The Super Furry Animals’ international language of screaming lives on in Separado!
Out on DVD this week from Soda Pictures… a real one-off!
(Dylan Goch, GB, 2010)
It goes without saying that the music is great, but Gruff Rhys’ bonkers but beatific odyssey into Welsh Patagonian music and culture proves a lo-fi delight.
Allegedly, this is something of a golden age for documentaries, although personally I’m a teensy bit bored by the de rigeur cavalcade of talking heads, archive footage and odd bit of dramatic reconstruction. Anyone else long for the days when you could rely on a punch-drunk troubadour to haul around a 16 mil camera for the sheer hell of it? Well, here’s Separado! – a chaotic, borderline-pointless fact-finder assembled with such shambolic insouciance that its very lo-fi charm proves captivating. Who knew the story of Welsh Patagonia (a mix of hippie activism, cultural cross-fertilisation and undimmed creativity) could be so entertaining?
It’s the work of Super Furry Animals singer Gruff Rhys, one of the most unlikely pop stars around and – DISCLAIMER – one of my pop-culture heroes, a man who has soundtracked nearly half of my life with psychedelic guitars, beepy noises and (the international language of) screaming. By rights, a documentary forged in his image, following his eccentric passions, should be right up my street. And, ultimately it is. But – DISCLAIMER – it starts off disastrously, over-eager to impose its whimsical sensibilities via Morricone-pastiche music, Raimi-of-the-valleys camerawork and the daft gimmick of having Gruff transport himself using the unexplained powers of a Power Rangers helmet. Yes, SFA fans will recognise it as one of the band’s most distinctive on-stage props, but its presence here is wearyingly zany.
Fortunately, the magic helmet at least gets Rhys to Argentina on time, and once he gets there, the film’s myriad pleasures become clear. Whereas Bono uses his power to hector people while wasting megawatts of energy on his tired stadium posturing, Rhys ignores corporate rock to take an impromptu, ramshackle tour of Patagonia as a pretext for tracking down ‘Welsh gaucho’ Rene Griffiths, a hero of his youth. Is this a travelogue, a tour movie, or a particularly niche episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Actually, it’s all of these things, and sometimes the only way that Goch can accommodate the tonal variety is to bung as much footage as possible into roaming split-screenery.
It’s the musical element that provides the film’s rich sense of absurdist humour. Unfairly roped in with Britpop during the Furries’ heyday, in (sur)reality Rhys’ music is largely uncategorisable, something that his rider – an acoustic guitar and a suitcase full of sonic trinkets – makes clear. As he plays a mix of Welsh-language folk and unbridled experimentation to bemused family audiences in school halls, or tries to explain his music to elderly local DJs, you have to admire his Quixotic spirit. And then, without warning, he finds Tony de Gamorra, a Captain Beefheart-esque Brazilian playing protest songs on a self-created instrument that turns rock guitar into raucous synth-drone. Their shared jam session is a masterclass in atonal, leftfield weirdness.
Gradually, though, Goch stops boggling as a genuinely interesting sociological story emerges from the oddity. The Welsh settled in Patagonia after escaping cultural persecution from 19th Century English landowners… but in colonising new valleys, they became pawns in another battle between militant Argentines and the region’s pacifist indigenous tribes. Somehow, though, they’ve established and maintained a vibrant multi-lingual community, where cowboys sing hybrid ballads (Spanish guitar; Welsh lyrics), and where the phone books are jam-packed with Jones and Williamses. Throughout, Rhys remains an engaging, erudite host, genuinely fascinated by people and always eager to muck in – proving that the pioneering, adventurous spirit of his distant neighbours continues to thrives in Wales today.