Written by Fenn Idle
The Jangling Man is the latest attempt to document the life and artistic output of jangly DIY pioneer and rural poet Martin Newell. It takes the form of a mix of interviews and live performances with the subject himself, plus a wide range of talking heads and some quality archival footage. It is, in some ways, a daunting task to write criticism of the work of Newell, who swiftly dismisses critics in the opening minutes of the documentary (“I’m not sending review copies out to people who can’t write as well as me, let alone play an instrument”). Newell is, in many ways, a pure artist—creating for the sake of creation; it almost seems not to matter to him whether people are listening or not. He loves playing music, composing, and recording songs. And that’s it. Every other element of the music industry, from record labels to touring, is treated with understandable disdain. The word “London” is used pejoratively by him throughout: almost as a metonym representing the fundamental spiritual badness of major labels and industry machinations. Throughout the film, we see Newell as an eccentric figure whose idiosyncrasies have won him fame and attention while simultaneously jeopardising any chance of him achieving mainstream success. In many ways, it comes back to geography and identity. He has such a deep connection to his home in Wivenhoe–such a firm sense of who he is that any attempt to bring Newell to the broader world always seems destined to fail.
Reissues of old Cleaners From Venus and Brotherhood of Lizards albums by NY label Captured Tracks—who also act as producers on this film—have renewed interest in Newell’s music. The age of the internet seems to be such a perfect fit for Newell’s restless creativity and prolific output that, despite his many old-timey hats, he comes across as a man born into the wrong era. The process of his early material—recorded at home on four-track recorders—is a vital precursor to dominant modes of home-recorded music in 2022. Although, for him, making music “wasn’t some big artistic endeavour,” but rather a “that’ll do, let’s go to the pub” approach. This lack of polish sounds very modern in a world where “DIY” and “lo-fi” are desirable playlist aesthetics that rack up millions of plays. Newell’s approach to releasing music—recording and distributing tapes himself, bypassing the need for a record company—is another innovation born out of necessity that gives the impression that he was looking into the future. Even Newell’s ludicrous “eco-rock” tour with Brotherhood of Lizards, in which they cycled around Britain with instruments on their backs, feels like a forward-thinking criticism of the enormous environmental impact of touring.
A fun element of Newell’s story is that his talents extend beyond music. Hearing him recite poems about skipping CDs or talk about the high nitrogen content of nettle juice is highly entertaining. That’s not to diminish his musical talent in any way: an anecdote about him learning to play jazz piano just by listening to a lot of it and playing along struck this author as evidence of Newell’s savant-like skill and excellent ears. Listening to his concise and evocative lyrics and hearing stories about how he came up with them in 20 minutes makes his successful career as a poet seem almost inevitable. His journey through different occupations—from dishwasher to rockstar to gardener to poet—is fascinating in its randomness and, as Newell says, seems almost guided by a higher power. His story is heart-warming: presenting a man who’s managed to make a life for himself without ever sacrificing his sense of self or his values.
The documentary was clearly a labour of love for director James Sharp and editor and producer Jim Larson. One can only imagine the hours of archival footage they must have trawled through to uncover gems such as Newell talking about the devil’s fog in a field, not to mention hours of interviews with people ranging from close collaborators like Pete Nice to high-profile fans such as Mac DeMarco. It feels hand-made in the best way, stitched together lovingly by obsessives. Juxtaposing old TV footage of Newell riding a bike through Wivenhoe with modern drone footage of him doing the same many years later has a powerful effect. Newell’s poetic interviews are also brought to life in a series of beautiful, animated illustrations by Joe Munro and Sam Brandon. One can see how it took two and a half years to complete (a statement that a frustrated Newell makes in a fourth-wall-breaking moment early on). In some ways, it’s ironic to have such a carefully constructed document of someone whose whole ideology on creation is to do it and move on to the next thing. However, Newell deserves the perfectionist treatment: even if he’s not a perfectionist himself. Newell states his criteria for good art in an interview about halfway through: “I think pictures should be of something and pop songs should have tunes and films should have happy endings. Call me a philistine, but it works for me.” The Jangling Man has all three.
Fenn Idle is a musician from Sydney who makes bedroom pop under the name Fenn is cool. He has a degree in composition and was shortlisted for the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer Competition in 2012.