By Liam Lacey
“What was it all about? I’m going to show you,” says Michael Caine, recalling the days of Alfie and the London cultural moment which raised the bespectacled Cockney actor to unexpected stardom.
Without any aspirations to deep analysis or comprehensiveness, David Batty’s documentary, My Generation is an enjoyable 85-minute archival immersion in the visual and musical culture of swinging London in the 1960s. Caine, now 85, is the narrator, but we also have voice-over contributions from various acquaintances: Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Twiggy and Mary Quant among others, who appear on camera as their young and lovely selves and are heard off-camera in conversation with Caine. Collectively, they chronicle a decade when London was a youthful global style-setter in art, fashion and music. Why do the clothes and haircuts still look so good? Were the fires of creative excess held in by the tradition of fine English tailoring perhaps?
Loosely modelled on Peter Whitehead’s 1967 cult film, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, the film divides into three chapters: incipient change in “Something in the Air,” the mid-60s peak, “I Feel Free,” and the inevitable crash “All Was Not As It Seemed,” which chronicles the price of excess and the Establishment backlash, employing the sort of hyperactive editing that used to scream “bad trip.”
"We'd pushed for change, and now change was pushing us back,” intones Caine in the sometimes stiffly scripted narration.
The “generation” of the title is a chronologically sprawling group who reached adulthood somewhere between the late-1940s to the late-60s. It includes hair stylist Vidal Sassoon (b. 1928), actor Caine (1933), fashion designer Quant (1934), photographer David Bailey (b. 1938) plus war babies The Beatles (b. 1940-1943), The Who’s Pete Townshend, composer of the song “My Generation” (b. 1945), singer Faithfull (b. 1946) and teen model, Twiggy (b. 1949).
Along with people, we have brief sketches of Radio Caroline (the off-shore pirate radio station), talk of the Pill, and a survey of photography (the "black trinity" of fashion photographers Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy). And we see the crowds around the fashion meccas (Biba’s, Mary Quant’s Bazaar) of the time. Various middle-aged scolds (Tory MP Gerald Nabarro in a hilarious handlebar moustache) grumble about standards falling everywhere.
Perhaps most interesting, for those of this side of the pond, is how much the English saw the youthquake of the 1960s in terms of a class revolution. Caine, born Maurice Micklewhite, was the son of a charwoman and a fish-market porter, and he is conscious of his success as changing the old order. He recalls how he landed the role of an officer in the film Zulu (1964) only because it was directed by an American, Cy Endfield. An English director wouldn’t have considered him, despite his nine years in repertory theatre playing all kinds of roles.
“Suddenly people realized the working class wasn’t as thick as it looked,” says McCartney, about the new status of the working-class artist.
Youth and working-class rose hand-in-hand: “It was the first time the future was shaped by young people,” says Caine, with the obligatory caveat that youth is a state of mind, not years.
This rose-coloured backward glance, fun while it lasts, comes with a depressing after-kick. The great working-class British Isles actors of the 60s — Caine, his roommate, Terrence Stamp, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Irishmen Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole, Rita Tushingham — were a new representation of how English film stars could talk and look. In just a few years of contemporary conservative Britain, though, these kind of performers have largely been replaced by a privileged group who can afford drama school fees and risky careers, namely, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, and Dominic West.
My Generation may be fluffy nostalgia but it touches on a painful truth about a generation’s aspirations raised and dashed again.
My Generation. Directed by Dick Batty. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Opens September 28 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and October 1 through 4 at the Bytowne in Ottawa.