Review | ‘My Generation’ – The 1960s Through the Eyes of Michael Caine

0
1288
Michael Caine contact sheet - 1964 by Duffy (c) Duffy Archive

My Generation
Presented by Michael Caine
On cinematic release from 14th March 2018

As the sun rises with a vivid pop art palette over the River Thames, over the East End, over the then still fully operational docks of the Port of London, the full complement of raised dockside cranes heralds the dawn of the 1960s as the bright pink, gold, sapphire and purple, edged with a deeper red chase away the drab, drear and grey of the immediate post-war years. The red, the warning red of sailors, shepherds, and Shakespeare in Venus and Adonis — ‘Like a red morn that ever yet betokened, Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field’ — portends Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’, the youthquake, pop cultural, sexual, and societal revolutions, and all that would never be the same again by the decade’s end. Whilst the sunburst sunrise as a whole opens and ignites My Generation‘s kaleidoscopic explosion from the screen, harnessing the tempest, musically, visually, and orally to evocatively tell the story of this tumultuous time through the eyes of Michael Caine.

‘I wasn’t always Michael Caine…’ Caine’s iconic, idiosyncratic, iconic voice recounts over archive footage of him revisiting the streets where he grew up and a prominent music bed of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit, Something in the Air. ‘I was born Maurice Joseph Mickelwhite, my mother was a char lady — a cleaner — and my father was a Billingsgate Fish Market porter, I was expected to follow in his footsteps… but I hated the smell of fish.’ He was born close to the river and the docks in St Olave’s Hospital, Rotherhithe, south east London, and just within the area demarcated as being ‘within the sound of Bow Bells’ making him a true Cockney. A demarcation that with his Cockney accent and working class background stacked the odds against him when following his National Service demobilisation in 1954 he chose to pursue a career as an actor.

At the time regional accents were frowned upon on stage and screen, Received Pronunciation (RP) still being considered ‘proper’ for actors, and Caine explains that growing up with a passion for cinema he assumed that from the way that they spoke all actors and actresses ‘must be dukes and duchesses!’. Change was in the air. Caine who had initially been acting under the name, Michael White, recalls how he rang his agent from a telephone box in Leicester Square and she said that she had a job for him but he would need to join Equity and because there was already a Michael White in the union he needed to give her a different name there and then. He looked around the square and seeing the poster for The Caine Mutiny at the Odeon Cinema chose the name Caine, adding that had he looked the other way, ‘I might’ve been Michael One Hundred and One Dalmatians!’.

Although he now had the name under which he would become famous, and under which he would play a major role in the cultural changes of the following decade, he still had to weather another nine years, years of predominately repertory theatre which he encapsulates as ‘drafty theatres and drafty rooms’, until the 1960s were under way and he gained his big break starring in 1964 film, Zulu. Perhaps there was extra stardust abroad in Leicester Square the night he chose the name Caine; Humphrey Bogart, the star of The Caine Mutiny, was one of Caine’s idols and the film was multi Academy Award nominated, and Caine is one of only two actors (the other being Jack Nicholson) to be nominated for an Academy Award in every decade from the 1960s to the present day.

Ironically, the part that launched Caine in Zulu was playing an aristocratic officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. As Caine recounts, the director, Cy Endfield, told him that he had already cast the role of a Cockney Private, which Caine had originally gone up for, to another London-born actor, James Booth, because Booth, ‘looked more Cockney’ than Caine whom he felt looked upper class. After assuring Endfield that he could affect the accent, Caine won the role, but as he maintains in My Generation he still believes that it was only because Endfield was American that he was immune to the contemporary British prejudice of casting a working class actor in an upper class role. Either way, Zulu on its initial release became one of the biggest British box-office successes of all time, remained on constant cinema circulation for the following 12 years, and paved the way for his starring roles, playing characters that spoke with his own accent, in the equally highly successful films, The Ipcress File (1965), Alfie (1966), and The Italian Job (1969).

‘I kept my Cockney accent in order to let other working class people know that if I made it they could do it too’, Caine said in an interview on CNN’s The Screening Room in 2007, and in My Generation says, ‘We were taught at school about respecting our betters then, but I never understood who they were supposed to be. I’ve never seen any of my betters. I’ve seen a lot of my equals but I’ve never seen any of my betters’. This informs Caine’s key premise for the feature length documentary as director, David Batty, explains, ‘it was an astonishing time and the film captures the rebellious spirit of those years; Michael wanted film audiences to know what he and others had to overcome just to be seen and heard’.

The film also vividly explores the effects that the extraordinary collision of music, fashion, art, design, photography film and media created by and for the new generation of My Generation, the ‘first time,’ as Caine says, ‘ that the future was shaped by young people’, and the enormity of change that it engendered – a cultural explosion that went far beyond anything anyone could have imagined. A point wonderfully illustrated and compounded in the film by the use of the famous clip of Caine from The Italian Job… ‘you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’. Not change the world!

Equally My Generation itself is a the result of an extraordinary and surprising collision of talents, which in the spirit of the adage, ‘it looked good on paper’, on the surface one would probably never have expected to come together, let alone write down, although each are preeminent in their fields. The team responsible for creating the film over the past six years include Caine, Simon Fuller, entrepreneur, artist manager, film and television producer, perhaps best known for managing the Spice Girls and creating the Idol (Pop Idol, American Idol) television franchise, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, screenwriting partnership renowned for the television series, The Likely Lads, Porridge, and Auf Wiedersehn, Pet, Tarquin Gotch, music manager, music supervisor and film producer, and Flodhla Cronin O’Reilly, producer of the Academy Award nominated, Head over Heels, and Lady Macbeth. Batty, renowned for his documentary work, which began with directing for the Channel 4’s flagship documentary strand, Cutting Edge, and includes, Paisley: A Life, also brought regular collaborators editor, Ben Hilton, and archive producer, James RM Hunt to the mix.

