Alive in France review – Abel Ferrara's shambolic blues jam of a music documentary

The controversial director of Bad Lieutenant and The King of New York hits the road for a music tour, but the result is more touching than you might expect

A dancer on stilts stalks the stage; a skittish camera prowls the club like a junkie hoping to score; the guitars howl like tortured souls. And cadaverous and cackling, lit in entirely in red, Abel Ferrara presides over the mayhem like some kind of gleeful demon. It’s an opening shot which could have been lifted from any number of his fiction films, but in this case, Ferrara turns his camera on real life.

The director of Bad Lieutenant, The King of New York and Driller Killer, among others, Ferrara plays a dual role in this shambling blues jam of a documentary. He is both the director and the subject of this account of the preparations for a series of concerts in France dedicated to the music of his films.

The picture starts out in Toulouse, where an annual film festival is honouring him with a retrospective of his work. “Honour is a funny word,” Ferrara growls during a press conference, before conceding,“but it’s cool.” The only thing more abrasive than the director’s chainsaw voice is his personality. But that’s exactly what the audience requires from a portrait of one of American cinema’s true mavericks. If anything, we want more moments like the spectacular meltdown over the stage lighting – “That,” he screeches, “is a jerk-off light man!” – and less of the chugging pub rock which constitutes the set.

Ferrara is joined in France by two of his long term musical collaborators: Joe Delia and Paul Hipp. There should have been a third member of the band: the rapper Schoolly-D. Unfortunately, he has been hit by a temporary travel ban, and remains in the US. Ferrara does his best to fill in by rapping in his own distinctive style. It’s a style which has as much in common with a tramp ranting at a bus stop as it does with hip hop.

Since Ferrara is in front of the camera for the vast majority of the film’s slender running time, we get to witness him directing. From the evidence on screen, it seems he favours the same kind of barely controlled chaos in his film-making as he does in the preparations for the gig. The nervy camera captures the banter between the director and his musicians, and there’s an enjoyable sense of eavesdropping on a lifetime’s worth of disreputable anecdotes. What’s missing is a chance to listen to Ferrara talk, in depth, about his film-making. The documentary includes some interviews, but only by piggy-backing on the press conferences and radio chats arranged to promote the events.

But while the music might not stand up outside of the films it was written for quite as well as Ferrara assumed it would, there are a few touching moments. The director lurks at the back of the stage, looking like something that crawled out of one of the Tom Waits bar songs which are a clear influence. He’s gazing at his wife, the actress Cristina Chiriac, as she dances minxily, peeling down her dress to flash her bra at the audience. When she slinks out of the spotlight, he grabs the mic and announces, “That is the love of my life.” And for a moment, the grizzled wild man of New York indie cinema almost looks sweet.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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