Film

Blur: To The End review – poignant new music film shows a band of brothers reunited

New film blur: To The End charts the band's 2023 return and offers a profound depiction of long-term male friendship in all its complexity

Alex James and Damon Albarn in new documentary blur: To The End

Alex James and Damon Albarn in new documentary blur: To The End

If one moment sums up blur: To The End, a new film charting the return in 2023 of one of this country’s best bands of the last three decades, it is a quiet moment, during a break in recording, as the reunited band sit talking in the studio. Singer Damon Albarn slides into a tiny gap between guitarist Graham Coxon and bass player Alex James on a sofa. He leans into the warm, easy embrace from either side, as drummer Dave Rowntree looks on. It’s a rare moment of stillness and peace for Albarn.

This is a man constantly on the move, described in the film by James Ford – producer of Blur’s 2023 LP The Ballad of Darren, as “pathologically addicted to making new stuff all the time”. And it hints at the deeper story behind the band’s surprise, but hugely successful comeback.

Because when Damon Albarn hit a personal post-lockdown low, when he found himself living alone for the first time in decades, holed up in his secluded South Devon farmhouse, his finely tuned musical subconscious conjured the songs to bring his oldest friends to him. And they showed up for him.

The trailer for blur: To The End – a new film directed by Toby L.

The result was not only an album to rival any Blur have produced since forming in 1989 and the biggest UK shows of their career. Perhaps the even bigger result was a new, improved understanding between the four members.

Over the course of the film, we see Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree commune with their long and complex personal and musical histories and choose to cherish their commonality rather than dwell in their differences. And they ride this new wave of friendship and understanding all the way to Wembley Stadium.

So this is not the definitive Blur biography. Nor is it the inside track of the recording of The Ballad of Darren. And while we see the build-up to the two triumphant Wembley concerts in July 2023, rehearsals, back stage footage and highlights from the performances, a full-scale concert film is not arriving until September 2024. Instead, blur: To The End, expertly directed by Transgressive music group co-founder Toby L, strives for something more profound.

By showing four old friends coming together, blur: To The End is an all-too-rare depiction of long-term male friendship in all its complications and complexity, as well as an uplifting reminder of the power of music to transcend and heal.

Blur in the studio in 2023
blur in the studio. Image: Reuben Bastienne Lewis

The film opens with Albarn driving, precariously, along the narrow road to his home before welcoming his bandmates. He is nervous. A bit jumpy. “Blur are coming here,” he explains, as if he’s about to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past. Guitarist Graham Coxon has never been before, he says. Bass player Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree have not been since Blur – temporarily a three-piece – recorded Think Tank in 2002.

We see the worries dissipate. The new arrivals wrap him in love. James joins his singer for a cold-water sea swim, they eat together, it is, says bass player James, like being back in halls of residence at Goldsmiths.  

Later, as they listen back to completed tracks for the new record, we see Albarn nervously glancing at Coxon – seeking approval from his oldest and closest collaborator, there are echoes of Lennon and McCartmey always finding each other’s eye-line in Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary.

He needn’t worry. “The singing is fucking ace,” Coxon tells him, as the band lean into the emotion in the new material.

Few singers can convey heartbreak or melancholy like Albarn at his best. “This is an album about loss,” he explains, a little reluctantly, to the camera. “The aftershock of loss. Whether that is a dramatic break up or pandemic. Now I live alone in the countryside – and this record very much feels like that.”

Along the way, we see the roots of their friendship and hear about their history. There is even, for the first time, a recording of Real Lives – Albarn and Coxon’s first ever school music project. Albarn and Coxon return to their old school in Colchester, which now has a music room named after them. The singer tells the nonplussed current headteacher why he used to hide in the music room lest he get beaten up: “’Cos everyone thought I was a cunt.” Despite everything, he’s still giving frontman vibes. Still putting on a show. And still playing up for the camera, all those years after he was centre stage in every school production.

Albarn also recounts youthful hijinks, including risking life and limb to change the time on the New Cross Town Hall clock while on acid during their Goldsmiths years. And the band discuss how early lyrics from Leisure, Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife resonate even more today, the pressures of the Britpop success years and the impact on each of them, and why they have all felt the need to spend most of the last 10 years apart.

From there, we see the band preparing for Wembley. Coxon, never fully at home with the show element of showbiz, calls the stage show rehearsals in giant soulless enormo-drome a “great way to feel awful about everything you’re doing”. And the band are more fractious than in the studio.

But it is all viewed through the eyes of four 50-something men with a shared musical and personal history and increasingly dodgy knees.

So we see the way they understand each other now. Their different needs and personalities. Albarn confident, showy, always performing; Coxon more sensitive and shy; James a study in louche ambivalence is happiest to relive the heady days of hardcore drinking as the band set out on a warm-up tour; while Rowntree is more detached, a thinker, the current Labour Party candidate for Mid Sussex happier talking about the state of the nation than rock stardom.

Albarn is clearly the driving force. And the band accept this. “If we don’t keep him focused on the job in hand, he will literally be doing another opera before the third single is out,” James grins.

Between recording the album and playing at Wembley, Albarn has toured with Gorillaz, Coxon has been on the road with his band The Waeve, and James has been making cheese, running his farm and partying with his kids. And with Wembley approaches, Rowntree suffers a potentially tour-ending tennis injury.

But the band understand the significance of playing Wembley. “Me and Damon watched Live Aid on television together,” recalls Coxon. And their biggest ever UK gig coming at this stage in their career is not lost on them.

Then it’s showtime. After Jockstrap, after Sleaford Mods, after Self Esteem. After The Selector, after Paul Weller, it’s time for Blur to play Wembley Stadium.

“There is something very healing about creating a beautiful noise,” says Albarn, as this beautifully made film nears its end. “And I never know if it will be the last time.”

‘blur: To The End’ screened at Sheffield DocFest and is in UK and Irish cinemas from July 19.

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