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On DVD: Made in Sheffield

review by dave heaton

Made in Sheffield director Eve Wood says the film was one which she and her husband Richard "felt had to be made," because it was a story that hadn't been told enough before. There's so many fascinating stories in the world, and in the world of music, even, and this is one of them…or actually, it's several of them. Made in Sheffield tells parts of many bands' stories, without diving whole-hog into any of them, for the sake of telling the tale of a city, of a scene.

"It was an absolutely fantastic time, I wished it'd never stopped," Phil Oakley of the Human League says at one point during the film. Above all else, Made in Sheffield is a portrait of a place and a time filled with a high level of creative energy. The place is Sheffield, England; the time the late 1970s to early '80s; the bands include a few who went on to big success and/or cult status world-wide (The Human League, ABC, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire), and many equally great ones that existed out of most people's frame of reference (The Future, Artery, Vice Versa). Many of the individuals interviewed for the film – indeed, this is one of those music documentaries that mostly consists of people talking – came and went from several of the bands discussed. The liner notes for the DVD include a family tree charting what band spawned what band spawned what band.

The film offers many ideas in relation to music's relation to the city that produced it, some familiar (the city was such a creative place because there was nothing to do there), some more interesting (as a factory town, the city exuded the constant noise of repetitive machines, serving as a "metronome" and perhaps influencing the music). Sheffield the city is a quiet presence in the background of the whole film; we don't learn much about it besides the basics, yet in some ways it's the central character (along with Music).

Anyone who thinks of the Human League only in terms of "Don't You Want Me," their eventual hit in the US, or who doesn't know about the roots of bands like ABC and Heaven 17, will have a lot to learn by watching this film. There's a special emphasis on the role of punk in these musicians' lives; basically there were continuing the DIY, anyone-can-do-anything tradition when they started making music, and many of the bands' songs contain evidence of punk's influence in non-obvious ways. "Punk kicked the doors down so all of this other stuff could come out", the late great John Peel says at one point in Made in Sheffield. The film includes great tales of people with no musical training just throwing themselves into art, with no expectations of being successful but at the same time wanting to make a huge mark.

"The birth of electronic pop" is the film's secondary title, with an emblematic image of someone throwing a guitar off a roof. "We thought we were killing off rock and roll," Ian Craig Marsh says abut The Future; the overall feeling behind most of the conversations, though, is more constructive than destructive, albeit with a subversive "sonic terrorist" edge. Several musicians themselves talk about their music in terms of how inspired they were by other music – by punk, by Kraftwerk, by Eno, by Bowie – and how they wanted to make a similar mark.

The film demonstrates the way that creativity breeds creativity…but also other things, from jealousy to greed to Def Lepard ("Don't they know about punk?", someone in the film says was his reaction to seeing Def Lepard, also a Sheffield band, for the first time). The story heads in the expected direction – many bands break up or disappear, and a few reach success but change quite a lot in the process. The tale Made in Sheffield tells is in many ways a familiar one, but also one that, as the filmmakers correctly noted, hasn't been told enough. The film is brief, in many ways cursory (some great bands are barely touched upon), but it's likely to make you want to spend serious time listening to the music that came out of Sheffield at that time, whether it's new to you or not. And that's always a good thing.


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