In 1997, a contingent of musicians from various Glasgow bands were invited to the small town of Mauron in France to play a few gig there as part of a festival of sorts. They had never heard of the place before, but this sounded like an entertaining way to pass the time and get to perform, so off they went on a bus to see what would happen. Now, eighteen years later, some of those musicians return to the rural town to reminisce and play a smaller scale concert, wondering at the passage of almost two decades and where it has taken them since: are they so different now? Can they look back at the point when they had their first flush of success with fondness or maybe even regret? Have things changed so much?
There was plenty of rumination to be had in this documentary from director Niall McCann which sought to celebrate the bands and artists on Glasgow's indie Chemikal Underground label, which had emerged from the music scene of the late nineties and for a while made the Scottish city's contribution to music vital again, much as had been the case with the post-punk from the nation in the early-to-mid-eighties, though the tunes were markedly different. This took in the rock drone of Mogwai, the sparse, new folk renderings of Arab Strap and the band who had started the label, one of the greatest ever to hail from the city, The Delgados, whose members wished to promote the music around them.
The thrill of simply being involved with a scene that was growing and becoming more vibrant came across in the interviewees' memories, even if few, if any, of the bands became household names. Bis are held up as the real breakthrough, a pop punk outfit with electro beats and yippy vocals that spoke to a new energy in the region that, as CU leader Stewart Henderson reflects, may well prove to be the end of an era, as his own band were nominated for the Mercury Prize for their album The Great Eastern, which seemed to herald a fresh era of acceptance, if not mainstream then certainly with the cool kids who set the taste of the trends. Meanwhile Mogwai were going from strength the strength and simply being on the label was a mark of quality.
But then somehow the wave broke and the landscape was changed, for a number of reasons, though both Henderson and Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos (one of the rare acts here to enjoy big chart success) agree it was down to the lack of space the younger generation were given to express themselves musically, for you need time and funding for that, and being on the dole was the ideal state to get to your feet and set your career in motion, yet now that way of life has been demonised politically and socially, so that the only people who can make money out of music are those who had money in the first place. Henderson laments how much more difficult it is to run the label now, especially when there's no guarantee even a new band who actually make their first album can go on to make another, and develop their skills to become a stronger force. Thus there was a real end of an era mood to the documentary.
But what of that trip to France the film was named after? With all these important issues being put across, it did kind of get lost itself, though the anecdotes we do hear were often highly amusing, often involving overindulgence in alcohol. Yet no matter what Henderson claims about the festival as a pivotal moment, it more comes across as a nice trip away, a break from the treadmill of gigging and recording rather than anything seismic in the history of either the label or the overall movement of music from the Glasgow area. We did get a few personal details, but the tone was more that the participants wanted to talk about the records and concerts, which was fair enough, yet it did leave the film a little unfocused when it wasn't discussing the specifics of the music. You were however given a sense of Glasgow and its place in turn of the millennium culture, which was by no means over when this film was released, although that is the impression it perhaps unwittingly offers. As a snapshot of creative people from a particular time and place, it was vivid and vital, and you got to hear a wealth of the tunes, albeit mostly in extract.