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Thanks to Rachel Bowles for this review.
Lively doc from Grant McPhee (Big Gold Dream) exploring the Scottish music scene from the mid-80s to the early 90s
Teenage Superstars is Grant McPhee's follow up to 2015’s Big Gold Dream, which charted the unlikely, near-mythical success of a pair of Scottish record labels – Postcard Records in Glasgow and Fast Product in Edinburgh. That initial film’s tagline was The Sound of Young Scotland: 1977-1985. McPhee’s sequel begins where the first film finished: the moving of Orange Juice and Postcard Records to London, creating a void in the West Coast music scene; a vacuum that could only be filled with fresh talent, trashing the old school sensibilities of those who had come before and making it their own.
Enter Stephen “Pastel” McRobbie, “the mayor of the Scottish music scene” according to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Pastel recalls that though it was sad to see bands such as Aztec Camera and Orange Juice leave for London, it gave space for a new music culture to breathe. This culture was made up of a rag tag bunch of working class pals, and pals of pals, hanging out in each others gran’s living rooms, listening to music and forming bands. Can you sing? Play an instrument? No? Here, hold the guitar like this and just play this note.
Out of this boredom, teenage hubris and passion for music came an embarrassment of musical riches from Glasgow, Bellshill and East Kilbride; bands like The Pastels, The Soup Dragons, Strawberry Switchblade, BMX Bandits, Primal Scream, The Vaselines, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Teenage Fanclub.
Thurston Moore acts as a kind of cultural barometer in Teenage Superstars to gauge how important and influential these bands were stateside and internationally. Missed keenly are the inputs of John Peel and The Vaselines/BMX Bandits superfan Kurt Cobain – though there is footage of the Nirvana frontman meeting Eugene Kelly of the Vaselines, and Kelly performing with Nirvana on stage at Reading, with Cobain in childlike awe of him.
It was a vibrant scene, born out of an appreciation for Syd Barrett’s psychedelia and 60s girl bands. The richness of this sound, of Glaswegian brutalist naïveté, lo-fi and acid house is why McPhee’s plethora of talking heads never get boring (Duglas T Stewart is a particular delight to spend time with), with the film avoiding the pitfalls and cliches of other rockumentaries.
The interviews, old and new, are mixed with incredible vintage footage, such as riots at London Poly, BMX Bandits as performing dandies for grannies shopping on Argyle Street, and The Jesus and Mary Chain proclaiming Joy Division to be shit while “obnoxious little brat” Bobby Gillespie gets off with someone on the interview couch. The originality of the movement’s surrounding artwork – the stunning flyers for the scene’s short lived but riotously successful club The Living Room and the hilariously, intentionally shit artwork of BMX Bandits’ records – is also a crucial part of Teenage Superstars’ aesthetic.
For anyone wanting to understand the Scottish music scene, or pop music from the 80s and early 90s in general, or just interested in hearing how a group of peely-wally teenagers with DIY haircuts and no prospects changed the world for the better, Teenage Superstars is a must-see.