Soundchecks Music Reviews

Otway The Movie

96 minutes (E) 2012
OEG blu-ray region-free

Director: Steve Barker

review by Tony Lee

Is there life after appearing on Top Of The Pops? The story of John Otway's career in music starts, properly, in his home town of Aylesbury in 1978. For this biographical adventure, he goes back to school there, with 6th formers in 2012, providing a focus point for a documentary that's about, by Otway's own estimation, "rock 'n' roll's greatest failure." But any man that can survive a legendary pratfall on The Old Grey Whistle Test deserves British acclaim as a diehard veteran of an industry that grinds up fresh talent and shatters lifelong dreams.

John Otway is the immodestly self-flagellating try-hard who cheerfully admits to being a washout, but his earnestly unstoppable momentum is actually an iconic story of wannabe triumph, one that explores splendid eccentricity like some DNA-spliced combination of Mick Jagger and Ken Dodd. Sound-wise, he began by skimming the fringes of Brit punk, and riding that rebellious trend until his domino-effect series of commercial failures. However, as a cult rock hero, Otway rises again by exercising the bombastic passion for celebrity that defines him, not as a weakness but a formidably sincere honesty; a vivid novelty in itself that remains refreshing in a profession often characterised by empty slickness and tawdry glamour.

Archive clips abound, of course. So, yes - there's the OGWT accident highlighted here by comment from the legendary 'Whispering' Bob Harris, who has plenty to say about Otway's enduring appeal. TOTP spotlight followed, where Otway and Barrett's debut hit-record Really Free was introduced by Elton John. As a solo artist, Otway lurched onward into super-flops of magnificent proportions, buoyed by his unpredictable antics and hyperbolic thinking that's etched in tragicomic shades by a self-depreciating humour: "I can't believe it's not better" reads one advertising blurb.

Mitigated by his imaginative ballsy clowning and some inventively devious promo scams, Otway is a figure of eclecticism, with a repertoire of songs drawing inspiration from everything and nothing; including his daughter's chemistry homework (for hit single Bunsen Burner, which put Otway back on TOTP), simply to look cool as yet another ageing rocker, celebrating his birthday honours in public.

He planned a veritable circus for his major gig at the Royal Albert Hall, but Otway's Highwayman song was denied its black stallion climax. Never unwary of overstatement or shy of tomfoolery, he "turns un-coordination into a very fine art" supported by faithful fans for a relentless pursuit of contrived hits, but he needed buffers for dealing with management and studios (like Abbey Road). There is a modicum of praise from producer Neil Innes, and some astute sarcasm from 'Wild' Willy Barrett - Otway's irregular companion, and co-star on the Really Free hit, but Otway's enthusiasm knows no bounds, and criticism for his alleged lack of any genuine talent is brushed off with ease.

Otway The Movie is a superb hi-def production of amusing interviews and retrospective clips, that marshals revelatory facts and compelling anecdotes into a fascinating tale of anarchic ambition. It shows how he over-reached financially, to heartbreaking effect, with absurd plans for an 'Ot Air' jet, for a world tour but, at least, a brainstormed idea for this crowd-funded movie was an artistic and hugely entertaining success. At last! Drum-roll... and well earned applause.

Disc extras: The Missing 12 Minutes (featurette of childhood reminiscence), live concert versions of Geneva and Highwayman with a symphony orchestra, fandom activity - March Of 100 Otways as publicity stunt for this movie at Cannes 2013, and a trailer.

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press