“I woke up one morning in a hotel in Beijing. There was nothing there except for fog up to the window,” recalls Damon Albarn during a London recording session for Gorillaz’ 2017 album ‘Humanz’. “So then I called down to reception. ‘Where’s the world gone?’ I asked. ‘At the moment, sir, the world does not exist’.”
This apocalyptic, existentialist theme hangs heavy in Gorillaz’ music. That we are introduced to it so early on in Reject False Icons, the feature documentary film that traces the “wondrous chaos” of the band over the last three years, is no surprise. What is striking, however, is just how alive this band is, unmasked from its central virtual characters by a dizzying display of revolving real-life musicians.
Denholm Hewlett (the son of Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz’ animator and co-creator) crafts this documentary with natural flair and invites viewers to drop in on his fly-on-the-wall debut.
We follow a loosely chronological timeline from the beginnings of the ‘Humanz’ recording sessions (Act One) in 2015 through to the band’s ambitious Humaz world tour (Act Two) as well as the recording of the group’s latest album, 2018’s ‘The Now Now’ (Act Three). It hits you just how many people are involved in the Gorillaz project as a whole (Albarn counts “more than 100”). Beyond Albarn, for the first time we get to know the various people who are behind the virtual facades of 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel a little more – from snoozing touring musicians pranked into believing they’ve missed soundcheck (poor Seye Adelekan) to playful arguments between Albarn and Hewlett about which songs to keep on ‘The Now Now’.
But these vignettes are all too brief. For the most part Reject False Icons is an unceremonious behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workings of a busy band. There’s no extra commentary from the famously political Albarn beyond a few snatches (him saying off-camera that “the unimaginable” happened in reference to Donald Trump’s election, for instance). Instead, the documentary flits between brilliantly visceral live clips from the world tour and Demon Dayz festivals (replete with incendiary guest performances by Little Simz, Vince Staples, Pusha T, Peven Everett and more) and black and white studio sessions overlaid with Hewlett’s animations.
Reject False Icons isn’t some companion piece to provide a deeper understanding of Gorillaz’ fictional dystopian-like world. Nor does it pretend to be. Fans and casual viewers alike will find much to enjoy in watching Albarn interact with producers, touring bandmates and an A+ guestlist of musicians including Mavis Staples and George Benson. It may lack in personal revelations, but it makes up for that as a vibrant celebration of one of Britain’s most idiosyncratic and inventive bands.
- Director: Denholm Hewlett
- Starring: Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett, Little Simz, Vince Staples
- Release date: 16 December 2019