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Mogwai: If the Stars Had a Sound

Rockumentary offers colourful insight this British brand of elegant and introspective post-rock music; strangely, the "stars" are conspicuous in their absence - from the 32nd edition of Raindance

Being a geriatric millennial, I can recall hearing and reading about Scottish post-rock band Mogwai as they began to make a splash in the mid-to-late 1990s with their debut record Mogwai Young Team (1997) and their intense and euphoric live performances. Emerging at the height of the Britpop music scene and the Cool Britannia period, which was led by such bands as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and Suede and defined by its colourfully vibrant catchy anthems, charismatic frontmen (it was mostly men), and hedonistic tendencies, Mogwai felt like an altogether different beast that required more serious contemplation than the boorish antics of the Gallagher brothers or Damon Alban’s latest hook-up. As Britpop wavered and fizzled out, Mogwai’s brand of elegant, introspective, often extremely loud, mostly instrumental, experimental post-rock acted as a collective palette cleanser in the post-Britpop era for those who chose to listen and be rewarded over again with a band who let their audiences embrace a wave of emotional catharsis.

The band’s early rumblings developed, and their core sound expanded and incorporated electronic components, found sound soundscapes, the odd whispered vocal, and orchestration. The band has also scored numerous films starting with the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, 2006), and scoring Before the Flood (Fisher Stevens, 2016), and the television series Black Bird (2022). Mogwai today operates in an unusual yet well-earned, and well-respected space within music and the wider popular culture in that they are our band almost everyone has heard in some form or another, yet the general public wouldn’t know by face, nor be able to name a tune of theirs without a quick Google search. It is probably a space the band is extremely happy to occupy.

If the Stars had a Sound (2024), Antony Crook’s debut feature, probably isn’t going to change that anonymous perspective that many have. It profiles Mogwai’s recording of their 2021 album As the Love Continues, while also delving into the history of the band. For the most part, the band members themselves are absent from proceedings. No on-camera interviews are conducted, and no great revelations are forthcoming. The band is seen at Vada Studios in rural

Worcester with masks covering their faces (it was recorded at the height of Covid-19) occupied with the recording process. Grainy archival footage of the band’s early days is laid over the top of phone interviews, and radio broadcasts, while snippets of Mogwai’s music shimmer on the soundtrack. The urban landscape of Glasgow, the band’s city of origin, also features heavily. The insights into the majesty of Mogwai’s music are left to those who have worked with them or have been in various orbits of the band over the years. Alex Kapranos, the frontman of Scottish indie rockers Franz Ferdinand weighs in, as does Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. This is fine up to a point, but hearing from the band themselves may have garnered a deeper understanding of what drives them as people and musicians. After 25 years together as a band, and 10 studio albums under their belt, a few juicy stories must exist, and some philosophical, and musical insights must be had.

Yet maybe this isn’t the point of this documentary or the point of Mogwai as a band. They are at this stage in their career seemingly contented musicians who have avoided the physical and emotional traumas that often plague other bands and feed into the more sensational music documentaries such as Meeting People is Easy (Grant Gee, 1998), Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004), and Oasis: Supersonic (Mat Whitecross, 2016). These films show the downside of the music industry, the exhausting tours, the troubled balance of fame and integrity, bitter rivalries, drugs, booze, and all the other decadent vices. While I’m sure Mogwai have had their fair share of the above, it never seems to be about these things. While backstage footage from the above-mentioned films might show a band member snorting a line, here we see the band getting excited over a box of free AC/DC records. That is probably more telling than anything the band could say about themselves.

Alex Kapranos contemplates this further adding: “When you talk to all the guys in that band, you’ll have a laugh, but what you’re not going to get just from a casual conversation is the emotion that comes through in that music. I wonder if that is why it’s there, that’s their medium for communicating that thing that they don’t communicate with each other. That’s their way of understanding it and releasing it to the world”

This is probably the best insight of the film and supplies reasoning as to why the band members of Mogwai are absent. It has always been about the music, the connection it makes to the listener, and the short and long-term community it builds around itself. It is an endeavor that has paid off for them. The film ends with Mogwai achieving a UK number-one record after a massive mobilisation of their fanbase on social media and a concert at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. It’s at this moment in the documentary that Mogwai’s ordinary listener and gig-goers have their voice heard and where the heart of the film lies. There is a realisation that the band’s music has played a huge part in people’s lives over the past 25 years that cannot be measured by record sales or reviews and interviews on a printed page or to camera. It can only be measured by personal impact.

Ultimately, this documentary is a vivid account of a band that has transcended cult status to become a genuine national treasure. There is more to the story that could have been revealed, but the best document of Mogwai was always going to be the music.

Mogwai: If the Stars Had a Sound premieres in the 32nd edition of Raindance, which takes place between June 19th and 28th.

By Steve Naish - 07-06-2024

Stephen Lee Naish (he/him) is a writer and visual artist whose work explores film, politics, and popular culture. He often examines political undercurrents present in films and their potential for soc...

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