“So you’re trying to get a snapshot of Sheffield? Like, the hopes and dreams of the common man?” asks Bomar, an eccentric resident of Sheffield, England, hometown of famed alternative rock band Pulp. This knowing query is, in fact, exactly what director Florian Habicht is after in the documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets, though it might be more accurate to say he’s after “common people,” and not solely due to the fact that the band’s final performance of their hit “Common People” opens up this rock-doc-cum-sociocultural-survey, but also because he’s out to illustrate the way Sheffield and Pulp go hand in hand.
As Habicht interviews an array of blue-collar Sheffield lifers, he draws a distinct parallel between their stories of the town’s rough-and-tough mentality and frontman Jarvis Cocker’s abrasive, sardonic lyrics. The aforementioned Bomar asserts that getting mugged in Sheffield is better than getting mugged in London because at least in Sheffield “you usually know the person who’s mugging you,” a wry, cheekily cynical quip that could have come from one of Cocker’s lyric sheets. There are other moments from these man-on-the-street testimonials that suggest the band’s music is intrinsic to the town’s collective unconscious. From the Sheffield Harmony chorus group, who performs a cappella renditions of the band’s songs, to the magazine-stand employees and slaughterhouse workers who claim to have known the band since before they hit it big in the early ’80s, to the elderly patrons of a local diner who sing the band’s songs while having lunch, it seems Pulp fandom is directly tied to the local identity.
Conversely, members of Pulp assimilate themselves with the greater community: Guitarist Mark Webber takes the bus to work, and drummer Nick Banks coaches a local youth soccer teams, the Pulp logo emblazoned on the jerseys. The band’s relationship with the city is symbiotic, exemplified by Habicht’s pictorial style, framing both the first-person interviews and the lively concert footage—complete with raving fans and flailing band members—in the same rich, cleverly arranged tableaus.
Sometimes, though, Habicht unwisely shifts his focus from Sheffield and its unique denizens to the band’s personal history, effectively turning the film into an episode of Behind the Music, detailing familiar stories of drugs, infighting, the pressures of worldwide fame, and egos. (Asked if he considers Cocker to be among the “common people” he so often sings about, Webber responds, “He could be, if that’s what he wanted.”) Ultimately, Pulp’s story is pretty conventional, which is enough to flounder the mystique generated by the fans, turning the film into a middling ode to hero worship occasionally lifted by the interesting personalities and creative style on display.