Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener provided by distributor, Platinum Pictures.
I’ve watched a lot of music documentaries over the years. Shorts, features, and multi-part extravaganzas. TV series, YouTube essays, and theatrical movies. On entire genres, specific artists, and even individual songs. Comes part and parcel with being an adventurous and insatiably curious music fan. As such, over the years, in addition to the many recurrent tropes and tricks of the trade, I’ve come to recognise that the best music documentaries are the ones which reach across the divide separating fan and newbie. They inform and contextualise their subject rather than preaching to the choir, to help a complete neophyte understand why this particular moment in all of musical history mattered so much to anybody at all as a story worth preserving. That accessibility will be buffered by more granular details, specific anecdotes, fun new insights or stories from those who were there or done their deep research which, yes, satiate the already-fans coming to hear something new but also add a character to the story which can be appreciated by the non-fan.
In short (and most obviously), the best music documentaries are the ones where you come out of them having learned something new regardless of your knowledge going in. With 25 Years of UK Garage, the latest feature from Terry Stone & Richard Turner, my experience watching what I had assumed would be an interesting and educational documentary about, well, 25 years of UK Garage was instead akin to standing on the outside of an exclusive circle of middle-aged school friends reminiscing about their youths with no interest in inviting anyone else in or explaining their in-jokes. In fact, I would borderline accuse 25 Years of UK Garage of false advertising since this 95-minute documentary has almost no time dedicated to discussing, explaining, or coherently charting the history of the music which made up UK Garage. If you don’t already know your MC Neats from your MC Harveys, or your DJ Majestics from your DJ PDSs, then good luck figuring out why they’re even here let alone who came on the scene first and had the bigger hand in shaping the music.
Honestly, even if you do know the vast majority of the stacked rolodex of artists and promoters lined up to provide interviews – I’d estimate, as a very casual fan of UK Garage, I recognised just over a third of the names listed on-screen – there’s a good chance you may still be lost watching 25 Years. The narrative, such as it were, is a total zig-zagging mess which, because the film refuses to talk meaningfully about the music or follow even the most basic chronological timeframe, lurches randomly from topic to topic with no arc or coherency. The opening 15 minutes alone jump from footage of the latest instalment of the Garage Nation Festival to the very first Garage Nation night (where UK Garage was already a thing) in the mid-90s, then back to the Festival for more platitudinous observations about the genre’s legacy, then to the early 2000s for brief pop-ins by So Solid Crew members, then back to the beginning, then back to the Festival, then back to the initial revival period, and so on and so on. No clean breaks, no organisation for proper flow, no clear signposting of the time, just a relentless destabilising assault of time jumps and little substance.
I’m willing to cut Stone & Turner some slack since 25 Years is evidently an ultra-low-budget production with little in the way of coin for music clearances – the ever-present beats running underneath the film almost exclusively come from original compositions by interviewee and legendary DJ of the scene Jason Kaye. You gotta get creative when the most you can afford in sample clearances is 15 seconds max of DJ Pied Piper’s chart-topping “Do You Really Like It?” so diving deep into the stories behind the scene’s biggest hits has suffocating limitations. And it is truly commendable the sheer number of names that the crew have managed to gain access to, even if close to half end up being interviewed in media bullpens at the Garage Nation Festival. On that level, the directors aren’t hurting for access and for the most part everybody is very happy to chat on-camera about their glory days. Sections dedicated to the evolving fashion (actual smart-ass suits!) and drugs of the scene, plus a detour to So Solid Crew’s overseas commune, prove to be the documentary’s brightest spots for that very reason.
But, as 25 Years drags on aimlessly and becomes less and less interested in exploring or explaining the scene’s impact or influence (as had been sold in the premise), eventually a much less charitable picture starts to emerge. By the hour mark, the film runs out of road when it comes to discussing UK Garage as a whole and instead becomes a pretty blatant piece of self-aggrandisement and score-settling for the Garage Nation brand. It’s something which already stuck out like a sore thumb in the early goings both due to the prominence of Garage Nation-affiliated artists and co-director/key interviewee Stone’s history as one of its co-founders, frequently spotlighting anecdotes like how even shootings couldn’t shut down a Garage Nation night.
But the last half-hour really tips it over the edge. Extended time is given to the story of new Garage Nation owner James Shadimehr and his difficulties making the brand financially solvent, which feels like being stuck on an endless Q4 Earnings call. There’s an entire five-minute stretch of film dedicated to bitching about COVID insurance, in a movie which is supposed to be about 25 Years of UK Garage. There are also lots of oldheads acting as if UK Garage just outright died for the last decade-plus or is solely a nostalgia scene now, with no exploration of a newer generation of DJs like Preditah or Eliza Rose (to name just two in my basic-ass knowledge) revitalising or evolving the scene. One incredibly awkward exchange which most sticks out to me lasts only 10 seconds and comes in the opening stretch, but is emblematic of the movie’s myopic views and true intentions. It’s a short clip of Leo the Lion, from The Streets, practically being goaded by Stone (in the only interview where he is shown on-camera talking with his subject) into saying his favourite garage night was Garage Nation. “I take it your favourite night was Garage Nation,” Stone leads. “Yeah, outstanding,” Leo awkwardly laughs whilst his eyes dart around the room.
Even if you want to set aside the fact that this documentary would be much more accurately titled 25 Years of Garage Nation – since otherwise it’s like if Clubland made a documentary all about themselves and titled it 25 Years of Eurodance – it’s unforgivably shoddy in the filmmaking fundamentals, as well. The sound mixing is horrendously inconsistent with that aforementioned Kaye soundtrack infrequently drowning out the interviewees’ voices. Certain music video clips have been sourced from barely-240p YouTube rips (and are credited as such). The microphones on the Oxide & Neutrino interview clearly did not record and, rather than drop the footage or try to fix it in post by redubbing, instead has its audio come from the room’s camera which, bluntly, sounds like arse. That last example is particularly inexcusable; I had something similar happen to me back at uni when the recording equipment for an artist studio session failed, and I rightfully got pilloried by both radio station management and artist PR for publishing the abysmal-quality result anyway. To see something similar happen in a professionally distributed movie people are expected to pay money for is galling.
I really wish I didn’t have such negative feelings towards 25 Years of UK Garage. This is a screener I took on precisely because I wanted to learn more about the music, the scene, the legacy. I may not have already been clued up on much besides the scene’s big pop crossover moments going in, but I wanted to come out with a new appreciation and knowledge of it all. Instead, I got a movie that couldn’t spend 90 seconds telling me what the sound of UK Garage is but could spend almost treble that complaining about how COVID insurance made it mildly inconvenient for this one brand to put on their club night for a few months. There’s a real story to tell here, and this movie refuses to tell it.
25 Years of UK Garage is available to buy now on Digital.