Sparks fly and molten steel bubbles in Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker and director Martin Wallace’s poetic homage to Sheffield’s steel industry, The Big Melt (2013). Images and clips are welded together to Cocker’s eloquent, soaring score for a spellbinding film which opened last year’s DocFest, whilst also having been designed to commemorate 100 years of steelmaking in the northern city. The Big Melt dexterously navigates the English city’s long history of steel production, blending archive footage from the BFI collection, with public information videos, animations, documentary clips and educational videos make up the bulk of the glorious footage on show.
Everything from titanic feats of engineering to more humble images of young northern lads giving two fingers to Wallace’s curious camera draws the audience in. The political is pushed firmly into the background. There’s no agenda here; if anything, The Big Melt is more concerned with the nostalgia towards community that both of the filmmakers feel towards their home city. Cocker and Wallace aren’t rallying the unions to action, although there is more than a tinge of sadness as to the city’s decline after the closure of the steel mills during Britain’s brutal Thatcher era, in stark contrast to the post-war boon years. As well as kindling a strong sense of camaraderie, the film also reveals a fascination with the raw materials involved.
We watch extended clips of mechanical behemoths grind and grizzle like ageing joints, as rivers of amber liquid steel flow from arc furnaces into colossal crucibles, ready to be cooled and hammered into a plethora of shapes and forms. It all looks surprisingly alien and otherworldly, with only the presence of the charcoal-faced workers reminding us of the human element of the production process. Humour also plays a key role in keeping us gripped to the on screen action, giving an intimate portrait of labourers during their time off in their local pub, or watching a munitions girl load ammunition in the forties.
This is an ambitious, humbling and incredibly human piece. It reminds us of a time when workers were proud to work with their hands, in brutally hard, demanding industries. When the film was initially screened at DocFest, Cocker – along with the City of Sheffield Brass Band and Youth Orchestra and other local musicians – performed the score live to a packed-out public audience. This performance has now been fused with the original documentary footage, the marriage of the two beguiling to behold. A mesmeric triumph, Cocker and Wallace’s The Big Melt is a noble tip of the cap to Britain’s industrial past.