Monday, September 12, 2016

Why The Parent Trap isn’t the film you think it is

Lindsay Lohan as Annie and Hallie in The Parent Trap DISNEY PICTURES
The Lindsay Lohan-starring nostalgic cult classic and proto-feminist masterpiece is ready for rediscovery.

This year marks the 18th anniversary of the release of the film The Parent Trap, the story of identical twin girls separated at birth who meet by chance, switch places and scheme to reunite their parents. Like many of that era’s most entertaining films it’s more Shakespeare farce than ‘serious cinema’, yet, investigating it as such reveals one of the most unjustly ignored movies of recent decades.

Despite the film’s the box office success and a warm reception from the Queen at a Royal Screening, The Parent Trap has all the features of a cult classic.

The film boasts strong, lovingly drawn characters inhabiting a richly-detailed world in a smartly-paced story that stars actors on the top of their game. In an age of children’s movies featuring lightning-fast edits, a bombardment of focus-group tested cross-cultural slapstick and sly adult references, The Parent Trap is a stronger film than ever.

Husband and wife team of producer Charles Shyer and director Nancy Meyers were still fresh from the massive success of Father of the Bride and its sequel when they chose to remake Disney’s 1961 classic The Parent Trap. Even among supporters and detractors of Meyers, The Parent Trap is rarely discussed. Its many millions of fans share their affection for it among friends and siblings. It’s loved, but not openly. As a sign of how this is changing as its fans are aging, Shyer signed three Parent Trap posters hours before our interview. “It’s getting to be a regular thing,” he admitted.

Like all cult films, there is a subversive edge. The Parent Trap is a proto-feminist tale so sweetly and satisfyingly told that even its conservative fans don’t notice.

“It would never occur to us to make a film that did anything but empower young girls or young women,” said Shyer as if considering the film in this light for the first time. “We just thought of it as a cool story.”

Annie and Hailee deduce they’re sisters at Camp Walden. DISNEY PICTURES
The ‘cult’ with whom it is classic is that most devalued and belittled of viewers, young girls, an often-misunderstood and frequently ignored audience rarely catered for by movie studios looking for a safe bet.

Younger girls are typically catered for directly by the hyper-materialistic glitz of formulaic series such as The Princess Diaries and the output of the Olsen twins. Age up slightly, and you have the coming-of-age riches of Mean Girls, Clueless, The Hairy Bird and Bring It On. While the girls in these films have escapist fun in modern settings, none of these settings are as meticulously imagined as Meyers’, no story is as satisfying as The Parent Trap’s tried and true screenplay, or role as demanding as Lindsay Lohan’s dual-performance as twins Annie and Hallie.

The term ‘family film’ typically refers to boy-starring fare such as E.T., Stand by Me, Jumanji, Son of Rambo and the early Harry Potter movies. While they’re rightfully cherished, Hollywood clearly sees boys as a more lucrative target market with girls expected to bond with secondary characters — sisters, sidekicks and comic relief.

Shyer and Meyers’ cast the almost unknown actress in a role that saw her play opposite herself with the aid of a double and careful editing.

“Lindsay was quite brilliant in the movie, there’s no doubt about it,” says Shyer.

Simon Kunz, who played English butler Martin, agrees. “She was 11 when we shot the series, but she’d been lurking in some sort of family TV series [Another World] since she was eight ­so she was seasoned in a way. One is used to seeing precocious American kids like Drew Barrymore on screen. When American actors get it right they have this amazing, relaxed sense of quality. She was cracking wise the whole time and full of energy.”

Lindsay Lohan, Lindsay Lohan and some photographic trickery. DISNEY PICTURES
Few live action films targeting young girls are worthy of being watched by anyone other than their intended audience. Fewer still hold up to scrutiny in this hypercritical era, and almost none focus on the power of young girls to effect lasting change in the world of career-oriented adults.

Lohan’s likeability is a key reason why this film works today. The Parent Trap is not only a modern fairy-tale, but it’s one that has a very clear idea of — to paraphrase Meyers’ biggest box office success — what (young) women want. The English Annie lives with her mother Elizabeth, in a version of London that can only exist in works of fiction such as Mary Poppins or Made in Chelsea. “Elizabeth has a pretty good life,” the late Natasha Richardson said of her character. “I’m English, so of course I have a butler! I also happen to be a designer of wedding gowns and I can’t think of anything more romantic and feminine than that.”

