Twenty years ago, a coachload of cocksure, naïve and heroically pissed-up Glaswegian musicians and associated “bawbags” travelled to the small town of Mauron in Brittany, invited to play at a local music festival by organiser David Sosson. Niall McCann’s documentary takes some of them back, on the premise that the original adventure proved to be not just a crackpot folly but a genuinely formative experience – for the individuals, for the bands and for Chemikal Underground, the label with which most of them were affiliated.
Retracing their steps presents the central characters – former Delgados Stewart Henderson, Emma Pollock and Paul Savage; Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite; flamenco-inspired guitarist and winner of the 2013 Scottish Album of the Year, RM Hubbert; and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos – with an opportunity to reconnect with each other and to reflect on who they were then and how the trip shaped who they are now. The film ends with the party arriving in Mauron for the second time, lending it an overall narrative linearity, but along the way McCann continually and productively flits between protagonists and between past and present, mirroring the convoluted metaphorical journeys each person has made since first pitching up there.
The Delgados went on to receive a Mercury nomination in 2000 for The Great Eastern, Arab Strap released a string of acclaimed albums and Mogwai quietly (or should that be very bloody loudly?) became one of the most influential bands in Britain – but it is Kapranos who has achieved the greatest commercial success. However, he denies any feeling of embarrassment, instead expressing disappointment that some of his contemporaries never got the recognition they deserved.
As the founder of the Kazoo Club and (with Hubbert) a booker at legendary venue 13th Note, Kapranos was arguably as much an architect and champion of the vibrant Glasgow music scene of the time as Chemikal Underground, the imprint founded by the Delgados that set out to nurture and promote the scene’s best acts and was the subsequent inspiration for Mogwai to set up their own label, Rock Action.
The genial Henderson is under no illusions that the timing of Chemikal Underground’s creation was serendipitous and that it was initially blessed with good fortune – not least when the outfit responsible for the label’s second and third releases, Bis, were invited to perform Kandy Pop on Top on the Pops. But while the bassist-turned-label-head doesn’t look back in anger, he certainly looks at the present and future that way, bemoaning the demise of the dole, upon which many aspiring musicians depended, and the falling record sales and financial strictures that make bankrolling new and unproven acts extremely risky and jaunts on the scale of the Mauron trip completely unthinkable.
That neither fourth Delgado Alun Woodward nor Arab Strap participated in McCann’s film is unfortunate (the latter’s Aidan Moffat, whose reminiscences were the catalyst for the project, was tied up working on his own documentary for the BBC, What You’re Meant to Be), and there are times when you suspect that the nostalgic musings drift into misty-eyed mythologising. But Lost in France nevertheless serves as eloquent testimony to an extraordinarily creative period, even by the standards of a city noted for its fertility, and to the talent, passion, mutual respect and sheer bloodymindedness of those who sustained it.
words BEN WOOLHEAD