P J Harvey was never a musician to swim with the political stream. When Britpop was at its liberal peak, she was giving interviews explaining how, as a country girl, she supported fox hunting. 15 years later, as the music world was being noticeably quiet about the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, she released Let England Shake, a devastating zither-based critique of rampant imperialism.
Now we have the film, A Dog called Money, a collaboration with photo-journalist Seamus Murphy which documents the gestation of Harvey’s most recent album, The Hope Six Demolition. Harvey and Murphy travel through Kosovo, Afghanistan and the ghettoes of Washington DC to witness the devastation wreaked by 21st Century Capitalism.
The film has been attacked by some as being poverty porn – and Harvey herself recognises this danger as she picks her way through the rubble of a Kosovan house in expensive leather sandals. But while the film’s POV almost exclusively depicts the Western superstar and her reactions to what she witnesses, it is sympathetic enough to work for me.
We have already seen the shells of buildings in Kosovo, nearly 2 decades after the war. The landcapes of Afghanistan are not much different, except that they are patrolled by burly US-American soldiers. In Washington, things are just as hopeless – a young kid gives us a guided tour through the street corners on which various of his relatives have been shot.
But in amongst the ruins, there is still art. Afghan musicians jam with Harvey. A Roma man in Kosovo dances with a glass of water on his head to show how still his head is. And in DC we encounter street rappers (one of whom does indeed own a dog called “Money”) and gospel singers who harmonise Harvey’s songs in church in front of a mural of a black Jesus.
In between the musical travelogue we are shown the rehearsing and recording of the new album – which was turned into an art installation. Members of the public were allowed into the basement of Somerset house to watch the traditional guitar/bass/drums/saxophone/clarinet/organ/kitchen sink combo develop songs based on Harvey’s experiences abroad.
Towards the end of the film we see 2 scenes from different parts of the world. First a scene of desperate refugees, hemmed in on the border between Macedonia and Greece. Five minutes later, we see a Trump rally where an inflamed black man leads a rabid chant of “Build that Wall”.
This is not an explicitly political film, and nor should it have to be, but it does serve as a clear report of the state of the nation(s). And as the end credits roll, you notice that of the 12 songs on the new album, 3 contain the word “money” in the title, and another 2 the word “dollar”. But the lyrics are not remotely hectoring, indeed Harvey’s voice is more melodic than usual.
But what’s it like as a film? Well, the camerawork is exquisite, but there is a certain lack of coherence. We regularly spring from scene to scene without any noticeable connection between what we were seeing. This can be a little disconcerting, but made me want to come back and view again with the benefit of hindsight. I could understand if other viewers were less generous.
There’s one thing about 90% of music documentaries, and that’s that they’re predictable, formulaic and often pretty boring. This film is none of these. I’m not sure that everyone will enjoy it as much as I did, but I think its worth anyone’s time to give it a go.