American twin sister Hallie lives in a sprawling Spanish colonial mansion in Napa Valley with her adoring winemaker father [Dennis Quaid] and loving nanny Chessy played by Lisa Ann Walter. They’re perfect settings from which to begin a tale of happy people seeking the only thing keeping them from perfection. At no stage is anyone’s welfare is threatened and only Elaine Hendrix’s gold-digger temptress Meredith has nefarious intentions.

‘Hang on,’ thinks everyone over the age of eight, ‘what sort of mother would abandon a daughter and not tell the other about her father or identical sister?’

Shyer demurs. “The big problem was how do you justify a couple saying ‘I’ll take one, you take the other?’ It’s a fucking weird decision to make! We rationalised it to some extent and it worked, but I have nine year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and it’s unthinkable!”

Richardson said of her role as the girls’ mother, “I think Elizabeth has felt that she had this terrible secret locked inside her. A piece of her that’s never there because she has this other daughter who isn’t with her.”

Dennis Quaid, Natasha Richardson and Lindsay Lohan DISNEY PICTURES
“It’s an extraordinarily Greek situation really,” says Kunz laughing. “You have a pair of twins and you don’t tell them about each other! It’s a hell of a premise. It’s a really old kind of story, it’s like Oedipus being taken as a child.”

Rather than responding with a justifiable fury that leads to substance abuse, detox, occasional relapses, years of counselling and a lifelong need for affirmation, Hallie and Annie are overjoyed to discover that they can meet an estranged parent. As their plan unfolds, viewers join the two Lohans in their safe but unfamiliar environments aligned as co-conspirators in a situation every kid adores: knowing something an adult doesn’t.

This is one of the masterstrokes of the original text, Lottie and Lisa, a German children’s story by Erich Kästner first published in 1931. At its heart is the story of two children plan to engineer the very thing that seems the epitome of disgusting — a romantic attraction between their parents. Each girl recognises the others desire to meet a parent they don’t know and “making mom and dad fall in love” is the only way to maintain the connection with the new parent. Like most classic fairy-tales and Shakespeare comedies, the premise is ridiculous and the ending predictable, yet the story is so simple, the structure so elegant and its world so gracefully constructed that it feels like a well-worn classic. Like the 1998 version, the 1961 film adaptation starring Hayley Mills was a tale told without cynicism, no concessions to an adult audience, and almost entirely without boys.

Much as Back to the Future is celebrated as a nostalgic cult classic, The Parent Trap can now be seen as evocative of a pre-adolescent era. As 15 year-old contributor Chana B wrote at Teenink: “When I think of The Parent Trap, I just feel very, very lucky for being among those privileged enough to grow up with this movie and to really experience the joys of childhood.”

Film critic Anders Furze credits The Parent Trap with helping him realise his sexuality. “As a young gay boy in a country Australian town, The Parent Trap helped me realise that if I wasn’t gay, then I was at least different. At the age of eight I longed to be a fusion of both Lindsay Lohans: to have the hip pop culture smarts of Hallie and blend them with Annie’s mannered sophistication. Revisiting it I was struck by how much it offers a gay audience: Elaine Hendricks’ gloriously camp performance as “Ice Queen” Meredith aside, when Annie nervously reveals that she isn’t Hallie, Chessy’s emotional, sympathetic response is the stuff every queer kid’s coming out fantasy is made of.”

Hailee (Lindsay Lohan) hatches a plan. DISNEY PICTURES
On its release the film received middling reviews from mainstream film publications, and unanimously glowing reviews from Christian film reviewers, thrilled to find a product of Hollywood that espoused traditional family values.

“These Christians…you know…” producer Charles Shyer sighs in exasperation. “You can’t control it. You get these accolades from Christian and religious groups and you go ‘OK, great, but that’s not what we were going for. We were going for a movie that made you laugh, made you cry and made you feel good.’”

Moralising reviewers overlook the fact that Richardson’s character built her successful business as a single mother, excelling in a way that would have been impossible were she married and raising children in California. She is a capable, instantly likeable woman who adores her daughter and the only man she needs in her life is a butler. “Mom is so cool!” Annie whispers to Hallie on one of their secret transatlantic phone calls. “Dad is the greatest!” she replies.

