A stylishly immersive trip into 1960s London, My Generation is a documentary with real verve. Armed with a killer soundtrack and some of the most stunning archival footage seen of the period, the film is presented by a reminiscent Sir Michael Caine, whose anecdotes give the film a refreshing personality.
The film’s director, David Batty, was adamant not to reuse the same-old footage that we have seen innumerable times, and he has certainly hit a gold-mine in discovering the work of filmmaker Peter Whitehead. Hours of unseen footage is one thing, but the sheer quality of it is honestly mesmerising, and I was genuinely unable to distinguish some of Whitehead’s shots from the digital footage of Caine. Credit must go to the archivists for finding this footage, as well as the sublime job done by colourist Ross Baker. And yet, despite the reels’ sumptuous quality, Batty has deliberately maintained the scratchy aesthetic that is typical of the contemporary celluloid – with impressively authentic results.
Wilder Films, who provided the animation for the film, are also on top form – with the title sequence an immediate highlight. The staggering “Strawberry Fields Forever” sequence, too, stays with you long after the credits have rolled, while the section on portrait photographer David Bailey was also expertly visualised.
The audio from Caine’s various interviews is seamlessly overlain with images of the interviewees’ 60s selves, which helps to avoid the often-distracting presence that multiple competing narrators can give a documentary. Instead, the film seeks to hold the viewer firmly in the immersive recreation of the period that it has so painstakingly crafted. Such a method is certainly a welcome one – and would be wholly successful if not for the seemingly antithetical presence of Caine the octogenarian.
Caine’s presence is at times a conflicting one. On the one hand, the decision to visit the era through the eyes of one of the revolution’s central figures allows the documentary to avoid the generic overview that plagues so many films of its kind. My Generation is certainly not devoid of flair, and while the clanging guitars and psychedelic visuals invariably help, it is largely through the lodestar of Caine that this is ultimately achieved.
Yet, for all the film’s success in immersing the viewer in how it felt to be around the cultural revolution, the repeated cuts back to Caine recounting his memories in a back-lit studio can sometimes feel at odds with our absorption – reminding us that, after all, this is mainly one man’s spin on the era. Caine is perhaps not so much the unreliable narrator as just a rose-tinted one.
Still, if this inclusion of Caine in the modern, can at times work against the narrative, it undoubtedly provides one of the film’s best moments. Early on, there is a brilliant sequence in which archival footage of Caine driving around London in The Italian Job is matched with shots of him making the same journey around present-day Piccadilly Circus – complete with the original Aston Martin DB4, even.
Batty opts for a three-part narrative structure, with each act defined, or at least introduced by a particular song. This works to some extent – there is a definite structure and chronology present in the film – but the segments are not quite as distinct as they’d need to be for it to warrant the clearly-defined acts.
Its middle section predominantly concerns the impact of the cultural explosion on other industries – namely photography, fashion, hairdressing. Such a divergence was a particularly welcome one, as far too often is the ‘swinging sixties’ portrayed as solely a musical burst – when it in fact had a much wider reaching than that. Admittedly, however, this section did also cause some discomfort in its considerably dated portrayal of sexuality – with Caine and his interviewees quite often diverging into lewd comments over the otherwise empowering miniskirts.
There is a real sense of accomplishment conveyed by Caine in the film, particularly in the role he played in breaking down class barriers in the arts. Though his iconic cockney accent is now seen as an invaluable part of his defining legacy, Caine reveals that it instead blocked his path to stardom on several occasions. He recounts his audition for Zulu, his major break, in which Caine believes had American director Cy Endfield been a Brit, he wouldn’t have stood a chance in winning the role of the well-spoken Lieutenant Bromhead. These sentiments are echoed, too, by Paul McCartney – who similarly discusses the battle waged by the working-class against years of British elitism in the arts. One of the film’s most hilarious moments comes when Caine performs a rendition of the middle-class romance in Brief Encounter – parodically iterating their received pronunciation of “I love you”.
The film effectively depicts the wave of change felt not only in music, but in British cinema. Indeed, there is a brief clip of Albert Finney in kitchen-sink classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. There is also constant reference to Caine’s Harry Palmer – the working-class counterpart to Eton-educated James Bond – in espionage thriller The Ipcress File, with John Barry’s seminal score used throughout the documentary.
In short, My Generation is a stirring, highly entertaining, but most importantly refreshing take on Swinging London – delving into the significant yet often underrepresented aspects of the revolution (namely photography and the working class). Though it might sometimes stray into too narrow a perspective on the era, the perennial hits of The Beatles, Stones, Animals and co. make it a trip worth taking anyway.
Dir: David Batty
Scr: Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
Cast: Michael Caine, David Bailey, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithfull, Twiggy
Prd: Simon Fuller, Michael Caine, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais & Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly
DOP: Ben Hodgson
Music: Various (supervised by Tarquin Gotch)
Runtime: 85 mins
My Generation will be in cinemas 14th March, accompanied by a live Q&A with Michael Caine.