I Am Electric
There’s a playful visual device employed at the beginning of the wonderfully honest, personal and vulnerable documentary ‘Gary Numan: Android In La La Land’ (directed by Steve Read and Rob Alexander, 2016) that whether deliberate or not is almost a visual metaphor for the renowned musician himself. Driving along an American highway we are seeing everything upside down, from an angle we never really see anything in, a completely different perspective to ours, yet familiar at the same time.
That same initial confusion is similar to how Numan was received, particularly by the music press when he burst onto the scene in 1979. Having seemingly taken the Nicolas Roeg film starring David Bowie ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ (1976) as a blueprint for a career, this human shape yet somehow alien being stood in front of us as a messenger from another galaxy, creating unearthly sounds that somehow connected directly to our subconscious. The music seemed cold, but stirred powerful emotions in his fans around the world. He was just 21 when he had his first No. 1 hit with the iconic single ‘Cars’.
He had been in the music industry for a couple of years previously (signed his first record deal at 18) as frontman for the new wave electronic band Tubeway Army though without much success, but it was the foundation and direct catalyst to discovering his calling upon the random pressing of a synthesiser whilst heading into a recording studio to make a new punk influenced album. With a single electronic note he found a voice for his humanity.
It is easy to look at videos of his early career and believe that it was some sort of cold machine before us. But it was out of crippling anxiety (he has Asperger’s) that forced Gary to restrict his movements and act awkward in interviews (resulting in a misguided distain by the press), but he wasn’t awkward, he was terrified. As is quite common in folk of an artistic temperament, they communicate through the only way the know how, through their art.
To try to express anything via another medium isn’t generally within the realms of their abilities, that’s why they excel in their art form of choice. And that’s why it resonates with audiences around the world. And while the likes of Bowie developed his characters/personalities after some very considered and well researched development, Numan put on heavy white make up before his first Top Of The Pops appearance to hide his acne, sensitivity and embarrassment dictated his ‘look’.
Somehow this human delicacy shone through with the power and almost brutality of his electronic music. He was speaking the language of the Now before anyone had learned it, we just all had to catch up. But such global success and how to deal with it wasn’t really taught in schools in the 60s. The halcyon days of sitting in an inflatable dinghy in the front room of his newly bought mansion while the new sports car dressed the outside gravel drive weren’t to last long as various situations arose to test pretty much everything in his life, including his sanity.
The documentary introduces us to Gary, his long standing wife Gemma (she’s almost the real star of the film) and his three life enhancing daughters who gleefully and lovingly mock the successes and talents of their dad. But success is seen as a distant memory now and the family are on the path to rectify that situation, as a family. They are moving from their pink English cottage to a castle LA to record his new album ‘Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)’ (2013) and so begins their adventure and his well earned/deserved salvation.
Considering the ‘perception’ many may have of the man, this wonderfully tender and sincere film shows him in a powerfully raw light, which is also it’s outstanding strength. He may use cold sounding noises to communicate, but the guy screams humanity in every look and moment, to the extent that such ability would be understandably overwhelming at times, and considering the personal tribulations and battles the couple have had to cope with over the years, if they did had a super power it’s resilience and perseverance.
Tracking the development, creation and recording of the new album is fascinating stuff in itself, but it is the family aspect of the film that makes it transcend. No matter what is thrown at them, they motor on. They get repeatedly knocked down, and they repeatedly pick each other up, for each other. Trashy magazines are filled with pseudo crisis in various folks lives, there is nothing fake about what this couple have endured.
The question ‘Are Friends Electric’ may have rang out across the digital landscape for decades influencing the birth of many genres, we may not ever know the answer to that, but Family Definitely Is Electric.
‘Gary Numan: Android In La La Land’ is out now.