The Parent Trap still excels because it foregrounds the girls, gives them agency, brains, ingenuity, a sense of humour and one of the strongest motivators known to filmmakers: the reuniting of family. Quaid and Richardson were given the unenviable task of being instantly lovable without any chances to establish their characters beyond their relationship to their daughters, and later, to each other.
“With Natasha and Dennis and Lindsay and Simon [Kunz] and Lisa Ann Walter, those people were so fantastic, it really, really worked,” Shyer sighs. Man that was a good shoot. The chemistry was just wonderful. There was no tension at all. Natasha came after us for that role, she really wanted it. It was such a shame what happened with her,” he says of her fatal skiing accident in 2009. “She was such a wonderful, lovely woman.”

“I was very lucky,” says Kunz. “Lucky to be part of a film that gets watched again and again and becomes a favourite, and to have a few little moments that make people go ‘oh that! I remember that!’ It’s quite touching.”

The Handshake

The Parent Trap Handshake DISNEY PICTURES
Quotes and memes from The Parent Trap are not of the Tina Fey-‘stop trying to make fetch happen’-zinger variety. They’re conversational and can only be learned through repeat viewings.
If any moment from The Parent Trap has left its mark in popular culture, it’s the distinctive handshake Lohan’s character Annie shares with her butler, Martin.

“The handshake is a big deal isn’t it?” says Shyer with a warm laugh. “It was in the script — we were all involved in writing it, but Simon [Kunz] and Lindsay worked it out on the set. They really hit it off those two, they made it their own. It was a really good idea.”

“In the interview [for The Parent Trap’s DVD extras] I made up some old rubbish,” laughs Kunz, “but I can remember exactly. Lindsay was in town to do the London sequences and we were in the house where Lindsay and her family were staying. We did it in one afternoon. Nancy and Charles would say ‘OK, we love this move, but can we have some of that in it’. It didn’t take as long as some people might think. It was a just a good bit of fun. Lindsay and I started laughing together and just mucking about really. There were certain elements of a handshake that people might recognise ­– maybe a little tricksy handshake — and then we just went a bit further with it and it got sillier and sillier.”

Should you need it broken down, several instructional videos exist, including the one above from the handshake’s ‘official choreographer’ Jeanefer Jean-Charles.

Meeting the Queen

L-R: Director Nancy Meyers, Lindsay Lohan and producer Charles Shyer shoot a deleted scene from The Parent Trap in which Hailee meets the Queen. DISNEY PICTURES
A scene from the film in which Hailee is driven through London to the strains of The La’s Britpop classic There She Goes was meant to conclude with her accidentally meeting the Queen, but an even more royal fate befell The Parent Trap. The film was selected for a Royal Variety Screening, an annual event in which British royalty attend a specially-selected film and money is raised for charity. Shyer cites it as a highlight of his career.

“We were given a complete drill about what you can and can’t do. Don’t speak to her unless she speaks to you, don’t touch her, call her M’am all these things,” he laughs. “We sat right behind her during the screening, the Queen and the Prince [Phillip] and she had these little white gloves on. She’d clap and go ‘haugh haugh haugh’ during the screening it was a little bit like an out of body experience you know — ‘What am I doing here?’ Hayley Mills came too, and her father the brilliant actor John Mills [Great Expectations]. It was really special. Once in a lifetime.”

“The protocol when you do these screenings is that the people directly involved in making the film stand in the front line and their spouses stand behind them,” says Simon Kunz of his experience. “And Meg Ryan had come over, because she was with Dennis [Quaid] at the time. I’m sure she thought she was going to say hello to the Queen, and poor woman, she was stood behind Dennis in the lineup and I was next to him and the whole time I was imagining that Meg Ryan was standing there thinking “My God, I came all the way here for this!”

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Did David Bowie call Australia “a fucking craphole of a country”?

David Bowie - Postcards from Sailor - Edition 23

Fans of David Bowie have known for years about his double life on the internet, posting on official fan forums and communicating using the alias Sailor. Renown for being among the first stars to chat openly with fans via his pioneering site/server BowieNet, Bowie has long been rumoured to have frequented other Bowie fan sites as well – Teenage Wildlife, Bowie Wonderland and Bowie Station – answering questions and sharing opinions via the same handle.

