Who Killed the KLF? review – Chris Atkins’ entertaining guide to true pop mavericks

Documentary-maker Chris Atkins tells the strange story of gigantic chart hits and guerrilla pranking of the art world

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.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Best Before Death review – KLF's Bill Drummond bakes cakes for the world
The peppery artist and musician embarks on a quest to create performance art across the globe in this engaging, sometimes hilarious documentary

Peter Bradshaw

18, Sep, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
Best Before Death review – Bill Drummond’s intriguing art odyssey
The former KLF man tours the world for 12 years of odd jobs

Wendy Ide

22, Sep, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Henry Glassie: Field Work review – hypnotic glimpses of folk art in the making
This documentary about the celebrated folklorist also takes a leisurely look at the working methods of the artists he reveres

Andrew Pulver

13, Apr, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Sound for the Future review – memoir of kids’ post-punk band is film-making therapy
No clear target audience for this mishmash docudrama about three siblings’ short-lived musical odyssey

Cath Clarke

24, Oct, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
The KLF reissue music for first time since 1992
Singles compilation Solid State Logik 1 appears on streaming services and YouTube years after being deleted, with further reissues anticipated soon

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

01, Jan, 2021 @3:12 PM

Article image
Tattoos, gravediggers and traffic cones: the KLF take Liverpool
Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty are staging a three-day series of events to mark their collaborative return after 23 years – and they’ve already formed a new band, Badger Kull, after day one

Peter Robinson

24, Aug, 2017 @9:14 AM

Article image
Small wonders: the tiny world of F Percy Smith
From acrobatic flies to suckling bees, Smith’s stop-motion nature films astonished viewers a century ago. Now Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples has set them to music in a dark and dreamy movie

Patrick Barkham

26, Oct, 2016 @2:16 PM

Article image
Newcastle's most buzzing night spot? A cowpat on the Town Moor
Bafta-winning wildlife soundman Chris Watson – once a punk rocker with Cabaret Voltaire – has used tiny microphones to record dung flies and Newcastle United fans in his year-long project to create an audio portrait of the city

Stuart Jeffries

21, Jun, 2016 @3:05 PM

Article image
Lorca, Hockney, Byatt, Berger – how Mike Dibb got the greats to open up
He’s revered for shooting Ways of Seeing with John Berger, but Mike Dibb has made films about all the giants of culture – as well as Wimbledon tennis balls. He looks back on a dazzling career

Laura Barton

08, Jan, 2021 @5:33 PM

Article image
My Rembrandt review – Old Master fanciers in the frame
The super-rich collectors and dealers in Oeke Hoogendijk’s amusing documentary come right out of Rembrandt paintings themselves

Peter Bradshaw

13, Aug, 2020 @3:00 PM