to make space for the documusical. This failure of nerve ended in winter 2005 when the Sundance Festival decided to include Songbirds in its 2006 program.[12]

Saturday Night (1996)

An early hint of something different was Hill’s Saturday Night, made for BBC2’s Modern Times series in 1996. It portrayed the Northern English city of Leeds during the classic (sometimes rather dour and joyless) English pursuit of "Saturday Night Fun." Hill collaborated on this film for the first time with a young Yorkshire poet and novelist, Simon Armitage. Armitage told us:

"We wanted the city to have a voice – a sort of "time-code voice." We found an ‘author’s voice’ could say things you might be afraid of saying in a documentary."

Asked to write a poetic narration Armitage was free, he says, "to look…at an image [in the film], go spiraling off and just crank up the imagery" in the poetry he composed.

In one section of this black and white film, there is a sequence of splendid poetic excess in a tracking shot of a boy on a bike. The film cuts to a cat slinking through Victorian iron railings, seen from the boy’s point-of-view. Armitage’s voiceover transforms the dour Leeds landscape into a jungle, the boy’s field of adventure. The ordinary domestic cat becomes the nobility of its species, a Bengal tiger. By such means filmmaker and poet create what Armitage calls "a fantasy life in the film." This meshes and clashes with the fantasies of a city’s Saturday Night people, providing color and ironic comment.

Although innovative, this film is easily classifiable as a "reflexive documentary." Its quirky "voice" is not unlike, say, Ross McElwee’s in his 1986 Sherman’s March. It would fit, too, into the older historical category of "poetic documentary." In Harry Watt’s 1936 Night Mail, for example, W. H. Auden’s verse accompanies the closing sequence and transforms the final stages of a mundane postal train journey. But, still seeking something new, the Armitage/Hill collaboration moved beyond poetry into song in their next film.

Drinking for England (1998)

Drinking for England (transmitted on BBC2 in 1998) addresses a social issue – alcohol over-use (we want to avoid the word "abuse"). For the participants (we want to avoid "subjects") their relationship to alcohol is certainly a troubled one, and the film documents plenty of evidence of this. But acknowledged as a vital part of their "trouble" is the sheer pleasure some of them take in what others would automatically construct as a vice requiring treatment (not to say censure). Hill avoids the label "alcoholic": "I just don’t think it’s my job to make moral judgments on people," he told the 2004 Sydney Symposium. Instead he offers a series of layered portraits through which the audience sees both the fragilities and the paradoxical strengths of his drinker protagonists.

In the opening section, we meet most of the characters. Drinking, Tony from Birmingham says in a piece to camera, is "what we do." The "we" clearly means the working-class men often seen around him in his favorite neighborhood pub. For Londoner Shaun, too, the "public house" is his natural habitat. The characters' performances (Shaun’s in verse, Tony’s in song) reference a set of emphatically British pub culture discourses. Drinking is a social activity, a way of escaping the boredom of working-class life, a way of interacting with others, a way of having fun. The pub is a place that offers opportunities to perform in a variety of ways. Tony not only sings his song for the film, he is also shown singing lustily over the credits – the pub involved in a folk-song session.

We also meet some women in the opening sequence, three out of four of them drinkers. There is Jane (about to enter onto a rehabilitation program), twenty-somethings Ami and Kerry (the "Maidens from Maidenhead" in their poem), and Shaun’s long-suffering wife Barbara. Later, we meet others, such as upper class Denis. There is also sad-eyed Donna, the "Cider Girl" of her poem. Verse speaking is backed by music in the way of the jazz and poetry sessions favored in some English pubs. There are, in fact, just two songs in the film – Tony’s and Jane’s. Ami and Kerry, and Shaun and Barbara all present themselves partly through verse, as does Denis later in the film. Donna’s sequence, which occurs thirty minutes in, even draws formal attention to the poetry by superimposing her words on the screen.[13]

The Drinking for England participants do not seem to us to turn away from themselves, but rather to be "self-fashioners" through the extension of their conventional pieces-to-camera into verse and song. Like Irvine Welsh’s junkies in the 1996 novel Trainspotting, their troublesome identities do not fit socially approved stereotypes, and they celebrate this. Also like Welsh’s characters, they reveal a more complex identity through their idiolect – the "voice" that characterizes them with its tones, word-choices and distinctive phraseology. Verse and song take the idiolect beyond their "normal" speaking voice. Conventional modalities of voice are thus extended and expanded. Within these developed modalities of voice, new levels of character are revealed (rather in the way soliloquy in drama and aria in opera halt narrative in order to progress character).

