New Order: Story

New Order - StorySynopsis:  New Order Story is a 1993 documentary on the English indie rock band New Order, featuring the majority of their music videos, as well as interviews with the band members, their manager Rob Gretton, producers, etc.

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New Order: Story 7.75

eyelights: the vast array of live performances and videos. the number of participants.
eyesores: its near exhausting length. the limited historical perspective. the audio mix. Bono.

“This is the story of New Order. It’s a relentless story of beginnings and endings, of excess and cunning, of pride and immaturity. Who’s to say that it really happened?”

‘New Order: Story’ is a documentary that was originally broadcast on ITV in the UK in 1993. It was released on home video soon after, but, strangely, the North American version was cropped from its original length to approximately 60 minutes. When it was released on DVD in 2005, the full version was finally made available here.

Narrated by Jenny Seagrove, in a breathy, relaxed, talk radio/spoken word fashion, it purports to provide a biographical overview of New Order. The band, who had been a tremendous influence during the ’80s, had finally broken through to the masses a few months prior with their latest album ‘Republic’ and hit single “Regret”.

At a whopping 140 minutes in length, it’s an unwieldy document. The filmmakers seem to acknowledge this by separating it into three parts, with intermissions for a couple of New Order videos in between. Each part opens with Seagrove’s narration, which was written in a pretentious, almost non-sensical way. The film also closes with a few final words.

The length wouldn’t be much of a problem if the film were more substantive. Sadly, it overlooks significant moments in the band’s progression and even goes back and forth in time to some degree, further blurring the lines. Novices are assured a terribly sketchy perspective. I suppose it’s called ‘Story’ for a reason (‘Substance’ was already taken, anyway).

It begins in the right place, thankfully: with Joy Division. Although the film provides an appropriately brief look at the band (it is about New Order, not Joy Division – which deserved its own treatment), they do talk about Joy Division’s legacy, the charisma of Ian Curtis, and of seeing four years of hard work come crashing down overnight, with his death.

The film explains that they brought in Gillian, who wasn’t in JD and how they weren’t sure what to name themselves. They don’t explain why she became a member or why they changed their name instead of continuing as Joy Division (after all, they didn’t change their name when they continued in the 2000s without some of their founding members).

They also talk about Bernard Sumner becoming the frontman – a daunting thing for someone as private as he is. In one interview he talks about his lyrics (which always seemed undecipherable to me), saying that he writes them first, without trying to make sense of any of it; he just lets it flow. He tried to write with a certain intention once, but it came out corny.

Then, aside for one brief TV performance, it proceeds to jump almost directly to “Blue Monday”, a landmark, for sure, but hardly the first thing they did; they weren’t an instant hit. The clip of a Sunkist ad for which they redid the lyrics to hock the beverage makes them an early sell out, however. It’s truly revolting to hear – but it was a great paycheque.

‘Story’ stops paying attention to their releases altogether then, with the exception of their latest (to some degree). Instead, it tells this tale through their many music videos, which are often interrupted to include interview bits with the band members, their collaborators, industry people, and a few musicians (Bono, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and Quincy Jones).

I don’t know why Bono (in a disingenuous, goofy, annoying camcorder selfie) was in there. Perhaps it was because U2 was on top of the world then and it lent New Order pop credibility. Tennant, who has worked with Sumner in Electronic, had a lot to say, however. Jones had much to say, too, but it sounded generic, and it wasn’t clear what his connection to the band was.

The interview segments with the band are a bit unusual: Bernard is getting his hair cut, Peter is dressed in a lounge lizard suit and is surrounded by transvestites, Stephen is in his home studio, and Gillian is outside in a park. It’s not your standard studio stuff. The band is also brought together for discussions around a table, over drinks.

There’s also a mock game show called ‘The N.O. Show’ with Keith Allen as the host, and featuring the band members themselves. This is where much of the meat comes out, as the show consists of asking them them questions, the answers for which could be insightful. It was weird to see the band so casual and having a good time in this context; it’s not how I imagined them.

Apparently, the band had a reputation for not doing interviews, but it’s left unclear whether or not that was deserved; there were conflicting accounts, but no definite conclusion. Some claim that they cultivated an image of not having an image. Some say that it just happened that way. It wasn’t until “World in Motion” (their first #1 single!) that this image burst.

Graphic designer Peter Saville, who was the label’s creative director, explained that everyone just did what they wanted: Tony Wilson ran Factory Records his way, New Order ran New Order their way, and he could run the label and bands’ image his way. They all had freedom; they just did their thing and it so happened to come together. It wasn’t pre-meditated.

Where ‘Story’ does something exceedingly well is that all the participants are introduced with inserts that explain who they are, featuring a quote by them, as well as their achievements/roles. It’s very well done, because it situates the viewer, letting them know who the talking head is. It passes by a bit quickly, but you can always pause or rewind if need be.

I liked that Saville, who did the artwork for all of New Order’s releases until then, discusses his beautiful but unconventional covers (although the filmmakers assumed that viewers would know what he was referring to, and failed to provide enough examples). Their albums and singles frequently didn’t even have the band’s name on it, yet fans somehow knew.

There’s some vague talk about the demise of Factory Records and New Order signing to London Records. It doesn’t really go into specifics but, clearly, some of the people who were left behind (Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton) are bitter about it, whereas the band seem to feel as though they’d been ripped off. Why? Who knows! Again, it’s very ambiguous.

‘Story’ only barely talks about The Haçienda nightclub, the cool money pit that was largely financed by New Order through Factory Records. This was a huge part of the scene at the time, but it’s barely touched upon by the film. All this stuff is probably better covered in the feature-length Tony Wilson bio-drama ’24 Hour Party People’ (of all places).

Again, it’s not exactly the most exhaustive documentary. If anything, it’s a way to merge many of their videos and other performances together into some sort of cohesive programme, more so than an in-depth look at the band. But, back in 1993, when there were fewer home video options, this was likely a very good way to discover New Order.

I don’t really see much point in this video now, as entertaining as it is. If you want to see the videos, just get ‘Collection’. If you want to learn about New Order, look elsewhere: it’s not that informative, and it’s far too ambiguous to warrant the lengthy investment of time. Sure, die hard fans will still enjoy this (I do!), but it’s quite thin when you think about it.

For people who truly want to discover the band, I would highly recommend picking up ‘Substance’. And get the double cassette if you can, as it’s more complete than even the CDs (plus it sets that ’80s mood). It remains to this day their best compilation, even if it dates back to 1988. A lot of future hits are missing, but it feels more cohesive and representative somehow.

It may not be the full story, but it’s the best part.

Date of viewing: April 18, 2014

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