Redemption is massive. It’s part and parcel of screenwriting 101. You put a guy in a tree, you throw sticks and rocks at him and then you get him down. You want to see him survive and get out of it.”
Michael Dowse is talking up his movie, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, a new mockumentary opening this week. The Canadian-British co-production is the story of Frankie Wilde, a DJ living an all-out bacchanalian lifestyle in Ibiza, the Spanish-Mediterranean paradise long known for its hedonistic dance culture. Wilde lives fast, crashes hard and struggles to reassert himself and his natural talent on the turntables. It’s all about his redemption, though it manages not to get too heavy along the way.
The days of Wilde (played by British comedian Paul Kaye) concern sun, sex, drugs and dancing. Having a good time all the time is his cause celebre. His sleazy manager, Max (Toronto-born comic Mike Wilmot) sets him up with gigs and girls while Wilde is adored for his mad mixing skills. Yet despite the round-the-clock party, he somehow finds the time for a family and produces an Austrian metal band in his home studio.
“It’s a bit about the rock and roll culture of opulence,” says Dowse. “These DJs have dream lifestyles, they get to tour the world. They’re gods in England.”
It’s All Gone Pete Tong is Cockney rhyming slang for “it’s all gone wrong.” The Pete Tong of the title is a scratch DJ, former A&R man and legend in Europe where he was one of the disseminators of house music in the early ’90s on his Friday night BBC Radio One show Essential Selection. He shows up in the film as himself, along with other DJs of note, including Barry Ashworth and Sarah Main, giving it that extra edge of authenticity.
Walking into the picture blind, you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as a deft mix of reality and fiction (giant stoned badgers notwithstanding, but more on that later) not a far cry from last year’s Incident at Loch Ness or Dowse’s first feature from 2000, Fubar. The trailers claim It’s All Gone Pete Tong is based on a true story and though the 31-year-old Dowse neither confirms nor denies this detail there are plenty of odd, slightly exaggerated “facts” in the director’s bio he’s happy to clear up. It claims he’s a Yale grad, and he lives in Montreal with his wife and six kids.
“I never went to Yale,” says Dowse, with no hint of remorse for the official lie. “It’s an old bio. I like to make shit up.”
Dowse went to the University of Calgary, and played on the school’s football team—he recalls being soundly drubbed by Saint Mary’s Huskies linebackers on a visit to Halifax some years ago. Also, Dowse doesn’t have six children. In fact, he and his wife are expecting their firstborn. The only bit of factual material in the bio is his residence: he lives in Montreal.
What is true is Dowse has worked as an editor, and has been making short films since high school in Alberta, largely with Dave Lawrence and Paul Spence, his leads from Fubar, the cult classic of sorts that was almost completely improvised while the cameras were rolling. Lawrence and Spence still regularly collaborate on new writing projects with Dowse, so it was a no-brainer that they’d have roles in Pete Tong: they are the Austrian metal band Wilde produces.
“He had these two characters that were pals and seemed to be a good fit,” says Spence on the phone from Montreal, referring to his and Lawrence’s metal musicians. “We got a couple days work out of it, but more memorably we got to go to Spain for five days all expenses paid. That was the best part of it—I’d never been to Europe before.”
Lawrence and Spence have become minor celebrities in Nova Scotia for a series of anti-smoking TV ads and now they’ve published a self-help guide, the tour behind which came through town last week. While It’s All Gone Pete Tong is making a splash, they have other new projects with Dowse up their collective sleeves. Expect a film comedy from them in the near future called Cult-De-Sac, about a cult leader with plans to clone himself. Dowse says he may also have work in Hollywood, though he’s reluctant to get too excited by the prospect. “I’m going down that road,” he says. “I might be doing a project for Dreamworks. It would be great but I’m not holding my breath.”
Dowse’s approach for Pete Tong was certainly more in line with a traditional Hollywood comedy, despite the European setting and multinational funding. He toned down the improvisation of Fubar, for a less seat-of-your-pants production.
“It was about 60-40 towards what was written in the script,” Dowse says. He says he encourages improvisation, to a point. “When you’re using a lot of improv, editing is huge—it’s another voice.”
That voice is loud and clear in Pete Tong, particularly in the first act, as we tag along with Frankie through the frantic visuals and an almost skit-like structure. As Wilde, Kaye does have his moments. Plastered with an ecstasy-fried perma-grin he skips from interview to magazine cover photo-shoot to orgy and, on occasion, comes off quite the dense and selfish prick.
But Dowse says he is attracted to the idea of the loveable asshole. “It’s a huge thing,” he says. “I wrote him as a sympathetic character.”
Whether or not you sympathize with Wilde’s trials there is a suggestion, during his brief sober moments, of a sweet relationship with his daughter. Dowse compares Wilde’s parental kindness to Ray Winstone’s Gal, the gangster with a soft heart who retires to Spain and has a friendship with the local pool boy in Jonathan Glazer’s gangster drama Sexy Beast. Though tonally on different planets, there are weird similarities between the two films. Besides sharing sun-touched Spanish locales, both pictures feature strange, hallucinogenic animals. A desert bunny walking like a man haunts the fringes of Sexy Beast, and in Pete Tong, it’s a giant, grunting badger in a pink apron with telltale white powder all over its snout. It is a frightening creation. Dowse explains the badger as Wilde’s nemesis, an oversized symbol of his cocaine addiction that must be overcome.
“Yeah, I thought of Sexy Beast, and Donnie Darko,” says Dowse. “I just wanted to do the drug side of the story more comically. Drugs are taken so seriously in movies. Obviously, drugs are bad, but I wanted to show that through comedy.”
The film takes a sharp turn in the second and third acts after Wilde burns out and discovers a serious problem with his hearing. It’s not clearly explained whether it’s a result of the years of pounding rhythm or his other extreme appetites but with the surcease of his DJ abilities the party is over: his manager, his wife and his fame desert him. In a strangely sad and funny moment, Wilde gets the news his wife is leaving him for one of his friends, but he’s so zoned he and the friend just sit and watch TV while his wife packs her bags.
As the picture settles to a more reflective and serious character study, Wilde struggles to redirect his life and find new ways of making music. The distinction between the beginning and end is not unlike between Saturday night and Sunday morning, and may surprise some with a slightly didactic frame. Fortunately for Wilde, there is still fun to be had as he meets a lip-reading teacher (Beatriz Batarda) who shares his undiminished passion for drinking in the afternoon.
It’s a story familiar to fans of 24-Hour Party People or Human Traffic, though with the vivid locale and the satirical jab at dance culture, It’s All Gone Pete Tong is a wild comedy with a dark undercurrent, and another cult sensation to follow Fubar is easy to imagine. Chemically charged club creatures and casual hip-shakers still scuff disco floors worldwide, moving their collective booty to the newest DJs—It’s All Gone Pete Tong is a gift to them, cautionary tale, redemptive hero and all.