Jane, the character who goes into rehab, was crucial to the development of a methodology moving from verse to song. Hill and Armitage had discussed writing songs, but it was Jane who actually suggested it. Earlier in her life she had been part of a local Gilbert and Sullivan light opera group. She had enjoyed singing. It was part of who she was before drinking became an issue in her life. In the film, we see her go into rehab to try to break her addiction. She wants actively to rediscover and reclaim a self unaffected by drink and to take that back to her young son (she is a single mother). Singing her story, and consciously referencing a previous life, becomes an indicator of her desire to return to a self that she seeks to "re-inhabit."[14]

Her song "Sherry and Me" occurs some thirty-eight minutes into the film. It becomes part of the expression of her resolve to stop drinking. The lyric is disturbing, the musical style mournfully minor key. A kind of love song to her preferred drink, the bleak lyric tells of a woman trapped by addiction. Suspended in a kind of half-life in the closed world of the center, her performance allows her an expanded "song self." In terms of the film’s dynamic the song puts her into a different, dramatic, "circle of attention." It is in a different emotional register because it references "non-documentary" forms of representation – the musical "character song" or the melancholy popular ballad.[15]

The song sequence ends with an interview with her counselor that rehearses the mental means by which she must try to hold on to a "dry" post-rehab self. Outside the center, on her own again, Alcoholics Anonymous mantras must stand between her and alcohol:

"COUNSELOR: What do you believe your disease is, Jane?
JANE: Well, it’s alcoholism.
JANE: And it’s a disease I’ll have for the rest of me life.
Like any recovering alcoholic, she is encouraged to admit her weakness in order to control it 'one day at a time':
JANE: I can imagine pouring [a drink]. I can imagine drinking it. But I’ll do it tomorrow. I won’t do it today."

In moments such as this one we are not very far from "documentary proper." Jane’s speaking voice is heard, not for the first time. The region she comes from, Lancashire, heavily accents her speaking, but not her singing, voice. The two voices combine to offer a very different, nuanced kind of documentary representation.

In general, the performances in Drinking for England are underplayed. They are more obviously linked to a conventional documentary evidential than the other documusicals. Mises-en-scène are not fabricated and there is much in the film that is straightforwardly observational. In the above dialogue sequence, the camera tracks from counselor to Jane and back again in the kind tight close-ups familiar to the genre from the "Direct Cinema" 1960s onwards. Pro-filmically, and more importantly pro-sonically, the sequences before and after both Tony’s song and "Sherry and Me" could not be more conventionally observational. For the latter, transitions are effected smoothly from a situating opening shot of the rehab center, into Jane’s song and on to the interview. The two songs, however, took Hill’s work a significant step outside and beyond familiar modes of documentary address.

Feltham Sings (2002)

Hill and Armitage took more risks in Feltham Sings (commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 in 2002). Initially the network was approached by veteran documentary-maker Roger Graef, who had gained access to Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Situated in West London, near Heathrow Airport this facility is the largest youth detention center in Europe. Hill acknowledges that the collaboration with Graef’s "Films of Record" company was an uneasy one, because Graef had a very different film in mind. It was the network’s idea to get Graef and Hill to combine forces.[16]

Feltham is a prison known for its high suicide rate and difficult conditions. Most of the young inmates have been sentenced for drug-related offences, theft, and both petty and violent crime. While there is a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, the majority of offenders are black and working class. Because of negative publicity over the years, Feltham is also camera shy. Hill told us:

"We had such a tough time in Feltham – the governor didn’t want us there, the senior management team didn’t want us there. But they were told from on high [i.e. the British Government’s Home Office]: 'You will have these people!' It was very difficult in Feltham, we were very restricted as to where we could go."

Expansion of the musical element was to some degree to compensate for these restrictions.

