‘There And No Innocent Bystanders’, a new film chronicling The Libertines’ past, present and future, premiered in London last week. Matt Wilkinson finds out why it has left the band speechless
Sitting in a room a few doors down from Pete Doherty’s favourite central London hangout Jazz After Dark are five people, all staring at Carl Barât’s 30 foot-wide forehead. “Make sure we get the lighting right on that,” says one. Filmmaker and photographer Roger Sargent has been locked in darkened rooms like this for the best part of four months now, tweaking and honing his new feature-length documentary about The Libertines. He’s called it There Are No Innocent Bystanders, a title that was coined after an exhaustive search for the perfect phrase to sum up everything brilliant about the band led him back to the start of it all: one of his earliest photographs of the foursome.
In photos – on the red carpet at The Libertines’ film premiere
You know the shot we’re on about – they’re dressed in long trenchcoats, looking shifty in London’s East End (just along from Brick Lane’s famous Beigel Bake shop, to be precise). The William Burroughs quote (aka the film’s title) is seen scruffily graffitied behind them. “We didn’t spray that on ourselves,” Roger says now. “It was just there and it was perfect for them, for what they were about. Now, all these years later, using it as the film title seems even more apt. Its meaning is that we are all a part of the same story. And with The Libertines, it’s true – we are.”
The documentary was shot with complete co-operation from the band, who Roger has known since 1998 and photographed literally hundreds of times (many of them for NME). Filming took place before, during and after their reunion gigs last summer, but it goes much deeper than simply being a retrospective document of their somewhat short-lived 2010 jaunt around London, Reading and Leeds.
“The key thing, really, is about these four people trying to work through their problems,” says Roger. “That’s what I’ve tried to show here. And to find out why those problems started in the first place.” It’s also the most accurate historical film portrayal of the band NME has seen.
Hence, we get them personally guiding us down memory lane, visiting old haunts in London including the dingy flats where Pete and Carl penned their best songs together and the so-called ‘Up The Bracket’ alley, location of the video shoot for the band’s 2002 single and title track of their debut album, which has now become a sort of Abbey Road-style place of pilgrimage for fans. Turns out Carl didn’t even know it existed.
“I’d just done a shoot with The Vaccines,” explains Roger, “and we’d ended up walking down ‘Up The Bracket’ alley, as it’s become known. I was amazed to see all this fan graffiti still there – even some fresh stuff about the reunion gigs – so I took Carl down. It’s right near where they used to live, just off Teesdale Street where they had all the famous house parties. And he was genuinely blown away by it all.”
While Roger stresses that he believes there is still “a great deal of love” between the bandmembers, he describes the filming process as “being like cathartic therapy” for everyone involved.
“I think after watching it you’ll end up with a far greater understanding of what went wrong [regarding The Libertines’ 2004 split]. And you get a great sense from Gary [Hassall], John [Powell] and Carl that they also realise what Pete was trying to do when he was kicking out at that time.
“He was absolutely obsessed with this band doing well and doing the right thing. He didn’t feel that everybody was toeing the line, and that’s why he started doing stuff like sacking Gary and John, which happened behind the scenes loads of times. We talk directly about that in the film. I played it to Carl the other day and he was pretty much speechless for about half an hour afterwards. After that though, he said he loved it!”
Following the premiere, the film – along with footage from The Libertines’ rollicking comeback gig at London’s HMV Forum last August – is set to be shown in UK cinemas, with Carl also planning to attend a number of Q&A sessions.
It will then be released on DVD and broadcast on TV. “All I’ve tried to do is to show these four people as human beings rather than tabloid monsters,” says Roger, “to try and explain to people why, for someone like myself, as well as millions of other people, being involved with this band for the last decade has been so exciting and fun. That’s what seems to have been lost in this debacle of the last few years…”
What you’ll learn from ‘There Are No Innocent Bystanders’
1. Their early beginnings
The first time Pete and Carl ever played each other their songs was at Mortlake train station. “I played him this song I’d written,” explains Carl. “My original lyrics were ‘John Lennon came down to me today’, which is fucking laughable in hindsight…” Roger’s film sees all four members of the band trace their history back to its earliest roots. It’s soundtracked by music from across their career – released and unreleased – with a number of tracks taken from the band’s pre-Rough Trade days making prominent appearances.
2. Libs rehearsals are chaotic
Roger says the band spent a grand total of four-and-a-half hours rehearsing for their comeback gigs. One clip shows them heroically messing up ‘Horrorshow’. “YOU’RE playing the wrong chords!” Pete barks at Carl.
3. All about whorehouses
Carl explains in great detail how the band live next to a brothel. “They’ve cleaned it up a bit now,” he says with a hint of disappointment. “I used to sleep in a big, black iron cage.”
4. Their Favourite cocktails
The pub. Scene of the band’s first proper meeting since 2004. “What an immense occasion,” says Pete. “Carl’s bought a round of drinks!” Cue the downing of piña coladas…
5. That beigels are overrated
Despite always being associated with east London’s most famous takeaway merchant (thanks largely to Roger’s photos of the band outside it), Carl’s not too impressed with Brick Lane’s beigel shop. “Pretty fucking gross, actually,” is his opinion of their salt beef special.
This article originally appeared in the April 23rd issue of NME