He’s the big mouth that just keeps striking again. Be it calling Brexit “magnificent” and lauding Nigel Farage, claiming he was groped by an airport security officer in San Francisco with the bizarre words “the penis and testicles were mine and no one else’s!”, or suggesting a mass terrorist shooting of young people was “nothing” compared to what fast-food chains do to animals every day, it feels like scarcely a week goes by without some surprising, mad, cringeworthy or plain offensive pronouncement being made by Morrissey.
They feel like a routine let-down coming from a lyricist, singer and British cultural icon who, as frontman of The Smiths between 1982 and 1987 and in phases during his solo career, is responsible for some of the most glorious, extraordinary and important pop music ever written. Music that articulates angst and alienation with a clarity and poetry few singers have ever mustered, giving voice to dark depths of emotion – a noble legacy he almost seems hell-bent on now trying to wreck.
I hadn’t realised how important his mum was. That all became the real focus of the film
Just what the hell is wrong with Morrissey? Jack Lowden (below) and Mark Gill – respectively the Scottish actor and the Mancunian first-time film-maker who bring a portrait of a pre-fame Morrissey to the big screen with humanity, wit and warmth in England Is Mine – each shift a little uncomfortably when asked. Quite rightly, they reason, it’s not really for them to answer.
Their Morrissey is a mere lank-haired wisp of a boy between the ages of 16 and 22, still the hesitant Mancunian son of Irish immigrant parents born Steven Patrick Morrissey, and yet to transform into a mononymous music idol. “Weird Steven” as some locals still remember him. He’s unsure around women even though women seem to flock to him.
He can’t hold a job and prefers to bury his head in books, listening to records and scribbling in his journal. He thinks he’s better than everybody else, and broods about how rubbish other people’s music is without having the guts to share his own. He’s still a long way from stiffening his quiff into the hearing aid and gladioli-toting Top of the Pops legend of yore.
“Now he’s approaching 60,” Gill points out. “I think he’s probably a product of his success and his fame more than a product of the character we present.”
Gill has a point. Playing shows all over the world for rabidly adoring fans, constant scrutiny of your sexuality and hardcore veganism and getting flowers chucked at you everywhere you go would skew anyone’s behaviour. Yet there are allusions in England Is Mine to the fact that, even in his younger years, Morrissey was already showing signs of being peculiar, conflicted and ruthlessly outspoken.
“Imagine how much research I’ve done from early interviews and things,” says Gill. “It’s all there at the beginning, it’s just as the years have gone on the volume’s been turned up and up and up.”
Ringleader of the tormentors: Morrissey’s infamous quotes…
- On Brexit
“As for Brexit, the result was magnificent but it is not accepted by the BBC or Sky News because they object to a public that cannot be hypnotised by BBC or Sky nonsense.” October 2016
- On the Manchester terror attack
“An extreme what?An extreme rabbit?” After Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the attack on the city was the work of an extremist but hadn’t used the word ‘Islamist’. May 2017
- On Royal relations
“I wish that Prince Charles had been shot. I think it would have made the world a more interesting place.” January 1994
- On animal cruelty – while insulting 1.3 billion people
“You can’t help but feel that the Chinese people are a subspecies” September 2010
- On meat as murder
“I see no difference between eating animals and paedophilia. They are both rape, violence, murder. If I’m introduced to anyone who eats beings, I walk away.” January 2014
Young Steven’s off-puttingly sure of his own brilliance, yet devoid of the confidence to show anybody why. He’s worryingly predisposed to self-pity. All of this almost causes Morrissey to miss meeting his great artistic foil by ignoring the suggestion that he ring a gifted guitarist in search of a singer, one Johnny Marr – a breezy, straight-shooting lad who will eventually rectify the situation by chapping on Morrissey’s door one day in May 1982, thus changing music forever.
“When I started doing the research and realised how they’d met,” explains Gill, “I thought, what an ending to a film that’d be. And then it was just a case of getting a snapshot. I didn’t want to do the kid bit, and I don’t want to do The Smiths bit.
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“It very quickly became a film about Steven and the birth of artistic struggle. How do you break out of a town that’s trying to make you like everybody else? How do you be yourself? You’re drowning in a world you don’t feel like you belong in and like any drowning person you grab at things to keep you afloat.
“For him the obvious things were music and books but mostly strong women. I hadn’t realised how important his mum was. That all became the real focus of the film.”
Gill’s relationship with The Smiths goes deep. The terrific chiming, jangling, clanging riffs of Johnny Marr inspired Gill to buy a guitar, leading to a career in music that included playing with Peter Hook’s late-’90s New Order side-project Monaco, before training as a film-maker. He lays a trail of textual and visual Easter eggs for Smiths fans to follow throughout England Is Mine, alluding to lyrics, record sleeves, Morrissey’s artistic inspirations and other origin story-style iconography.
“There’s one shot in the film that’s literally a Smiths lyric from the bottom of the frame to the top,” says Lowden. But England Is Mine is surprisingly accessible even to someone who knows little of The Smiths, in the sense that it addresses universal aspects of the frail young male psyche.
I wonder how many people you meet in your life have this incredible version of themselves in their head?
Lowden – who also stars as an RAF pilot in Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk – only got into The Smiths after being cast, yet had no trouble getting into the character of young Steven. “It was more about Steven Patrick Morrissey than Morrissey,” the 27-year-old stresses. “So it was fine because on the page they had written this very hesitant young man and that was very easy to get into. I mean, when you basically are a very hesitant young man that’s easy.
“He has no self-confidence but at the same time he’s got all the self-confidence in the world. Because he has an opinion, he has an angle but he just won’t implement it. I wonder how many people you meet in your life have this incredible version of themselves in their head? They fantasise about it, they’re very close to letting it out, maybe when they have a pint it comes out ever so slightly. Imagine if everybody played that version of themselves?”
Gill adds: “He is one of the most authentic people I’ve ever seen – he just doesn’t care. He obviously wants people to buy his records but he’s never going to shirk saying something because he thinks it might affect his career. Is there anybody else like that in the world?
“I don’t agree with everything he says – but that could be said for anyone. He’s straight through the door, takes it off the hinges sometimes. I think he genuinely wants to be loved. And I think what he’s forgotten is that he is.”
With that in mind, is everyone involved with England Is Mine braced for Morrissey’s – probably withering – reaction? “I’d love him to love it but at the same time I don’t care, if I’m being honest,” shrugs Lowden.
Gill contacted Morrissey at various stages throughout the film-making process but as yet without reply. “I’m not saying we want his blessing,” says Gill, “but we’ve tried to show him the greatest deal of respect.” Johnny Marr – ever the affable ying to Morrissey’s surly yang – was more generous when Gill met him by chance at the Manchester International Festival earlier this year.
Johnny Marr was genuinely warm and genuinely flattered that we’d made a film about them
“He was genuinely warm and genuinely flattered that we’d made a film about them,” Gill reveals. “And he had nothing but nice things to say – he said he knows people that have seen it and heard good things and he wants to see it. And I just said, ‘Well look, thanks for changing my life’. And he gave me a big hug.”
Instead of bashing England Is Mine, wouldn’t the truly unexpected thing be for Morrissey to come out and join Marr in endorsing the film?
“That would be amazing,” Gill smiles, “but I’ve never lived in fear of what he’ll say. Either way, if we get a kicking or he loves it, I’ll frame it and put it on the wall. He’s not going to change my view of the records or the importance he played in my life.”
England Is Mine is in cinemas now