Feltham Sings virtually reverses Drinking for England’s balance of poetry and song. There is one poem and seven songs, sung by inmates, prison warders and a social worker. Music video aesthetics were expanded, with split-screens and further text-on-screen graphics decorating the songs. "Dextrous" (a.k.a. Errol Francis) was chosen as composer because of his expertise with reggae, rap, hip-hop and drum‘n’bass music. All these styles have roots in experiences of oppression and have a long history of telling alternative stories, especially of young people. They were appropriated to allow a selection of the inmates to tell their stories and to talk about their experiences as "outlaws." The songs work with and sometimes against the stories’ content.

All but two of the songs had lyrics written by Armitage. Inmates Cass Galton and Linden George turned his lyrics down and wanted to write their own. The working process in documusical allows plenty of room for negotiation so they were given their head. Cass’s rap "This is Me" is good enough to be repeated three times in the course of the film (once as a duet with Linden). Good as both their songs are, however, they do close Linden and Cass off. The two of them reveal more of themselves in interview than in their self-penned songs. Their lyrics comprise a relatively commonplace lexicon of hip-hop/rap. While Armitage readily admitted he "could never have written anything with that rhythm," the songs do not crystallize character in quite the way songs in documusicals often do.

Paul McBride’s song (a particular favorite of director Brian Hill) is a case in point. McBride’s understated vocals for "Boomerang Boy" contrast with the harshness of his surroundings, the severity of his sentence, and the nature of his crimes. The latter are detailed in the lyric, and include attacking someone with a cricket bat. He sings of drugs, violence and the vicious circle of multiple re-entries to the world of prison. Drawn in by the visual aesthetics of the music video, it is difficult not to engage with song and singer – "a boy," he sings, "born in Holloway." A pop star for three minutes, McBride is still recognizably a vulnerable amateur singer. When the words kick in with the harder story that they tell, delivered by a disarmingly uncertain singer, they challenge the viewer to a complex response.[17]

Hill mixes locations and camera set-ups. As McBride talks and sings about his life, images are at one moment documentary and at another music video in style. McBride speaks and sings in his cell, in corridors with bars, in the prison games room (surrounded by warders who become his backing singers). Most poignantly he sings in the empty Visitors’ Room. Here, waiting for a mother who fails to turn up he sings:

"Your ma says she’ll visit, then suddenly she can’t,
So you’re sat for an hour in a corner like a cunt.
Wanna be a chef, wanna be a stuntman.
Don’t wanna sit in a corner like a cunt, man."

Lyric and performance add a distinctive layer to McBride’s presentation of self.

A further note on process

Armitage’s aim in all his lyrics has been to uncover the subjects' distinctive speech pattern and mannerisms – the signature tune, as it were, behind their every utterance. Feltham prisoner Terell Theusday offers a good example. Terell used "what-not" as a speech-filler in the way many people would say "blah, blah, blah." The lyric of Terell’s song "On Road" seizes on and makes a feature of this verbal tic. Early in the development of the methodology, Armitage worked from interview transcripts. He could, he told us, hear enough of a voice even through a transcript, provided it was a good one. If someone had "tidied" the language, or edited to reflect their own view of what was important, the voice tended to be lost so transcripts were never ideal.[18]

The evolved process of making documusicals can best be illustrated by reference to the work-in-progress Songbirds. Hill’s researchers first find participants for these very special films. For Feltham Sings, there were two researchers, working over a six-month period. Songbirds, says Hill, "had an assistant producer, a producer and a researcher going out for a period of about 6-8 weeks." Their task was to go into Downview, a women’s prison in South London, to find individuals prepared both to talk and eventually to sing. From a total prison population of about 230 prison inmates and about 150 actual interviewees Hill was trying to find:

"a variety of characters, [with] a variety of ages, of crimes – women who were interesting, had issues and wanted to talk about things."

Interviews in depth were conducted with about 20 women with the aim "to find the best material for Simon Armitage." Mini-disc is now the team’s preferred option to transcripts. Eventually four individuals featured prominently in the film, transmitted on 15 December 2005 on the UK’s Channel 4.

Armitage spoke to us of the danger of being "overwhelmed" by some of the stories – especially those from Feltham and Downview. He feels a strong need to maintain critical distance from often harrowing material.[19] He also sees himself as "still learning" to write lyrics that will achieve the compacted revelation of the best popular songs: "I have a project to be simple and clear, to get out of the poetry mindset when I’m writing lyrics." A developing relationship with Simon Boswell (the only musician to work on two documusicals) means that by this point:

"I offer the stuff to him as fabric, really. I don’t see it as fixed and unchangeable like my poems are when I send them to the publisher. I don’t see this stuff like that at all."