Between 1998 and 2004 Bowie spent so much time interacting with fans that some publicly wished he’d get offline and go back into the studio. “I remember when ever he posted suddenly hundreds of replies would end up in the thread,” says user Swebby. “There would be page after page of stuff the moment he just said two words or more.” So far, two books have been made of these postings.

Dispensing with the elevated personae by which he was best known, Bowie wasn’t afraid to express himself robustly as Sailor, especially when it came to one topic: how much he hated Australia.

In 2004, months after his last Australian tour, Australian fan Adam lamented on Teenage Wildlife that Bowie didn’t release the entire 35 hours of the Outside/Inside sessions.

Sailor replied with a post entitled ‘Whining kangaroo eater!’:

So do you ask every rock legend to sort through 35 hours of material or just the ones who recently had heart surgery? Have you no shame? I came to your fucking craphole of a country to perform, but that's not enough. No sir, let's all ask the old man to walk on fuckin water and bend over backwards because we're the fans. Whatever, girlfriend!

When fellow Teenage Wildlife user Ziggfried suggested other fans post the question that Bowie would least like to answer, Sailor leapt in again:

…every time someone gets on my case about touring in Australia I want to smack them. Any country that produced both Paul Hogan, Yahoo Serious, and the Crocodile Hunter is one that I generally try to stay away from.

A complete list of Sailor’s contributions to Teenage Wildlife can be found here. Unfortunately Bowie’s extensive posts at BowieNet were lost when the site closed down in 2006 but many gems, such as Bowie’s response to the passing of mime artist Marcel Marceau – “no last words?” – have been immortalised by fans.

Since first arriving in Australia on his Isolar II World Tour in 1978 (Isolar, an anagram of Sailor), Bowie has publicly professed his love for the country. He shot the pioneering Let’s Dance and China Girl film clips here and owned an apartment in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay in which he sporadically lived between 1983 and 1992.

In an online chat in 1999, Bowie’s wife Imam mentioned that she’d never visited Australia and that “David has always promised to take me”. Later that year in another online chat Bowie explained his long absence as nothing personal: “I just haven't been asked to tour there in eleven years.

Bowie berated Australia for its racial intolerance in a 1983 interview, he said: “as much as I love this country, it's probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa…there’s unbelievable intolerance."

While Aboriginal Australia and the outback fascinated Bowie, it seems Australian culture (and Sydney’s escalating property prices) didn’t impress him much. Perhaps these conflicting feelings, growing stronger as he grew older, only make Bowie more Australian than he realised he was?

Sail on Sailor.

REVIEW: Gods of Egypt and the Australian film industry

Some are more sequel than others

Should you be wondering where public funding of the Australian film industry has gone, besides the $6 million into a film discouraging asylum seekers, you couldn’t much worse than watch new blockbuster Gods of Egypt. A US$140 million behemoth of CGI and ceaseless bombast filmed in Australia after the uncommon generosity of the New South Wales government who agreed to foot 46% of the bill via tax credits.

Whether the $75 million in generated income promised by the government when they chose to offer tax credits to the swords-and-sandals epic eventuates remains to be seen. What turns up on the screen is far from what anyone would consider an ‘Australian’ film.

The last few months have seen a concerted negative buzz build around Gods of Egypt even before its much-vaunted pre-Super Bowl trailer debut. It seems director Alex Proyas missed the backlashes against Ridley Scott’s whitewashed casting of his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Darren Aronofsky’s all-white Noah. Kevin Reynolds’ Biblical mystery Risen, also out this week, similarly trades realistic skin tones for an all-white, mostly American, cast.

To his credit, Proyas and the production company Lionsgate apologised for their casting decisions: “We failed to live up to our own standards,” Proyas said in a press release. “I sincerely apologise to anyone offended by the decisions we made.” That was in November, so the diversity obsession that has seen forthcoming films cast African American actors in roles originally intended for white actors.   

Despite the shortlived #EgyptSoWhite tag (Chadwick Boseman’s dozen-odd lines as Thoth hardly buck this trend) it turns out it’s young, cheap and talented Australian actors who will be either wearing the shame of Gods of Egypt, or using it as a learning experience and moving swiftly on.

