While the bulk of British pop act Saint Etienne's stateside notoriety emanates from their unlikely early-career cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," in their native England the band is considered something of a kitchen-sink drama institution, canonizing London's peculiar distant apathy in the lazy strains of singer Sarah Cracknell's deadpan Prozac stare. They are pop stars in that strictly British kind of way.
Conceived as both an ambitious travelogue and a way to spend the money that Saint Etienne might spend on three promo videos, Finisterre is an odd proposition indeed. For one hour, in a dry documentary tone, director Paul Kelly compiles moving snapshots of the London that everybody sees, but few care to talk about. Dour testimonials from music and arts notables underscore images of urban and suburban decay to piece together a story of 24 hours of London life, soundtracked (of course) by Saint Etienne. This is not the tidy postcard of Blur's Parklife, but rather a public-television, pseudo-political treatise on what's fallen through the cracks in this historic metropolis. And, for the most part, it's quite good.
"Lenin, Marx, Dylan, Oasis," drones the narrator, drawing a path of zigzagged touchstones. And when the words "Ziggy Stardust" are uttered, an image of Jesus hangs on the screen for a difficult juxtaposition. Discussions of the "impact of the environment on the quality of life," while rain lubricates hasty urban shuffling, are followed by a simple edict: "Escape. Escape. Escape."
Originally, the images from Finisterre were commissioned as a backdrop for the band's tour to promote the 2002 album of the same name. The word itself means "the end of the world" and Kelly does a fair job portraying just that, paying homage to a "city built on expectations" and a city that "doesn't really exist anymore." By the time darkness comes around and the city lights up, even standard methods of recreation come into question. "Drink until you don't remember" implores the stream-of-consciousness narration. "The daytime coward and the nighttime dancer" overlap in a pool of poetic remorse. "Text me, tempt me," "One drink too many, one time too often."
But amid the tattoos, piercings and graffiti reading "Welcome to Hell" is a quiet hum of respect, only sometimes buoyed by occasional pop flourishes from the band. London is a city that's been destroyed and rebuilt, reviled and adored, and anything short of the complex honesty portrayed here would be a lie, or worse, a travel brochure. By taking the time to show montages of children shyly smiling and commerce on the river Thames ("a wishing well"), Saint Etienne and Kelly show that while indeed England's dream may be over, its life, and the little shining bits that comprise it, is clearly not.