‘Producing text for [a] musician" is not, as he remarked, the kind of thing most poets want to do, but it is essential to the pared-down nature of the song lyric

While the lyric is being written, the creative team negotiates a style with the selected singer. Simon Boswell composes a tune, and then records a demo version so the participants can hear, comment on and own their song. The singers subsequently work with a singing coach, Barb Jungr. Hill says that she is:

"a fantastic singer herself, but more important she’s a brilliant teacher. She did Feltham too – which was a bit tricky because the lads’ attitude was 'I don’t need no fucking singing coach, I can sing anyway!'"

For the women of Songbirds:

"I introduced them to Barb, and they’d be nervous and say, "I can’t sing!’…and an hour later these women were totally transformed – you could see them blossoming. [20]

"Blossoming" and "finding a voice" was something in which the whole team believed passionately. Simon Boswell said:

"these women have been put in prison and denied a voice, so giving them a song is a process of giving them self-esteem. I’ve worked with and watched a lot of professional singers, and what strikes me is that if they’re any good they are both confident in what they’re doing and at the same time vulnerable … These [documusical] performers are amateurs and you’ve got to help to shore up their vulnerability. The song is about them, an endorsement of their lives. If they can do it – if they can sing it – it gives them self-belief."

A belief in the restorative, therapeutic power of the work was strong in the creative team. "Being given a song," Boswell remarked,

"is a short cut to the real emotional hub of what you’re about. I think the audience get this, because of that combination in singing of being vulnerable and showing bravery."

Armitage too believes the respect one feels for people who put themselves out on a limb in this way has a pay-off:

"We talk a lot [when were making the films] about whether we are taking advantage of people. We’re really conscious of this. At the same time, we’re not social workers of TV, and we do get people to tell their stories. Through this maybe they have a moment of revelation, or recovery. I think it is a form of help for some people – a form of healing even."

Feltham Sings exemplified this factor for Armitage because the young offenders "have been effectively written off as useless by society. The film shows they can do something."[21]

Pornography the musical (2003)

With Pornography the Musical (Channel 4, 2003) Hill and his team entered territory even more ethically challenging than alcohol abuse and youth imprisonment. Simon Armitage admits:

"I was nervous of the subject, especially given that our treatment is pretty extravagant and graphic."

Predictably, perhaps, the film got the highest visibility of all the documentary musicals in press reviews and TV discussion programs. Reviews tended to polarize around attitudes to the subject of pornography. As Armitage remarked, sex is a subject that British people especially become "very weird about and have great difficulty with." On transmission, Channel 4’s continuity announcer gave warnings about content not only before the start but also at the end of each of the three ad breaks. The team claim neutrality on the subject. Brian Hill told the 2004 Sydney Symposium: "What I was trying to say was, 'This is their world. This is the work they do!'" But with a subject like pornography the non-judgmental approach, however sincerely held, will never satisfy everyone.

There are seven songs (plus one reprise over the closing credits) in Pornography – the Musical all composed by Armitage/Boswell. We take as our example the first song "Where is the heart?" sung by "semi-retired porn star" Kelly Cooke (who sings three songs altogether). In the "Where is the heart?" sequence she talks first about how she got involved in the industry. We move rapidly to a highly stylized and clearly staged musical rendition of her introductory thoughts. Hill shows two Kellys: a young (acted) Kelly and a watching, older, (real) Kelly. Young Kelly plays out the approach from someone in a bar that leads to increasingly "heartless," increasingly pornographic, increasingly painful physical and mental experiences. Older Kelly watches and reflects on what is happening/has happened. As the expectations of what young Kelly will "reveal" become more and more gynecological, the lyric makes acerbic comments:

"It’s a bit like an X-Ray, a bit like Art.
But where is the heart, man? Where is the heart?"

In the interview sequence that follows the song, Kelly comments wryly on her life as a porn star. She concludes (and with a significant Freudian slip):

"Everyone always says, 'You should write down your story!' But I just think there are so many of those kind of stories out there, you know? I don’t want to be a hard luck story. I wanna be… Like anyone else out there I want a certain degree of success, and look how I got it! I wish I’d gotten my sex/success another way."

