best before death

review by cait murphy

The eponymous graffiti in  Best Before Death.

The eponymous graffiti in Best Before Death.

Bill Drummond casts a face you probably don’t know, and yet you probably should, as Paul Duane’s intricate documentary, Best Before Death, so persuasively suggests. Compressing two years of Drummond’s twelve-year, twelve-city ‘25 Paintings World Tour’, the documentary offers episodic insight into his artistic endeavors in India and North Carolina. Duane’s subject is the co-creator of The KLF discography, which through simple research one would find reams of. With Big in Japan Drummond made punk in the 70s, managed Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, before The KLF and establishing a twenty-three-year ‘moratorium’. However, more than just an ‘irrelevant’ talking head from a music clip-show on BBC Three, Drummond has adopted performance art, hasn’t retired and doesn’t plan to - until his prospected death at the tour’s end. Showcasing at the IFI Documentary Festival, Duane’s film isn’t a music documentary, nor is it necessarily a straightforward one. 

Drummond literally and figuratively launches his tour in 2014 underneath the concrete of Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction, directed by Duane and collaborating photographer, Tracey Moberly. A profound figure, Drummond strips, plastered with thick paint in front of the film’s title, submerging in stagnant water. Despite the cold, discarded glass, and lurking diseases, Drummond asks if they “want something more epic than that?”. Drummond is an artist and will accept physical extremities to achieve his vision and that of his collaborators. 

“My name’s Bill. I’m an artist,” he bravely states to semi-interested schoolchildren, saying something so few of us freely would.

In Kolkata, Drummond faces skepticism over his motives for beating a drum across the Howrah Bridge, but he envisions accessible, cheap art. Kolkata art students openly wonder what he actually does, searching on Wikipedia and realising he’s famous, in awkwardly sweet exchanges. “My name’s Bill. I’m an artist,” he bravely states to semi-interested schoolchildren, saying something so few of us freely would. As part of the 25 Paintings, Drummond bakes cakes for strangers and makes soup and serves it to locals (although not enough, he admits, to fill bellies). Another “Painting” is to construct a metaphorically-imbued bed from locally-sourced wood, revealing Drummond’s troubled love-life in a candid moment. You may ask yourself if he’s just making up meaning as he goes along. However, in Lexington he repeats the process. Duane orchestrates a dialogue between Kolkata and sleepy Bible Belt Appalachia. Two cities, seemingly disparate, are connected by Drummond’s beating drum and curious locals. 

Best Before Death is a complex articulation of the self-reflexive, performative mode, exploring its own trajectory and fictional elements. The film’s director Duane remains distant, only involved when Drummond addresses him or refuses to be filmed. It’s a portrait of the artist, indeed, but as a sort of old man. Drummond embraces self-development and isn’t afraid of humiliation, at times interrogating his own arrogance and neo-imperialism, while his creative ‘marriage’ with Moberly plays out provocatively. Acclaimed cinematographer, Robbie Ryan (Red Road, The Favourite), leaves his signature on composed Kolkata sequences. Continuously unraveling, Duane’s film layers art to interchangeable and multifaceted degrees. He is asking if process is more important than legacy. 

Best Before Death will show at a special screening in the IFI on 27th September.