British film-maker Chris Atkins is known for his excellent Bafta-winning documentary Taking Liberties in 2007 and also for his five-year jail sentence in 2016 for tax fraud involving falsified invoices: a conviction that sent a there-but-for-grace-of-God shiver through the British film world. It resulted in Atkins’s bestselling prison memoir A Bit of a Stretch, which also became a hugely popular podcast. At the time I wrote about the heavy-handed prison treatment of Atkins’s co-defendant, Christina Slater, who at the time was a new mother.
Now Atkins has hit upon the ideal subject for what I can only describe as his talent for investigative mischief: it’s the strange story of the KLF, later the K Foundation, comprising Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the electronic-pop-duo-slash-situationist–art-collective who in the early 90s had gigantic chart hits with singles including 3am Eternal and What Time Is Love?, and then morphed into a guerrilla unit pranking what they saw as the money-crazed art world. They finally deleted their entire catalogue in a spectacular gesture of renunciation, and publicly set fire to the remaining million pounds in their bank account.
Atkins reconstructs some of the band’s occult events and theatre-of-the-absurd Guy Debord one-offs; he interviews some of the band’s gobsmacked contemporaries and fans such as journalist James Brown, author Alan Moore and DJ Carl Cox, and claims that his audio interviews with Drummond and Cauty used here are “previously unheard tapes” – although we don’t get to find out how and where these tapes surfaced. Could Atkins be playfully hinting that these tapes and the band’s apparent non-cooperation with his film are not quite what they seem?
Either way, it’s a very entertaining guide through what has to be the strangest A-list pop career of modern times: a band who started weird and anti-materialistic, ended weird and anti-materialistic, and didn’t sell out. And as for the million-pound-blaze, Atkins does his best to reconstruct the band’s thinking. Most supposed the stunt to be either a pointless hoax or, if real, an obscene waste, given all the poverty in the world, and the film hints that the band themselves might just have had the nagging doubt that they had made a terrible mistake. It was a grand gesture which, to the extent that it was noticed at all, was a misfire. But it was a misfire born of their absolute refusal to conform to the careerist notion of success.
Actually, this film reminded me of Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which the artist showed off his cardboard box full of faked £10 notes with the face of Diana, Princess of Wales on them instead of the Queen’s – forgeries that could in theory have got him into serious trouble. You could end the film wondering if the KLF even existed at all, if they were a dream or a countercultural mirage. If so, this is an enjoyable journey across the surface of an illusion.
• Who Killed the KLF? is available now on digital platforms.