Porn stars like Kelly, Michelle, Rebekah and Faye are used to performing. To tell their stories through overt performance was not such a huge step as it had been for Hill’s drinkers and young offenders. The level of performance was accordingly ratcheted up in this film, which is more staged than either Drinking for England or Feltham Sings. In Pornography – the Musical the styles and the sets used reflect more overtly the codes and conventions of musical theater and film.[22]

But there is a generic similarity with the other films. Pornography – the Musical facilitates a similar extension of voice through the song. The barrier between audience and documentary subject/ performer/ participant is once again lowered and the level of formal and ethical complexity raised. In this film the viewer is forced into a rather uncomfortable position. Formally, there are even similarities to the final scenes of a film such as Man Bites Dog. Suddenly an accusatory finger is pointed at an audience simultaneously consuming a kind of porn while (supposedly) considering soberly the porn industry. We see an old-fashioned critique given new potency through innovative filmmaking in Pornography – the Musical.[23]

Ethical complexity and authenticity in performance

We also believe that a rather different evidential quality attaches to all these films. The singers/ documentary subjects are not "just performing." Authenticity inheres in believable performance and credible lyrics from both the musical drama and the documentary angles. Performance and story may have been rehearsed, but convincing performance is predicated on a specific documentary value asserted in the "documentary proper" parts of the films. Also, it not only sounds as if they are using their own words and telling their own stories, they are – thanks to the compositional processes involved. Moments of song cause authentic performance to flicker into life only insofar as they are ratified by a performer’s prior and subsequent documentary presence and by a viewer’s appreciation of the complex codes and conventions being evoked. What Fernando Andacht calls "index appeal" both supplements and bolsters performances that allude simultaneously to music video and music theatre.[24]

At "Visible Evidence" in 2005 Maria Baltar spoke about the "intimacy pact" between a documentary filmmaker and subject and the way this "pact" feeds into what an audience sees on the screen. Our view is that, because the process is one of negotiation and the performance one of demonstrable bravery, the documusical enhances intimacy pacts between participant and creative team and then between audience and film.[25] Hill’s corpus of work bears out his commitment to serious issues, and this commitment is no less strong in the documusicals partly because of the intimacy pact struck with his subjects. But because participants don’t just get their voices heard the different modalities of voice dramatized in the films produce an effect that speaks back to the stereotypes that have hitherto confined them. In "giving voice" in song the participants "enhance and project [their] marginalized identity" in an altogether arresting way.[26]

In the vulnerability of their performances and in their amateurness, the drinkers, Feltham inmates and porn stars are caught in a performative spotlight framed by documentary imperatives. With these films so clearly performed rather than observed at the punctum moment of the songs, the ethical is not just foregrounded as an issue, it is boldly asserted. The ethical is made complex in the song and verse sequences first by modalities of voice – there are significant differences between anyone’s speaking and singing voices (the latter being far more vulnerable). But there are also visual modalities in which the aesthetics of music video collide with documentary and force comparison and contrast both with "documentary proper" and with polished music video.[27]

In the progression evident over time in the three documusicals, there has been a conscious move from documentary underplaying to a melodramatic overplaying. Allied to this, there has been an increasing fabrication of mise-en-scène and a shift into overtly "dramatic" lighting and sound. But there is still a big difference, we believe, between performance in this context and acting a part in a drama. Within these three documusicals, participants perform their identities and tell their stories. But the individual performances serve a broader, edgier narrative. Individual stories are linked into larger narratives nominating social issues and discourses of race, class, and gender. These are referenced via popular forms – musicals, music video, new documentary – that are quoted rather than copied.[28]

Documusicals raise many questions, and provoke a range of emotional and intellectual reactions. Documentary, trailing its history of seriousness, is not usually associated with the delirium of song and poetry. But this melodramatic mode should not be seen as a backdrop to, or a diversion from, "real" documentary stories. Song and verse constitute the very core of these texts. The films are rooted in traditions of documentary, musical theatre and film, poetry and jazz recitals, pub culture, and recent youth subcultures. A very English genealogy can also be traced – to, for example, Humphrey Jennings’ documentary films and Dennis Potter’s television dramas. Both these artists exploited genre in different media by exploring formal boundaries – Jennings with quirky poetic films like Spare Time (1939) and A Diary for Timothy (1945), Potter with his reflexive use of popular song in TV drama series such as Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986).

