The renowned Roger Sargent – music photographer at the NME and cult indie band The Libertines’ official photographer and friend – directs The Libertines: There Are No Innocent Bystanders (2011), an engaging yet hum-drum documentation of the group’s eagerly anticipated 2010 reunion. If you’re expecting the usual tabloid fodder footage of bust-ups, Pete Doherty’s drug-taking antics and band members talking to mice, then you might be a little disappointed with what’s on offer here. Sargent has clearly been there throughout The Libertines’ stellar rise to fame, and thus directs this with an overly sensitive, often undramatic eye.
We’re given an awful lot of footage of the boys rehearsing for their upcoming tour, discussing song order and chords and smoking a lot, in a manner reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ rehearsals in Jean-Luc Godard’s bizarre Sympathy for the Devil (1968). The familiar line to take with these scenes is to say “If you’re a fan, you’ll love this”, yet even the most fervent admirers may struggle to retain interest in parts. In one scene, controversial frontman Pete Doherty drops a Rubik’s cube into his tea – the most exciting thing to have happened for twenty minutes.
One-on-one interviews with the band members are more engaging, particularly the full-length interview with Doherty in the DVD’s special features, wherein he discusses his theories on Arcadia and being a ‘libertine’. One assumes that Sargent, as friend and artistic collaborator, is trying to show a different side to the band, away from familiar representations. However, in doing so the filmmaker presents us with a fairly dull look at a band with personal differences who created something particularly unique that captured the public’s imagination, ended in an untimely manner, and was followed up by individual projects of inferior success.
Some parts of There Are No Innocent Bystanders are better than others. The sections which follow co-frontman Carl Barat’s tour of East London are interesting, as we get a strong sense of the city’s artistic geography. A particularly amusing moment occurs when the lady selling bagels in Brick Lane’s Beigel Shop unblinkingly tells him off, seemingly unaware of who he is. Barat’s emotional engagement with the band and his awareness of what they meant to people, culturally or otherwise, is also fairly touching. He is visibly moved by fans’ graffiti, and you can sense the unspoken disappointment when Doherty doesn’t turn up to rehearsals.
The Libertines, for many, are characterised by vibrancy and energy, something which is sorely missing in the pacing of Sargent’s documentary. However, all is almost forgotten when we get to the live footage towards the end of the film. Seeing the band perform on-stage, shot against a familiar festival sky-line of clouds and setting sun, is undeniably a helluva lot of fun. Pete, Carl and the boys clearly had something, whether you like them or not, and There Are No Innocent Bystanders just about remains an engaging insight into their music and personal differences.