The film is set ‘before history’ in an Egypt in which gods walk among mortals. Bryan Brown’s Osiris bestows his crown to his chosen son, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Horus only to have the family black sheep turn up, Set (Gerard Butler), who -along with an army of CGI minions - wrests power and launches a tale of revenge in motion. Mortal teenager Bek (Brendon Thwaites) and love interest Zaya (Courtney Eaton) have a parallel story involving the afterlife. That the architect of destiny Geoffrey Rush’s sun god Ra rides a glass ship and battles the essence of chaos with a rod of light doesn't seem out of place says much about the balminess of this film.

While the story itself could be riveting in other hands, here it’s a series of CGI setpieces shot with restlessly vertiginous camerawork, frequent explosions and Marco Beltrami’s relentlessly bombastic score. Apparently Sydney’s Centennial Park stands in for the grand palace, but best of luck spotting it.

When a film reaches a budget this big and is aiming for middle America, it seems concessions to innovation must be made. In this case there is plenty of cleavage, but no nudity. Violence aplenty, but no blood, anger and passion, but no swearing or anything hinting at sex. It’s so boldly ‘family friendly’ that its sheer blandness becomes offensive. 
Like most big-budget international films Australia courts, Gods of Egypt is destined to be a critical failure and probable box office bomb. Along with similar stinkers I, Frankenstein, Knowing, The Matrix sequels or the Star Wars prequels, it’s another example of an iconic Australian city, in this case Sydney, standing in for somewhere else and providing a raft of film industry professionals leaving an expensive premiere with eyebrows raised and muttering "well, at least it kept some of us in work for a bit."

Expect it to happen again soon with the next raft of blockbusters brought to Australian film studios promising of hundreds of short-term insecure employment opportunities and little chance of attracting the burgeoning location tourism industry as happens with so many films and TV series.

In March Screen Australia announced the following films were due to be shooting at least part of their production in Australia: two Lego Movie sequels, the forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, the next Thor and X-Men films, David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Scott inadvertently spoke for all of these film’s directors when he promised his Alien sequel would feature “fairly formidable CGI”. Like the creators of Gods of Egypt no doubt, Scott promised the possibility of sequels to be shot in Australia, “if the film is successful”.

All major studios are looking to find a franchise that can pick up where Harry Potter and Hunger Games left off, and it seems Gods of Egypt will join the boldly-funded ranks of The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, Eragon and Inkhart as films full of promise, twists on familiar material and a raft of new faces hoping for an illustrious start to their career.

While arts funding across the board has been subject to cuts from the government, film funding has been more savage than most. Screen Australia, the nation’s most notable funding body has $10.3 million taken from its budget over the next four years. The Thor and Alien sequels will be receiving nearly $50 million from the government in what has been one of the most explicit signs of valuing the foreign blockbuster over Australian stories. If Gods of Egypt is anything to go by, bean counting precedent set by the government seems to have carried all the way down to the very last pixel.

REVIEW: Risen aka Jesus as dudebro

Joe Manjón as Bartholomew and Joseph Fiennes as Clavius in 'Risen'
Kevin Reynolds, he of Waterworld and Red Dawn, brings all the humility and cultural sensitivity for which he is known to the story of Jesus’s forty days on the lam. 

On paper, it seems a good idea: a paranoid ruler fearing a religious uprising dispatches his brightest and most ambitious soldier to track down a resurrected ‘messiah’ and potential usurper. Hard political and social reality meets inexplicable spiritual miracle - give that to the Coens and you’ve got gold. Unfortunately, we have a film that some non-US reviewers are likely to dismiss with the phrase, “it will play well in middle America”. Good actors spout terrible lines and the filmmakers never overcome the difficulty of portraying religious satisfaction as anything other than smug and annoying.

Most of the budget is dispatched in the opening half hour as grisly crucifixions follow a bloody sword-and-sandals battle and some valiant thesping from a mostly British cast who wander around locations familiar from Game of Thrones as if that’s where they’d much rather be. Reynolds seems to be going for all the historical accuracy he can muster, but it’s not the lack of nudity, swearing or era-appropriate headgear that undercuts him. It’s skin tone.