Hill has a lot in common with Jennings and Potter. Englishness, we feel, has been a factor in several ways. The culture of traditional English pubs and workingmen’s clubs always had a critical, political edge, its entertainments especially able to critique the "boss class." English musical theatre, too, has traditionally been able to encompass a seriousness and depth in works such as Oh What a Lovely War. This 1963 documentary musical, produced by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, was in its time nothing less than a forensic examination of the exploitation by their rulers and commanders of the British and Empire working-class during the slaughter of World War One.[29]

Yet we do not deny that the excess of the documusical troubles our own sense both of what documentary currently consists in and what it may yet become. Hill’s work unsettles expectations and invites us to view the relationship between the documentary image and the "real world" afresh. These works ask us to think about how we evaluate documentary truth and the place of testimony within it. Their innovatory power is poised especially awkwardly between creativity and commodity. In the former sense they drive documentary in the direction of a productive diversity. In the latter sense, they have a kind of "Research and Development" function for an industry ever voracious for ideas. The idea behind Big Brother, for example, has morphed and persisted as the global television industry seeks to maximize its earning potential – and whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter for continuing serious debate.

The current diversity in the expanding field of documentary rests on a presence before camera and microphone that constitutes documentary’s perennial "index appeal." But this very appeal will be seen by some as potentially weaker following importation of codes and conventions from other forms. Our instinct is to accept the performances in documusical as evidential in an altogether new way. Our belief is that documusical enhances both the reach and grasp of documentary. Through this innovation in form, documentary has moved towards a fresh acknowledgement of the complexities in a mediatized society inherent in truth-in-representation.


Our thanks first and foremost to Brian Hill and Century Films for all the help they have given us. Thanks also to Simon Armitage and Simon Boswell for interviews and feedback. Thanks to Fernando Andacht, Maria Baltar, John Corner and Julia Lesage for their comments on drafts of the article and (in the case of Maria and Fernando) their willingness to share their research.

All images are the copyright of:
Century Films
Studio 32 Clink Street Studios
1 Clink Street
London SE1 9DG
United Kingdom.


1.  See especially Paget (1998) and Roscoe and Hight (2001). We are currently doing further work on the ideas in these books. Derek Paget is preparing a second edition of No Other Way to Tell It that will reflect the burgeoning field of docudrama on television and film. Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight are writing a new book that focuses on the expansion of mock-documentary forms in television.

2.  Showgirls was first transmitted on HBO on September 6 2003 (director: Kirby Dick). The approach in Hill’s documusicals is different, too, from what is on offer in "docu-opera." To treat this sub-genre, much less to make a comparison with documusical, would need another paper.

3. Jane Roscoe used this phrase in her Opening Address to the Symposium "Documentary – The Non-Conformists" in Sydney, Australia (10-12 September 2004). Speaking at the same symposium, Hill indicated his preference for "documentary musical" as a defining term. He wants to emphasize, not trivialize, the documentary aspect of the work.

4. We are thinking here of seminal texts such as Rosenthal (1988), Nichols (1991), Renov (1993), Winston (1995), Corner (1996) and others that have built on their opening up of this area. Voiceover is frequently discussed, of course, but sustained analysis of sound is rarer.

5.  A panel convened by Derek Paget and Chuck Kleinhans (at which a version of this article was given as a paper) broke this cycle of neglect in Montreal 2005. Kleinhans’s paper pointed out that audio documentary is an even more neglected area of study, though the form is burgeoning on US and UK airwaves.

6. This is taken from Sergi’s web article
We found the reference in Vivian Sobchack, "When the Ear Dreams: Dolby Digital and the Imagination of Sound" (Film Quarterly 58, 4, Summer 2005, 2-15). This essay opens up issues in which we too are interested. The website quoted offers a good range of practical and theoretical publications on sound, most of them from the past 10 or 15 years.

7. "Pro-sonic," to the best of our knowledge, is our coinage.

