Filmmaker Ben Lowe on his new Razorlight documentary

A new documentary premiering at Raindance Film Festival this week, Fall To Pieces, not only explores the rapid rise and capitulation of Razorlight, but also plays something of an active role in their recent reunion.

Razorlight

The indie-rockers found huge success with their debut and follow-up album in the mid-noughties and quickly ascended, to headlining Reading Festival and supporting the likes of Oasis and The Rolling Stones. But with such a quick climb to the summit of the British music circuit, came an intensity that perhaps none of them could fully cope with at the time, placing enormous pressures on the original members in the process.

In March 2009, drummer Andy Burrows left the band, citing the booze-fueled antics of touring life and more ambiguous “personal reasons” as to why. The band would continue, fronted still by Johnny Borrell, but never truly hit the heights of their first two records

Last year, Burrows and Borrell reunited after more than a decade not speaking to each other, and various public criticisms of each other. Fall To Pieces captures the exact moment of their reunion – as well as traces the story of what it means to be a band, how the music industry has evolved, and looks ahead to the new era of Razorlight. We speak to the film’s director, Ben Lowe, about this unique project.

Razorlight Rolling Stones

When did the initial idea for the film come about? And what was it that drew you to the story of Razorlight? 

In 2019 I’d made a film called The Gaffer for BT Sport which was my first feature documentary. Someone from that project recommended I think about using those skills of earning people’s trust, getting close to a subject and find a band that had experience of the highs and the lows.

I’ve always thought it’s probably much harder to tell the story of Coldplay, whose first album comes out and is a massive success, and it’s a massive success ever since. To find jeopardy and a success story is quite difficult. But with Razorlight it was probably what a lot of people had felt like, who were wondering what had happened to that band.

Around the same time, somebody from Universal contacted me and said, ‘You’ve done a lot of work with bands, do you want to take a look at this Razorlight archive and see what you think?’ So it was like the stars aligned.

Razorlight

You mentioned that idea of trust. The films feels like, on one level, a documentary, but on another you feel like quite a big part of it because you’re almost creating the reunion between Johnny and Andy. How planned was that reunion?

I can remember vividly how it happened. My initial intrigue of Razorlight’s archive explored: how did Johnny Borrell go from the front cover of Vogue to someone who was made fun of when his solo album sold like 500 [594] copies in its first week, and tabloid press and music press had a field day laughing about it? So the taster was all about Johnny.

The thing that was interesting about Razorlight at that moment was that Björn [Ågren], the Swedish guitarist, had rejoined the band. So I was thinking, ‘Maybe this could lead somewhere in long-term’. In the back of my head, there was a story there even if it’s between Johnny and Björn.

But as I started to hear Johnny’s side of the story, I thought it was unfair to not hear from Andy, specifically. Johnny wasn’t really critical of Carl [Dalemo], the bassist, who left at the same time as Björn in early 2011. But it was what he said about Andy, which I felt a little bit uncomfortable with; not so much what he was saying – he was there and experienced it, and I wasn’t – but there was definitely a feeling of me needing to get Andy’s side of the story, otherwise it’s not a fair telling.

Johnny Borrell

You felt you had to give both sides of the story…

Totally. I was on tour with Muse in 2019 when [Andy] performed a few times before them as one of their special guests. I’d passed Andy backstage a few times and he had a really good aura about him – in a similar way Johnny did around him. So through friends of friends, I got it out to Andy whether he’d be interested in contributing. I knew it was an acrimonious split so it was a good chance he wouldn’t want anything to do with it.

But we just kept talking on the phone for a long time. That trust with Andy was a lot harder to build because I went from exploring the idea Razorlight, but focusing on Johnny, and I think Andy was initially quite nervous to talk about it. He was naturally apprehensive to go somewhere he’d moved on from. That seems to be quite a common experience I’ve had with musicians: they’re all obsessed with looking forward and not revisiting the past, a lot of creative people can be like that.

With Andy, it was a lot of time we spent on the phone before we ever met. I think he was getting to know me as a person and realising I wasn’t in this to create drama, this was absolutely not going to be a Made In Chelsea-esque showdown with me cruelly producing it to purposely create more tension on  both sides so hopefully they argue on-camera. I never have been and never will be that kind of director. The idea of him meeting Johnny was never on the table. It was really to get his side of the story. But we did meet. And we did those interviews. Like Johnny, he’s really affable, has a brilliant sense of humour, and I liked him as a person.

Johnny Borrell

Then I felt I was this neutral party in the middle that’d had only good experiences with Johnny, and only good experiences with Andy, but they’d still talk about each other very negatively to me. That’s when I started to think, with the pandemic that happened at the start of the making of the film, ‘You guys must surely have more in common that connects you in a positive way, than what divides you?’ I just said it to them on a human level, ‘I think you guys should meet and talk about it’.

How did you actually go about building trust, especially with Andy? 

To me, that’s the most important thing in making a documentary: having the subject trust you to tell their story. It’s such a privilege to tell somebody’s story because a documentary is real and it should be unfiltered. [The reunion] was 100% never part of the planning of the film. I’ve never felt so apprehensive than driving into it, thinking that if this thing goes badly, both these people who I like a lot would probably end up blaming me, because I was encouraging it.

