Martin Newell is a cantankerous British musician, singer, songwriter and poet who never quite got over the Dickensian wardrobe excesses of of the post-glam era in pop.
He was in a few bands that never caught on, but he was the sort who cursed and shrugged off that lack of success by continuing to record, putting out new music well into his dotage, mostly on self-produced cassettes recorded in his kitchen.
You can almost guess what came next. This DIY “pop star” became an underground favorite, the darling of the hipster “maker” culture, a guy whose back catalog became a gold — OK silver — mine for a re-release-oriented American record label. And all that happened as he bicycled, bantered and bashed his way towards 70.
Naturally, a documentary about him has to have that same DIY feel, and James Sharp (with producer Jim Larson) cobbled together a film that fits its subject — scruffy, irreverent, peppered with poetry and “jangly” pop not the least bit self-serious.
“‘Ye’can’t polish a turd,’ as they say,” Newell grouses. “But y’can roll it in glitter.”
“The Jangling Man: The Martin Newell Story” is a celebratory bio-doc laced with testimonials to the man’s genius. Dave Gregory from XTC is here, and R. Stevie Moore, Kimberley Rew and members of Newell’s most famous band, Cleaners from Venus. DJs and record producers parse what it is that makes the man special.
“Martin can get more great lines into one song that most people can come up with in a lifetime.”
It’s not like he never had his shot. Newell picked up a guitar at 13, and still plays the Hoffner he bought at 17. He answered an ad, joined a band and became its hair-dyeing “prancing” front man and songwriter. A band, a record deal, another band, a solo deal and on and on it went. At least Mum was pleased that he’d found a job where he could “wear make-up and look peculiar.”
Newell was a fixture of ’70s-80s British TV newscasts, a guy who walked away from “the music business” to become a professional gardener, then came back with a “green tour” — just him an his mandolinist, touring the UK by bike, busking and playing gigs.
Over the years he garnered lots of praise for his pop, and…nothing came of it. But he was making an impression on all these other musicians as “the sort of character you’d want to meet” by attempting a career in music — quirky, intense, offhand, brilliant, living hand-to-mouth decades beyond the point when anyone else would have thrown in the towel and become a gardener.
He was “the guy quite a lot of us would like to be,” one contemporary says with real envy.
And on the way to pop obscurity, he found new attention and fame as a poet. After that, it was just a matter of time before the hipsters discovered Cleaners from Venus and the lyrics that are the envy of his peers.
“I am just a jangling man
Been in the cold too long-along-along
And I live with a Raggedy-Ann
We never had any money, is it really so wrong?”
Still, the film, four years in the making, gets into Martin’s professional history without getting close to the man — a little taste of a misunderstood childhood, almost nothing of his personal life.
The portrait that emerges is not unlike a neutered, now-sober version of Bill Nighy’s aged rocker from “Love, Actually” — cute, a real “musician weirdo,” and worth a listen no matter how old he is.
Rating: unrated, a spot of profanity
Cast: Martin Newell, Dave Gregory, many others.
Credits: Directed by James Sharp. A Captured Tracks release.
Running time: 1:25