8. Jane Roscoe used "flickers of authenticity" first in "Real Entertainment: New Factual Hybrid Television’, Media International Australia 100 (2001): 9-20. It is a concept to be developed further in her work (forthcoming) with Craig Hight. We are grateful to Fernando Andacht (Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos, Sao Leopoldo, Brazil) for his perceptive comments on our paper both at and following "Visible Evidence 12." He pointed out the qualitative difference between Reality TV "flickers of authenticity" and the song-moments of documusicals.

9. A documentary proper on anything socially constructed as a vice will always run the risk of making disapproving Malvolios of its spectators – "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" as the magnificently named Sir Toby Belch asks the Puritan self-deceiver in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

10. We spoke to Hill at the Sydney Symposium, and subsequently at his company office in London (18 July 2005). Paget also conducted telephone interviews with lyricist Simon Armitage (9 June 2005) and musician Simon Boswell (13 July 2005).

11. Kate Bailiff and Alex Reed directed this film. Its subject was the transformation by charitable surgery of hideously disfigured Philippino children.

12. We applaud Sundance's recognition of Hill. Our aim in this article is to try to ameliorate the situation further by getting information on the documusical into the world of the documentary scholar, particularly in the USA.

13. Ami and Kerry are what are called "binge-drinkers" – there is currently something of a moral panic in the UK about this phenomenon amongst young people. Denis, old enough to know better, cheerfully drives to and from his pub. Donna is the really tragic case in the film – she is seen only once.

14. Interestingly, Tony too had singing in his background. He belongs to a Birmingham family famous on the UK folk circuit and two of his brothers are members of the band UB40.

15. Our editor, Chuck Kleinhans, commented that "Sherry and Me" fits into a recognizable sub-genre of popular music – songs like Frank Sinatra’s "One More for the Road," for example.

16. Among the many documentaries made by Roger Graef, the 1982 13-part series Police is perhaps the most famous. Following a public outcry after the episode "A Complaint of Rape" police forces across the UK were forced to re-think their treatment of rape victims.

17.  A cricket bat: American readers should think baseball bat, but bigger and heavier! Holloway is a women’s prison in North London, where McBride’s mother did, indeed, bring him into the world. Since McBride could neither read nor write, he found learning his song even more difficult.

18. Playwrights have recently been wrestling with similar problems with the "Verbatim Plays" currently fashionable on the London stage. Another essay would be needed to develop the point fully, but two plays from 2005 represent what we have in mind: David Hare’s Stuff Happens (about the aftermath of 9/11), and Robin Soans’ Talking to Terrorists. In both, freely composed dialogue has to an extent been replaced by verbatim testimony edited by the dramatists. All this bears out Hill’s contention that there is currently an "appetite for testimony" in modern culture – see also Dovey (2000) and Ellis (2000) on modern television’s focus on tropes of confession and witness.

19. Before he became a writer Armitage was a Probation Officer, so the ethical dilemma of over-involvement with clients was familiar to him.

20. Barb Jungr actually sang on screen in Hill and Armitage’s Killing Time (2000), a film setting of Armitage’s long poem about the millennium. She is a well-known cabaret performer in the UK.

21. We share the creative team’s belief on this matter, but do not have the kind of information that could sustain any claim to this effect.

22. Century even had interest from a London theatre producer wishing to develop the film as a stage show.

23. We find a kind of "reverse view" here, in which dominant gender positions are switched in terms of the "looked" and the "looked at’.

24. Fernando Andacht developed this telling phrase first in a paper "On the Irresistible Index-Appeal of a Global Attraction: Big Brother is Touching You" (presented at the Forum "Le temps des Média" in Paris, July 2002). Ruoff makes a similar point about the impact of amateur performance in his discussion of An American Family referred to above. Pat Loud, he contends "becomes a touching signifier of the authenticity of her routine appearances in front of the camera" precisely because of her "inexperience as a voice-over narrator" (see Altman 1992: 231-2 – our emphasis).

25. Maria Baltar is a Ph.D. student at Universidade Federal Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro. Her fascinating paper, "Intimacy Pact – or Some Dialogical Possibilities between the Documentary Imagination and the Melodramatic Imagination," focused on Brazilian documentarist Eduardo Coutinho’s films – specifically his 2002 Edificio Master. There seems to us to be some synergy between Coutinho’s and Hill’s work.