Even if the Oscars diversity scandal weren’t playing out in the headlines, Risen would look notably and inexcusably whitewashed. The white-people-playing-Arabs-outcry over Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to have bypassed Reynolds who is presumably trying to make a film that will perhaps “play well in middle America”.

After the ‘don’t switch over to something else because you’re probably watching this on Netflix’-pace of the opening scenes, we have our story laid out by a nervous Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) who charges Joseph Fiennes’ centurion Clavius with the job of finding the body of a disappeared, or maybe…risen, Jesus, known in the film as Yeshua, because, y’know, accuracy.

To help, Pontius gives Clavius an aide in the form of Tom Felton’s Lucius. Yes, that’s Draco Malfoy playing a character called Lucius, which is about the most interesting aspect of an underwritten role in which his brow is rarely un-furrowed. 

Maori actor Cliff Curtis does an admirable job as Yeshua, surely one of the trickiest roles to portray on film. Reynolds renders Jesus as a modern day dudebro, gadding about Judea with his band of back-slapping disciples, forever grinning at each and laughing at nothing, presumably in a state of rapture.

Clavius and Lucius search for Yeshua with an army of centurions who act like Blackwater in Iraq - kicking in doors, terrifying families and being their own worst enemy. The film’s one female character, Mary Magdalene - a “woman of the street” - is introduced with a joke about how many centurions have slept with her (pretty much all of them, LOL), given one brief scene where she’s deemed mad and disappears to let the other disciples hang with their main man.

One key scene, in which Yeshua performs a ‘miracle’ to sate the faith of his disciples, depicts a man with a debilitating skin disease who is beaten up, spat on and cast out of a village for stealing food. Yeshua, sitting nearby and laughing about nothing with his disciples notices this, frowns, and ‘cures’ him with that most powerful of remedies, love. 

Noted thesp Joseph Finnes is almost upstaged by the mottling on his horse 
Curing doesn’t mean accepting him as he is, disfigured and wretched, or teaching him to love himself, or showing the villagers the errors of their ways, instead the man is transformed into a person who looks just like Yeshua, with flawless skin, clean robes and a sweet beard. 

Judging by the response of the largely Christian audience, Risen contains plenty of in-jokes for those who know their Bible. Even for those who don’t, scenes in which preaching disciples yet to publish their book mutter comedy gold like “that’s good, I might use that again” to break up shots of the Judean desert and Joseph Fiennes’ contemplative frown.

Judging by box office receipts, the Christian film market - like the Christian music industry - is huge, and relies more on repeating known stories and sentiments than artistry to get a return. If the trailer that played before the screening of Risen is anything to go by (a Jennifer Garner-starring family drama entitled Miracles From Heaven), it’s an industry in rude health that can withstand the damning reviews it attracts from non-religious reviewers.

With Risen, Kevin Reynolds has been blessed with a budget that can extend to British actors wanting a working holiday in Spain and Malta, and the hope must have been that their accents would lend gravitas to Paul Aiello’s story. What Reynolds has forgotten or is ignoring is that to break from that faithful demographic requires more than thesping Brits, a butchered story and some Mediterranean countryside. It requires humility and not pushing an Americanised monotheistic vision of how the world should be.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Blurred Visionary...An interview with Blur's Graham Coxon

The time was 1995 and optimism was sweeping Britain with a force the likes of which few could remember. Tory rule was waning fast and the vibrant and youthful opposition leader Tony Blair seemed poised to assume the Prime Minister’s office with a promise of better times. Britain was having its driest summer in recorded history, the Northern Ireland peace process was kicking into gear and Damien Hirst had just won the Turner Prize with two bisected cows submerged in formaldehyde. In short, it was a time in which anything seemed possible.

Few bands define this particular era as much as Blur. A fresh, brash, intelligent pop quartet blessed with dashing looks and an ability to channel the most agreeable parts of British culture into ambitious albums. The angst-driven sludge of grunge, vanquished by the suicide of its most recognisable figure, had been replaced by Britpop, an Anglocentric movement that recycled the high points of the last 40 years of British music, most notably The Beatles, early Pink Floyd, The Smiths and The Kinks. Blur wrote songs that kids and grandparents could sing along to: “All the people, so many people, they all go hand in hand, hand in hand through their Parklife”. It was the nearest thing to the Swinging Sixties any subsequent generation could imagine, and it seemed to take everyone by surprise.