To move onto the film itself: it feels like a film of two halves. You have the story of the band and the fallout, then you have the coming together. Why do you think the band split up for the period they did? 

I think it’s 100% as [people in the film] point out: they had too much, too soon. That acceleration hadn’t given the band time to settle into being a successful band on the rise. I think when you rise up that fast, your perspective of what normal is can’t be right; if you’re going on tour with U2, The Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi, what’s normal to those super bands is not going to be normal to most bands.

Andy Burrows

You often only get one shot, as a band, as an artist, so if all these brilliant, exciting things are happening, why would you not go for it? That is, quite obviously, the problem: they went so fast, so quickly. From filming and working with other bands that have had a little bit of that experience, it’s a complete and utter blur.

You have to remember that [Razorlight] were in their mid-20s when all this stuff was going on. I think most people in their mid-20s are still figuring out what it’s like to be an adult. One of the key things I recognised, and what I said to Johnny, was I think they should chat as grown-up men who are now in their early 40s. It was so clear they never talked when they were in the band; never opened-up about how they were really feeling.

As a filmmaker and as a person, how did it actually feel on the way to them meeting? 

It definitely felt surreal. All the way through that trip to France, it was fun to be around Johnny and Andy separately, because I knew them as separate musicians; it was only when there was a possibility they might actually talk together, it felt like ‘Oh my goodness’.

Andy is one of my favourite drummers in my lifetime. He’s an absolute gorilla on the drums, and is so talented as a songwriter. And I feel strongly about Johnny; class is permanent and he’s so naturally cool, he’s the real deal. As I was going over with Andy, that was probably the first moment where I felt like, whatever happens, I’m glad we got that far because it’s a nice moment to experience. I’ll be forever grateful to Johnny and Andy that they trusted me to follow that instinct I had. Forget the film, the two of them talking it through is a good thing.

Johnny Borrell and Andy Burrows

What was the biggest challenge you faced overall in making this film, then? 

Having to do it pretty much completely by myself. I’d much prefer to collaborate with a super talented editor, who’s got a fresh pair of eyes, and a new perspective on the footage. I think the loneliness associated with making something so independently is hard – on a financial level, on a confidence level, because you’ve only got your own [judgment].

I wasn’t sharing it with anyone but the band really. Every so often, I’d share it with the record label, who had given up on the idea several times; it was passed around between different departments, but I really believed in it, so it became a passion project.

That’s why I’m so grateful to Razorlight, and to Roger [Morton, Razorlight’s manager] and people like Kumar [Kamalagharan, Razorlight’s tour manager] that they were willing to help tell the story, were happy to do an interview for an hour, and point me in the direction of archive they’d stored.

Razorlight

And Razorlight now have a forthcoming best of album (Razorwhat? The Best Of Razorlight), out on 9 December, with two new tracks. How excited are you for them now the four core original members are back together?

I’m thrilled for them. That feels like the biggest win from the film, that hopefully it’s made them realise that it’s fun what they did, and it’s fun what they’re getting to do again now. As long as they listen to each other’s feelings, hopefully things be okay. There’s definitely something super special between Johnny and Andy as songwriters; they’re quite different in some of the stuff they write, but when they come together, there seems to be a magic.

For them to do songwriting every day over Skype, which features in the film, that’s beyond a dream come true for me. The idea that not only are they getting along again and have buried the hatchet, but they are really enjoying being back together creatively.

Well, you did that; or at least played a very significant role in that. So how does that feel? 

I played a small part in them being open to talk to each other. Perhaps the stars aligned and that just happened to be at the same time the film was being made. The whole reason I’m proud of the film is because they trusted me as a documentary maker. I really pride myself on doing things for real, authentically. You can see [in the film] how simple the setup was, for them to walk into and have that conversation. That’s all on purpose because I want people to know it’s real, that there’s no ulterior motive, no agenda, no storyboard.

Johnny Borrell and Andy Burrows

Going into making a film, you have to go with the flow, but the only way for it to be authentic is just to let it happen. That’s why I hope when people get to see the film – when you see these two guys talking for the first time in 11 years – it does pull on your heartstrings, it is funny, it is awkward. It’s all the things you imagine it would be if you fall out badly with someone and then speak to them a decade later in France.

And finally, how excited are you now for debuting this film at Raindance Film Festival? 

I’m delighted, and I’ll be forever grateful to Raindance. One of my biggest inspirations growing up was, and still is, Edgar Wright. He is a creative genius but also a lovely person; two things I admire massively and equally. This festival also has a connection and history to Christopher Nolan, and there’s so many talented people that have come through Raindance.

So to have produced a documentary pretty much solo that has been selected to premiere at Raindance in its 30th year is a huge privilege and also a win for not giving up – because they brilliantly give a platform to independent films, possibly more any other festival in the world.

This is a completely Raindance film in the spirit of how it has ultimately been made. It certainly became a passion project, and wasn’t a nice experience to feel very alone with it at times. But rule number one is to back yourself, if you believe in something. When Johnny and Andy hit that crossroads in France, when it really could’ve gone either way, I’m so happy that two good guys decided to choose love and forgiveness to give their friendship a second shot.


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