26. We are grateful to John Corner both for this phrase and for the insight that our original phrase "giving back a voice: "harbors a dangerous degree of condescension" owing to "years of opportunist use by 'radical filmmakers' of every hue" [email: 18 August 2005]. We take John’s point but reiterate that this is the creative team’s view – it must be said that it is also our subjective experience of watching documusicals.

27. Derek Paget presented this paper to research groups at Reading and Bristol Universities in the UK in October 2005. There was a general agreement in discussion of the paper that the images used for the songs were also in some sense "amateur’. Clearly, Hill’s budgets and crews were nothing like what is routinely available to makers of videos for the music industry. What we see in documusicals are clever images that recall music video to us intertextually. Intertextuality extends to Hill's title, which recalls Chris Terrill's 1999 BBC docusoap Jailbirds, also about women prisoners.

28. In Pornography, there is a section where Kelly Cooke was given a video camera to record a "video diary" of her return to work. Kelly records her thoughts on her role in a "watersports" porn session. The video diary format was first popularized by the BBC Community Programmes Unit’s "access" policy fifteen or so years ago. A series called Video Diaries began in 1991, and involved participants making do-it-yourself films under instruction from the Unit.

29. For further details, see Derek Paget, "Case Study: Theatre Workshop’s Oh What a Lovely War, 1963 – Chapter 17 in "Vol. 3: Since 1895" of The Cambridge History of British Theatre (ed. Baz Kershaw), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


Films by Brian Hill:

 Saturday Night 1996
 Drinking for England 1998
 Killing Time 2000
 Nobody Someday 2002
 Feltham Sings 2002
 Pornography – The Musical 2003
 Songbirds 2005

Other films by Century:

The Facemakers [dir: Kate Bailiff/Alex Reed] 2000

Other films/TV programs:

Night Mail [dir: Harry Watt] 1936
Spare Time [dir: Humphrey Jennings] 1939
A Diary for Timothy [dir: Humphrey Jennings] 1945
Don’t Look Back [dir: D.A. Pennebaker] 1966
An American Family [TV series – dir: Craig Gilbert]1973
Pennies from Heaven [TV drama series – writer: Dennis Potter] 1978
Police [TV series – dir: Roger Graef] 1982
Sherman’s March [dir: Ross McElwee] 1986
The Singing Detective [TV drama series – writer: Dennis Potter] 1986
Man Bites Dog [dirs: Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benot Poelvoorde] 1992
Showgirls: Glitz and Angst [dir: Kirby Dick] 2004


Our Town
writer: Thornton Wilder 1938 [most recent edition published by Harper Collins, 2003]


Rick Altman (ed.), Sound Theory Sound Practice. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

John Corner, The Art of Record: a Critical Introduction to Documentary. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996.

John Corner, "Sounds Real: Music and Documentary," in Rosenthal and Corner, 2005: pp. 242-52.

Jon Dovey, Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television. London and Sterling VA: Pluto Press, 2000.

John Ellis, Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

Steven N. Lipkin, Real Emotional Logic: Film and Television Docudrama as Persuasive Practice. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Derek Paget, No Other Way to Tell It: Dramadoc/docudrama on television. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Derek Paget, "Case Study: Theatre Workshop’s Oh What a Lovely War, 1963 – Chapter 17 in "Vol. 3: Since 1895" of The Cambridge History of British Theatre (ed. Baz Kershaw), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Michael Renov (ed.), Theorizing Documentary. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight, Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001.

Jane Roscoe, "Real Entertainment: New Factual Hybrid Television," Media International Australia 100 (2001): pp. 9-20.

Alan Rosenthal (ed.), New Challenges for Documentary. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Sothern Illinoi University Press, 1988.

Alan Rosenthal and John Corner (eds.), New Challenges for Documentary [2nd edition] Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Jeffrey Ruoff, "Conventions of Sound in Documentary," in Altman, 1992: pp. 217-34.

Vivian Sobchack, "When the Ear Dreams: Dolby Digital and the Imagound," Film Quarterly 58, 4, Summer 2005, pp. 2-15.

Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting. London: Minerva, 1996.

Brian Winston, Claiming the Real: the Documentary Film Revisited. London: British Film Institute, 1995

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