At the heart of this uncharacteristic rush of English euphoria was Graham Coxon, Blur’s bookish guitarist and co-songwriter, a musician largely credited with the band’s musical ingenuity, an endlessly inventive counterpoint to singer and lyricist Damon Albarn’s effulgent melodies and rich character studies.

“I wish I could have had fun,” says Coxon over the phone from a hotel in Paris where the band is on tour. “I wish I could have allowed myself to have fun and enjoy it. When you have an idea of how things should be and you enter into it and it’s not how you imagine, it can be an odd experience. It’s not an easy road to get off once you’re on it,” he sighs. “There’s a lot of rubbish music, rubbish politics, rubbish people. The people who say they had fun in the 90s, I don’t think they’re the musicians, I think they’re the predators; the press, the record labels. I’m not sure bands were having an awful lot of fun.”

If Blur were merely writing and not living the joy others associate with their wry parochialism, arch-rivals Oasis were certainly doing their best to stay in the headlines and live the idealised rock and roll lifestyle. Their euphoric anthems played perfectly into the media’s desperation to bring class, geography and distorted personalities into a constructed musical war. As an indication of quite how strange these times were, an unofficial cassette recording of Oasis arguing for fourteen minutes made the British charts.

“The guitarist I have a lot of time for, the drummer I don’t know, I hear he’s a nice guy,” Oasis’s Noel Gallagher told the NME in 1995. “But the other two, Alex and Damon, I hope they fuck off and die of AIDS.”

It was the sort of statement record labels and publicists lived for, it was also exemplary of the sort of chat at which Oasis excelled. When the music tabloid press formally announced a ‘Battle of Britpop’ – pitting the foul-mouthed lads from Manchester against the moddish London-based Blur – the bands had little choice but to play their parts. The ‘Battle’ reached its apex when the new Oasis single Roll With It and Blur’s much anticipated Country House were both released on August 15, 1995. Only one of these songs contained the lyrics “he knows his claret from his Beaujolais”, and it wasn’t written by the band that spent their first million-dollar paycheque on cocaine and Brisbanian prostitutes. The national media made their best efforts to turn the chart countdown into a Generational Moment. Millions picked a side and responded accordingly when, with some help from Damien Hirst’s video, Blur’s Country House debuted at number 1.

While Oasis are estimated to be several months off announcing a lucrative reformation, Blur are making their first visit to Australia in 18 years, promoting their first album in 12; The Magic Whip. Within seconds of its opening song Lonesome Street even those with only a passing knowledge of the band’s hits can instantly tell it’s the same foursome who soundtracked the mid-90s.

“We still get on,” says Coxon of the band’s 30 years of history. “We’re not doing anything we don’t want to do. We don’t feel like we’re being forced to do anything by the record labels.” Even band photo shoots? “Well,” he sighs deeply, letting silence envelope the line before laughing. “Some things don’t change.”

Unlike the other members of Blur who’ve moved counties and changed careers, Coxon seems to have changed the least. He still lives in Camden Town, still dresses as though he’s not interested in impressing anyone, and still regularly releases albums. Besides Albarn (also a member of super-group Gorillaz), drummer Dave Rowntree has run as a candidate for the British Labour Party and now works as a solicitor, bassist Alex James has spent the years since their last album, 2003’s Think Tank, writing opinion columns and making cheese on his farm in Oxfordshire, where he lives next door to friend David Cameron. James has insisted that he and Rowntree have “never had a political conversation” and scoffs at the idea of the band being on anything but friendly terms.

“We spent an awful lot of time with each other, touring, etc.” says Coxon of their heyday. “But when we had time off, most of that time was spent trying to fix up our own lives. When you go on tour there’s always a lot to do once you go home, it’s natural. For a few years between 2002 and 2008 we hardly talked at all. We had an enforced break that was really needed. At the time it seemed confusing but now it seems obvious. It was just very difficult trying to initiate it.”

According to the very attentive (and not entirely dispassionate) music news sources at the time, by 2002 Coxon’s alcoholism had become untenable. Following a ‘blazing row’ he was forced out of the band during the recording of Think Tank, a story he hotly contests.

