In Search of Eden: the infamous allure of Talk Talk charted in new film
Before Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis’ untimely death, Belgian film director, Gwenaël Breëss, set out to make a film about the reclusive band and its elusive singer. Now, after years of struggle and a pandemic it’s finally ready to air.
It’s tough to pinpoint when exactly Talk Talk’s “Spirit Of Eden” began to earn the accolades it failed to receive upon its original release – let alone become a contender for all sorts of underrated rock magazine polls.
The rehabilitation had started in part thanks to the 1988 Balearic explosion that accompanied Acid House. Homegrown DJ’s inspired by Ibizan legends such as Alfredo and José Padilla raided synth pop catalogues from earlier in the ‘80s, turning up Talk Talk as unlikely heroes. Ignored by many, songs such as “Life’s What You Make It” and “It’s A Shame” were given Balearic-inspired revivals from London to Manchester, even earning their own remix album.
“Spirit Of Eden” was released in 1988 as everyone upped the tempo and added extra oomph – as such it was criminally ignored by all but the diehards. However slowly, surely and inexorably it started to bleed through during the early ‘90s. It was name-checked by the cognoscenti, everyone from ambient backroom DJs soundtracking the chill-out zone through to the musically adventurous and beyond had caught wind.
“Spirit Of Eden”, as well as the following final album “Laughing Stock” were some of the last physical items you could discover the old-fashioned way – by word of mouth or by picking up a record sleeve in an actual shop. Famously reticent when it came to interviews, certainly as their career progressed, singer and creator Mark Hollis would rather “let the music speak for itself” instead of burdening himself with PR duties.
After Hollis’ untimely death, eulogies were long and plentiful. “Spirit Of Eden” and Talk Talk’s other material was either acclaimed or reevaluated. However, there was little news or information from the band itself.
So, how to talk about a band who doesn’t talk?
In a SIlent Way’s director, Gwenaël Breës chanced upon the band when their opus was first released.
“I was 14 when ‘Spirit of Eden’ came out in 1988”, he tells me. “I heard excerpts on the radio and went straight to buy it. I listened to it a lot, always at night. It became part of my intimacy. There was something indefinable in this record, a dimension different from anything I had ever listened to before. At the time I was listening to a lot of hard rock, as a kind of reaction to the commercial music that was playing everywhere on the radio and TV. ‘Spirit of Eden’ had on me the impact to gradually open up to a lot of other music, including music that I was stupidly rejecting by principle, like classical and jazz. It’s a record that has been with me ever since, in which I can always immerse myself in special moments, let myself be taken along’.
Breës has always been intrigued by Talk Talk’s musical trajectory: what happened so that a band that came from New Romantic Pop and had opened for Duran Duran suddenly created these two unclassifiable and radical albums, and then disappeared? The dearth of literature that documented it astonished him. Around 2006, he read an article in Mojo Magazine which discussed the recording of ‘Spirit of Eden’, and there began his obsession.
In 2016, Breës would begin a four-year-long filmmaking process, during which he would encounter many obstacles. Hollis, together with his associates and bandmates, refused to be interviewed; Breës wasn’t allowed to use any of the band’s music; and he was even threatened with legal action. Not only does a happy ending seem unlikely, but “Searching For Sugarman” it ain’t…
‘I learnt that he was a cinema-lover, that he had often wanted to make music for films and I think he was very aware of the power of the image. Maybe he didn’t want a film to stick an image on these records, to link them together’.
Nonetheless, Breës decided to press on, approaching the process with a complete openness about what had to be omitted. ‘He was a public figure at that time, these albums exist, there are reissues, covers, articles, a book… Why not a film?’, he insisted.
Nonetheless, Breës was keen to break free of the mold. “Many music documentaries are financed by television channels, but this often involves making fairly standardised biopics: a succession of short shots of interviews in front of the camera and mixed with archive footage, with a very didactic voice-over… We didn’t want to get locked into this form’, he explains.
This unorthodox approach worked in Breës’ favour, and against all odds he managed to get funding for the film. ‘The refusal of the main protagonists to take part in the film was actually rather well received by the public institutions, perhaps because it was a kind of guarantee of a film that goes beyond the classic portrait of artists.”
So, he set out to travel to the UK, to Canvey island which was once famously home to Eddie and the Hot Rods – the band headed by Mark’s brother, Eddie Hollis. For Breës, it felt like a pilgrimage. ‘That’s where it all started, in the wake of punk and pub rock’, he explains. ‘This is the slightly poetic, burlesque and anti-spectacular side of the film. This progression through different social environments and landscapes also tells a story.’
But wasn’t always an easy journey. Just one week prior to the film’s editing process came Mark Hollis’ untimely death. ‘That was one of the only moments that I actually felt like giving up’, Breës admits. ‘I saw this film also as a kind of dialogue with him and this motivation disappeared with him’.
After persevering through a rocky filming process, Breës has had to endure significant delays on the film’s premiere as a product of the pandemic. “I haven’t had a lot of feedbacks, so far I haven’t even been able to see it once in a theatre with an audience! It’s a damned film, in fact…”, he laughs.
Yet he remains positive, feeling that the film’s journey to the screen neatly replicates the modus operandi of the band and is content that it hasn’t taken away any of the band’s mystique. “I think that the film is consistent with the approach and spirit of Talk Talk, while having its own personality, and that it can interest people who have never even heard of that band. I see it as a collage of different layers, talking about subjects like creation, freedom, disappearance,” he concludes. “I learned a lot about the process of creating these albums, and about the state of mind of the musicians who created them. It satisfied a certain curiosity in me, but it hasn’t changed the mystery and power they have over me.”
In A Silent Way aired at the Doc n Roll Film Festival earlier this year and will be screening again at selected cinemas in 2022, with a full digital release to follow… Check http://docnrollfestival.com/ for more…