How to Talk to Girls at Parties UK poster

The Damned: New Rose (1977)
Xiu Xiu, Elle Fanning & Alex Sharp: Eat Me Alive (2017)

Back in 1977, I would buy or borrow a copy of NME or Sounds and read through them: the news items, interviews, reviews and letters pages. I would also diligently scan along the live listings, seeing who was playing across the country as if it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might just decide to dog off school for a couple of days and travel down to see some band like Wire or Slaughter and The Dogs play Canterbury or Bristol on a Tuesday night.

One name that would repeatedly crop up in these listings was The Greyhound in Croydon. This venue would regularly advertise shows, usually with cool acts like The Adverts, Buzzcocks and local favourites Johnny Moped. Seeing their ads convinced me that Croydon must be a bit of a hotspot for punk rock and that anybody living there was lucky.

Enn, Vic and John, the three schoolboy punks we’re introduced to here don’t feel the same way about their home turf. But, even during the brouhaha of Jubilee Day, they still manage to get at least some teenage kicks as they wind up their parents, local royalists and teddy boys, while somehow managing to make their way around town on a bicycle definitely not made for three.

All this soundtracked by The Damned – an act with a big Croydon connection – and the first, and some might argue, the best British punk single ever recorded:

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Shortbus) and based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, How To Talk To Girls At Parties is a coming-of-age science-fiction romcom that also attempts to straddle a few other genres while it’s at it.

The film starts off like a punky version of The Inbetweeners with Enn, played by Alex Sharp, in the role of Will. Enn (short for ‘Enry) contributes cartoons to a fanzine called Virus, that he and his pals put together.

They also like to visit a nearby Greyhound like bar to see local punk wannabes The Dyschords.

Afterwards, by accident, they gatecrash into a party (of sorts) where everyone is humming, dancing or performing gymnastic routines while wearing Vivienne Westwood meets the Teletubbies latex outfits. They look like some weird performance art collective rehearsing for a stint at the Edinburgh Festival.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties still

The boys speculate on who these strange people could be, guessing they might be kooky Californians involved in a cult. I doubt I’m giving anything away here but they are from much farther away and even more alien to teenage punks than yer average 1970s American hippy-dippy west coaster.

Enn meets and immediately likes Zan, played by Elle Fanning. She’s fascinated by his interest in ‘the punk’ and its anti-authoritarian attitudes. She displays a rebellious streak herself to her fellow extraterrestrials, an antiseptic bunch in the main, as conformist as Enn’s neighbours waving their Union Jacks earlier at their neighbourhood street party.

Unfortunately, Zan’s only allowed twenty-four hours in Croydon. In this time she makes a big impression, not only on Enn and his pals but on punk sculptor Queen Boadicea. Played by Nicole Kidman, who looks like a cross between Cruella Deville and Siouxsie Sioux out for a night in some New Romantic club of the early 1980s rather than a punk in the blistering summer of 1977.

This friendship results in Zan and Enn replacing The Dyschord’s singer for a show. Here’s a clip of what is supposed to be an entirely improvised performance:

After this, the film nosedives like a punk band that kick off live with all their best material but when they should be climaxing instead play a bunch of B-sides, bad cover versions and filler tracks from their album, never recovering the initial promise.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties becomes increasingly batshit crazy but not in a good batshit crazy way. Self-indulgence reigns. The Kidman character looks shoehorned in, and I suspect she’d maybe agreed to the part as an old pals act for the director. She’d previously worked with him on 2010’s Rabbit Hole.

By the time the punks, led by Boadicea, storm the townhouse where the aliens are staying, things have become even more excruciating than Kidman’s take on a Cockernee accent.

This is the film’s nadir and it never recovered. It’s probably significant that Gaiman’s short story ended long before any of this.

The debate between the aliens confused me. Or maybe by this point I was just too bored to make the effort to follow it. As for the soundtrack, after New Rose there are no punk classics, most of the music being electronic in nature and mediocre at best.

This is a shame. I liked the director defiantly choosing not to go down the dreary social realist path. This is definitely more Phantom of the Paradise than Rude Boy, believe me although not nearlyas good as that De Palma oddity. Actually a more ‘glam rock’ setting would have been more appropriate. Sci-fi and space travel being a much bigger part of that era. Just think of all those singles like Starman and Space Ace.

Much of the movie is shot beautifully too.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties - Sharp & Fanning

Easily the best thing about it, though, are the two leads even though Enn is obviously a fifteen year old with a particularly long paper round. I did look up his age online and wasn’t too surprised to discover he was well into his mid-20s when the film was shot. I also liked Abraham Lewis as Vic. He even reminded me at times of Tom Hardy.

On the whole the accuracy of the punk backdrop struck me as reasonably accurate if Boadicea is taken out of the equation. Okay, I’ll nitpick a little. Enn has a copy on the Never Mind the Bollocks cover on his wall months before it came out. I guess if you can accept visitors from another planet travelling to Croydon on a reconnaissance mission, then a little faux pas like that is the least of your worries.

File under: Probably sounded like a good idea at the time.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties is just out on DVD & Blu-ray.

To read the short story click here.

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