“I don’t think it was my fault, not at all,” he says between lengthy pauses. “When Blur and me went our separate ways I was completely sober, and I’ve remained so since. I held my hands up and said ‘yeah, I’ve got this problem’ so it was easy for the rest of the band to blame me for everything because I admitted to it. Everyone has their issues. It’s just that some people are better at dealing with it, and some people are more prone to going under.”

In his biography Bit of a Blur, James cheerfully admits to spending over one million pounds on champagne and cocaine. Rowntree was admitted to noted rehabilitation clinic The Priory for addiction to cocaine and Albarn wrote their number one hit Beetlebum about using heroin with ex-girlfriend Justine Frischmann, but Coxon downplays suggestions the band were out of control. “Blur were clean living compared to other people,” he laughs. “Even what Alex wrote in Bit of a Blur…I mean, really, that’s nothing compared to other groups.”

Reflecting on his statement, Coxon leaps in to justify himself. “See,” he explains keenly, “no one really knows how they’re going to react when they first get on a record label and start touring and partying and all the rest of it. No one knows how their body or mind will handle two months of solid partying. It’s usually in quite a negative way, it’s not that good for anybody.”

Regardless of what was happening to various minds and livers during the mid to late 1990s, Blur were remarkably workmanlike, writing dozens of diverse and acclaimed songs, as they transitioned away from their bright Britpop roots into songs that reflected darker times. Their albums Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape and Blur are some of the most acclaimed of the era. Despite their often maudlin lyrics songs like For Tomorrow, Girls and Boys, He Thought of Cars, The Universal, Song 2 and Tender still sound galvanic.

“I don’t think we ever made really optimistic music,” says Coxon. “There was often an undercurrent of sarcasm and a sense of absurdity about life. When we played the songs it was often quite chaotic. We were probably very visually interesting live because we were all pretty tipsy when we were playing, but I think we play the old stuff better now. We certainly play a lot harder and sound a lot stronger.”

Though Blur reformed for a 2009 tour, released two singles in 2012 and closed the 2012 Olympic Games, there was never a hint that new music would be recorded until several months before the release of The Magic Whip. The album only exists because of the chance cancellation of a concert in Tokyo that left the band with five days to fill in Hong Kong, and the frequent questions from journalists about making new music fresh in their minds.

“Honestly, I was happy just to get some sleep. My hotel room had a circular bed!” says Coxon with a laugh. “But Damon had other ideas. We agreed to jam for five days and see what happened, and soon we rather glibly said: “OK they want this album, let’s bloody make it then.’”

Released in April, The Magic Whip has already become the band’s highest charting record both in Australia and the US and garnered rave reviews from critics. As which much of their previous work, the album is full of imagery and inspiration from their environment. Just as they channelled the buzz of the mid-90s before exploring pre and post-millenium tension, this album is full of personal responses to shifting economies and changing cultures, leading some to make accusations of ‘orientalism’, charges the band laugh off. Albarn refers to events such as the Hong Kong student protests, his time in Sydney, holed up in a hotel following the Martin Place siege several blocks away, and a nostalgia both for England and, perhaps, glory days.

“We made it very differently to albums we’d made before,” says Coxon. “We jammed out lots of material – mostly based on Damon’s home recordings – for five days then 18 months later I and [producer] Stephen Street edited it all and presented it to Damon in 12 songs while he was in Australia. He heard what we’d done and decided to commit to it. On his way back from Australia he stopped in Hong Kong for 48 hours and retraced his footsteps, made notes, made films and stuff like that and wrote the lyrics over that New Year. In a way Damon can be misunderstood as some kind of autocratic General by Blur fans, but I think he actually appreciated me taking it off his hands and sorting it out.”

Despite the geographic separation of the band, the success of the album and the time spent touring together, Coxon doubts that this method of recording is likely to be repeated for Blur, and doesn’t foresee any further albums.

“The gods don’t seem to allow us to repeat ourselves. We try to repeat past processes and it falls on its face, so it’s almost like this process found us in a way. It wasn’t something we did really on purpose, we wilfully picked up instruments and all that, but overall the process that resulted in another album was something that we didn’t plan, we couldn’t plan it. So that way it caught us out.”

This article was first published at Junkee under the title "Rubbish music, rubbish people, rubbish politics: We spoke to Blur's Graham Coxon About the '90s" on July 14, 2015.