The Blur-referencing film sees the 'Poldark' actor - and a few ex-'Skins' castmembers - go through the highs and lows of love and music
Films about rock’n’roll have ranged from the excellent (This Is Spinal Tap) to the overly-pretentious (The Doors) over time, with the music we know and love – and the larger-than-life characters behind it – serving as fertile fodder for a plethora of filmmakers.
The arrival of Modern Life Is Rubbish this week heralds the next leap in on-screen music storytelling, with the early noughties music scene serving as the backdrop for Daniel Jerome Gill’s new movie. Adapted from a play originally written by Philip Gawthorne – which Gill initially turned into a short film in 2009 – the film will finally land in UK cinemas tomorrow (May 4) after premiering last year.
Depicting the soaring highs and devastating lows of young love, Modern Life Is Rubbish follows long-suffering musician and idealist Liam (played by Poldark’s Josh Whitehouse) and the far more pragmatic Natalie (Skins’ Freya Mavor) as they go through a painful break-up, with the film examining their decade-long relationship by delving into the love of music they once shared.
Gill’s film – which of course takes its title from the 1993 Blur album – also features a pretty formidable soundtrack, including some choice cuts from the likes of The Libertines, Warpaint and The 1975. NME caught up with Whitehouse ahead of the film’s release this week to talk about the new movie, as well as his real-life experiences of being a struggling musician and the $1,000,000 question – is modern life actually a bit rubbish?
NME: Your portrayal of Liam in Modern Life Is Rubbish was just your second-ever lead in a film – what kind of challenges did you face in taking on the role?
Josh Whitehouse: “It brought about a lot of challenges. When Modern Life Is Rubbish came around, I felt like it was a big test for me in terms of whether I could really do [acting]. I still hadn’t taken any acting lessons or gone to see anybody. I just thought: ‘I’m going to try.’ I got the part, and it was a very big thing for me at the time – it was a chance to gain a lot of confidence. Completing the film really gave me a big step-up in re-assuring myself that this was something that I wanted to do and keep on doing.”
You’re a musician – what was it like playing the tortured frontman and filming the scenes for Liam’s band, Head Cleaner?
“It definitely helped, I suppose, being a musician and understanding the struggles of performing in bands and not making enough money. Although I’d say that Liam is probably more of a narcissist than I am – he’s quite an extreme guy. I perhaps wouldn’t have made some of the choices that he makes.
It was also a lot of fun co-writing some of the music in the film, which I got to collaborate on with a guy called Ben Parker. I aimed to get quite involved in the songwriting process, which was quite fun, as was seeing those songs come to life. I think the biggest difference for me was playing to a backing track [while filming], which was something I hadn’t done before as I’m used to performing live. It’s all very different to the reality of performing with an actual band.”
Did you personally identify with Liam’s creative, anti-corporate struggles?
“Yeah. I say he’s narcissistic and a bit of a grumpy Gus, but I think one of the big things I enjoyed – especially with this being one of the first big roles that I’d taken on in a while – was that I felt that [the character of Liam] would have kind-of-adaptable shoes to step into because I could relate to that whole thing. I actually tapped into 15-year-old Josh in high school when we were writing Liam’s lyrics, back when I was in a punk band and I was more angsty.”
You tweeted last month “I get so frustrated listening to mainstream radio”, before then dismissing “mumbly raps” and announcing: “Hey world! What ever happened to having your own ideas?” Do you think Liam would’ve tweeted something like that?
“Yeah, I definitely relate to Liam. [Laughs] I kind of bury that side of me usually, but it’s there. One of the main reasons that I became a musician in the first place was because I used to get so fed up of hearing music on the radio which always sounded exactly the same with nothing being real or natural – and everyone who was doing well was actually doing what everyone else was doing! It drives me mad, and it made me want to become a musician because I was like: ‘Surely, surely I can write something a little bit more original than all of this crap that I’m hearing all the time.’ And then you get stuck in taxis whenever you’re travelling and you hear the same music… it used to annoy me.”
Do you have any music coming out?
“My band, More Like Trees, have just finished our second album. This time I recorded everything myself after I built a studio in my house. I recorded and arranged everything, apart from the string section – which we recorded in a proper studio, ‘cos you don’t want to mess with the strings! Careful with the strings!
So yeah, I’ve just finished all of that, and it’s been sent to the producer who is now doing his thing! [Laughs] It was about three months hiding in the studio, just kind of losing my mind. I don’t know when it’s going to be done, but no-one’s really my boss on that at the moment – so it’s just when it’s ready.”
Is modern life rubbish?
“No. I think it’s only as rubbish as it’s going to be in the future, or it has been in the past! [Laughs] Modernity is great. I’m doing OK, I’m loving life at the moment.”
The title of the film refers to a classic Blur album – are you a fan of the band? Would you recommend Blur fans go see the film?
“I am a fan of Blur, yeah. But it’s a real shame that that’s no Blur [music] in the film because we couldn’t get Damon [Albarn] to watch it. They were very busy and it sort of slipped under the radar, so [the filmmakers] couldn’t get approval, which meant that we couldn’t use their songs.
I keep seeing Blur being mentioned in the YouTube comments on the trailer where people go: ‘Wait, there’s no Blur in there and it’s called Modern Life Is Rubbish?’ So I don’t know if I’d really spin it on Blur for the sake of selling the film, but I would say that [the film] has got a great soundtrack with lots of cool indie artists in it.”
The soundtrack plays a pretty vital role in situating the film in a certain timeframe – how important do you think it is that films get the scores right?
“A really nice point that Philip Gawthorne recently made at our LA premiere in regards to not getting Blur’s approval was that there were a lot of choices in the final soundtrack which came about from original choices just not being available. They had ideas about what certain songs had to be in there, and then some things kind of organically worked their way in there, but it just really worked for the film.
I think with this film [the soundtrack] is pretty important: it’s all about the music, England, and Liam’s love for this scene, I suppose. I wouldn’t say that the soundtrack is like the pinnacle of importance to the film, but it definitely helps and adds to its message.”
There are three Skins alumni in Modern Life Is Rubbish, including Freya Mevor as your co-star Natalie. Do you think the film captures the joy of youth and opportunity like Skins so often did?
“I never actually saw Skins! I was never a big TV-watcher growing up, because I always wanted to draw pictures, play guitar or do other things! [Laughs] I know a little about it – I might have seen an episode – but I don’t remember it so well. I mean Will [Merrick, who plays Olly] and Freya are great characters in life and in the movie, they bring such great energy to the screen. Their chemistry and their knowing each other – those guys are so cool. Everyone on the comments is like: ‘Oh, it’s Mini and Alo – they better be together!'”
What’s next for you?
“Right now, it’s mostly the album. I’ve been doing an awful lot of castings: I’ve just come back from three weeks in LA doing loads and loads of meeting to try and find the next thing. It’s a position that I’ve not really been in before, because I feel like I’ve been piling through and never letting the ball drop for the last three years. But then I’ve taken stepping stones, with Modern Life Is Rubbish to Poldark to Burberry to Valley Girl, which will come out next year. It’s kind of been nice to get to 2018 and have a lot of things culminating and finishing – and for once I can just sit back and watch them come out, which is cool.”