One Man's Madness – saxman Lee Thompson skanks down memory lane

This lively documentary about the band Madness is chiefly for die-hard fans but cheeky enough to have wider appeal

The movie year began with Suggs reminiscing in Julien Temple’s playful collage My Life Story. Now we find saxophonist and songwriter Lee “Thommo” Thompson skanking down memory lane in Jeff Baynes’ lively oral history of all things Madness. If the framing is broadly conventional – that basic, BBC 4-courting mix of talking heads, underexposed archive footage and lovingly framed album covers – Baynes has one wild card up his sleeve: Thompson himself, who appears, often dragged-up, miming to the testimonies of his mother, sister, wife and other witnesses – a technique inspired either by Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Nick Park’s Creature Comforts, or the band’s own Top of the Pops appearances.

It’s true, certainly, to the larky spirit of Madness, and the wider theatricality of the post-punk scene into which the group emerged. Stylised opening credits – introducing key players and themes in the manner of the Peel/Steed Avengers – offer Thompson rare credits for hair, makeup and “character development”. As for Thommo, it’s the story of how a Camden delinquent – oft-chased by baton-wielding coppers, as per later promos – found a creative channel for his unruly, raspberry-blowing energies. PA James O’Gara suggests “If [Lee] wasn’t in the band, he’d be locked up in a secure unit”, and you sense Thompson sailing close to the wind even today with his depiction of lawyer Julian Turton as a ruddy-nosed boozer.

It isn’t just messing about in wardrobe. Centralising a songwriter allows Baynes to address the refinement of what was originally trumpeted as “the heavy-heavy monster sound”. A segment on the Thompson-penned Embarrassment points up intriguing attitudinal differences between Madness and idealistic two-tone contemporaries the Specials; their tightness as a musical unit becomes doubly apparent when set against the sprawling anarchy of Thompson’s side project Crunch. No surprise to find ace musicologist Neil Brand among the contributors – albeit as embodied by Thompson in a Jimmy Edwards-style mortarboard. This is chiefly for the fans who crowdfunded it, but cheeky enough to have wider appeal.

Contributor

Mike McCahill

The GuardianTramp

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