The talents of the team whilst each playing to their key strengths have also merged brilliantly ensuring that each facet of the film works wonderfully well and creates an extraordinarily immersive and innovative experience. For Fuller, unsurprisingly, the soundtrack, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, was very much to the fore. Aware that unlike in the 1960s listening to music now is very much a solitary experience, through headphones or buds, he was determined that the film would bring back the power of shared experience, he explains, ‘people will be sitting in a cinema, enthralled by the power of the music. These incredible songs being heard over the very best sound system, loud and proud!’. Indeed Clement and La Frenais whose script divides the film into three acts, ‘Something In The Air’, ‘I Feel Free’, and ‘All Was Not What It Seemed’, wrote each act inspired by three tracks, The Kinks’ Dead End Street, The Rolling Stones’ I Wanna Be Your Man, and The Who’s My Generation. Whilst also being inspired by the musicality and resonance of Caine’s voice. ‘The music was a major leader in the creative process for the documentary,’ says editor Hilton, ‘just as Michael’s voice was a guide for the narrative tone’. Which Clement expands on saying that they were ‘in an enviable position. We have an instantly recognisable voice to write to. No one in else in the world sounds like Michael and so inevitably we had his voice in our heads when we wrote certain phrases for the narration’.

Their script was also informed by insights gained from the new interviews that Caine and Batty conducted for the film with interviewees including Paul McCartney, Twiggy, David Bailey, Mary Quant, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithful. Batty decided at an early stage that in order not to break the flow or stylistic spell of the film that the interviewees would not be presented as talking heads. Instead their words in the present day are heard over and mixed with archive footage of themselves in the 1960s. Only Caine visually time travels from then to now and back again and this is one of the most fantastic stylistic innovations of the film. Caine’s appearances in the film are a wonderful mix of 1960s archive footage, both interview and documentary footage and clips from his films, which because Alfie has many scenes which break the fourth wall in which he directly addresses the camera and, in common with with The Ipcress File and The Italian Job, has many scenes with him in London locations sit very well in further presenting him as the narrator / guide and My Generation being the 1960s through his eyes.

This life into art into life, or vice versa, stylistic innovation works particularly well in the opening scenes of My Generation when in a clip from The Italian Job, Caine in the role of Charlie Croker, collects his Aston Martin DB4 from an underground car park in Park Lane, which as the tarpaulin is pulled back to reveal the car, jump cuts to Caine in the present day in the very same car (Batty borrowed the car from the private collector who now owns it) driving along Piccadilly, before cutting back to Caine as Croker driving the car through London streets in the 1960s. Later, arriving at David Bailey’s studio, which is the same studio he has used since the 1960s, to interview him, the octogenarian Caine walks up the stairs calling out Bailey’s name, but emerges visually in the 1960s, whilst aurally remaining in the now, into archive footage of the iconic portrait that Bailey took of Caine, and Bailey photographing Jean Shrimpton with Bailey dressed, as Caine says, ‘as he always was, in a vest, jeans, and a pair of Cuban heels’. They talk about the Ad Lib Club, where all of the movers and shakers of the 1960s were habitués, and Bailey recalls, ‘teaching Nureyev to twist – he was very stiff’, which then cuts to Caine in a recreation of the Ad Lib’s famous lift, cutting to Caine in a 1960s film clip of him in the lift.

Most of the documentary archive footage in My Generation has never been screened before and includes a wealth of unused material shot by filmmaker and writer, Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, who documented the counter culture in London and New York in the 1960s and whose credits include the 1967 feature length documentary, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, and a number of promotional music films clips for The Rolling Stones in the 1960s including Ruby Tuesday and Lady Jane. ‘It’s quite remarkable; from the talent he was filming to the style it was done in,’ Batty says, ‘when you have unseen footage of this quality, the audience cannot help but become totally immersed.’

My Generation is highly immersive and has an incredibly engaging energy, pace — as Hilton says, ‘we don’t stay on a subject for longer than 90s seconds maximum — warmth and sparkle. It evokes films such as Alfie and The Italian Job, and also A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester’s 1964 film starring with The Beatles, to which there is a link because Richard Lester is a family friend of Batty’s family and growing up the families took holidays together including one to Spain in 1966 where Lester was filming How I Won The War with John Lennon, whom Batty met.

My Generation has a lightness that only darkens as, fittingly, in the late 1960s dream begins to blacken not least with influence of harder drugs. The film also has a definitive poignancy, that is harder to define, but also engages and moves one. Perhaps it is because only Caine and London are seen to have changed, whilst the gilded youth who changed the world remain their 1960s selves. Perhaps it a requisite of memory, of looking back, of creating a love letter to a time, to London and to a generation nearly half a century later. One starts to feel that it is a farewell from Caine, although he has more films in production, but perhaps as My Generation is released on his 85th birthday it is a marking of time. Although as that thought strikes one in the auditorium it is as if Caine has picked up on that on screen. Standing on the revolving floor of the BT Tower, the Post Office Tower as it was in the 1960s, he looks out over the streets of Soho, across Piccadilly, Mayfair to Chelsea, Notting Hill and beyond to the setting sun and says, ‘never look back in anger, always look forward in hope… and never dream small’.

By Guy Sangster-Adams