On Saturday, 13 February, to celebrate the release of their new studio album, As The Love Continues, Mogwai broadcast a premiere live performance from Glasgow’s Tramway venue. In the brief introduction, Stuart Braithwaite remarks, “the main thing I love about being in a band is playing concerts.” It sets up hefty expectations that we’re about to see that love and excitement burst forth from the screen when the band get back up on a stage.
Mogwai play the album front-to-back, in order, thus reproducing its pleasures and flaws exactly. The album is a worthy listen, and the good songs are still good live. The only differences live were the muting of game-changing contributions by Atticus Ross (“Midnight Flit”) and Colin Stetson (“Pat Stains”). “Ritchie Sacramento” gains a little heft, while “Dry Fantasy” remained inconsequential. If you hadn’t heard the album, it was a worthwhile night at an amazingly reasonable fifteen quid per ticket.
But if this were all about the music, then it wouldn’t be a film. A film isn’t primarily a sonic event, it’s a visual one, and while the album is solid, the live premiere fell short. For a start, Mogwai decided not to make music videos or to use filmed backdrops, animations or props — so the only visual shift between songs was the lights changed. Here’s an honest blow-by-blow account of on-stage action: “red light”, “blue light”, “sparkle star lights”, “round orange lights”, “slow-wave pink/purple”, and “white strobe for loud bits.”
Mogwai similarly declined the possibilities of camera effects. Instead of a genuinely naturalistic approach, however, they used them tentatively — a fishbowl lens on “Supposedly, We Were Nightmares”; a spiraling camera on “Midnight Flit” and “Drive the Nail” — making them awkward novelties rather than a bold, sustained aesthetic. Oddly, Mogwai also refused to make this feel “live”. Forty minutes passed before a stray angle gave a sense of the room. I cheered when a cameraman appeared in a shot late in the set. The only live room ambience came on the drums during “Pat Stains”. Otherwise, it felt like Mogwai were miming to a backing tape while suspended in emptiness. It was disappointing, like contemplating a mannequin where Auguste Rodin’s Adam should be.
In the absence of set design, tangible space, film technique, two things remain: musicians’ bodies and instruments — and that’s often enough. The indie-rock aesthetic has always been to scorn spectacle in favor of energy, communion, and connection. It’s not Mogwai’s fault that energy was lacking without 50,000 watts of amplifier melting faces, and it isn’t their fault COVID blocked the connection audience/audience-audience/band. But it was telling that the one moment where the band were seen to speak, it was rendered without sound and cut swiftly to black. A round of applause from those in the room to the band was the only interaction left on film. It was solipsistic, purely for the band’s benefit. Otherwise, Mogwai made zero attempts to commune with the unseen audience at home.
When it came to connection, there were fundamental malfunctions. Mogwai don’t care about being interesting to look at. Watch Freddie Mercury’s 20-minute masterclass at Live Aid — he communicated so much energy to the camera and crowd that the lens could scarcely leave him for a second. Here we got Dominic Aitchison doing his impersonation of a cardboard cut-out. Alex Mackay looks broodingly handsome, but nothing of him as a musician because the camera was unable to go below his chest height in case we saw he had three hands playing the guitar or a jiving Elvis doll where his genitals should be. Bandleader Braithwaite wore a rubber Billy Corgan facemask, the only explanation for his night-long absence of facial expression. Everyone on stage looked like they would rather have been somewhere else. If it isn’t Richie Sambora “making fuckface” during his guitar solos, the guys in Swans grimacing because of the physical strain of making the music, then all that’s left is an impassive bunch of librarians.
Connection was also where the camerawork failed. The director felt that shaky DIY punk vibes were passé in 2021 but still went with ‘permanent close up’ and ‘pop video schizophrenic cutting’. That made for lots of serenely controlled two-second shots of absolutely fuck all. Torso. Half an instrument. Blank face. Drum. Computer screen. Arm. Shadow (lots of shadows) — switch lighting and auto-pilot through the sequence again. Instead of intimacy, there was barely a moment where sound and image connected. The critical question for concert filming should be whether an image could only possibly coexist with a specific song or moment — otherwise, what makes it special? This was a random grab-bag of assorted nowhere where any shot could be played under any song.
For comparison, take a look at Prince’s gripping solo (3.30 onward) on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the George Harrison tribute. This clip forced me to acknowledge Prince as one of music’s most consummate performers. Every second in the spotlight, he challenged himself to conquer the audience in the room and at home. Prince embraced the camera’s gaze and stretched his body, space, and instrument as visual intrigue sources. There would have been nothing wrong with close-ups or rapid cutting for Mogwai if cutting to something visually interesting. But Mogwai weren’t interested in putting in the sweat that requires, so the cameras hopped pointlessly in the hope that camera motion could make up for the band’s deathly rigor mortis.
Faced with dull bodies, the cameras could still have given us that connection to the sound being channeled from the instruments. Instead, the camerawork was so hyperactive it was rare to spot the musician whose contribution was in the ascendancy, while poor framing meant too many bored faces and too few active hands. The director refused to see any musical phrase through to completion. You’d recognize the hand movements picking out a guitar or keyboard part, then the camera would jump, and the rest of the phrase would come from somewhere out of shot. Also, few shots were encompassing more than a single musician, so almost no sense of people performing together, as opposed to strangers accidentally sharing space.
Across the hour, it was possible to count the genuinely great images on the one hand. Amid “Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever”, there was a shot that lingered long enough we saw an entire line play out on guitar. In “Drive the Nail”, two band members stamped effects pedals in perfect sync, and “Ceiling Granny” had a shot from the side of the stage with all four guitarists ranked up. The best came during ‘Pat Stains’ with Braithwaite perched on a stool and the lighting rendering each movement of his fingers in silhouette. Beyond that, Martin Bulloch was the most watchable element because eye and ear could connect to what he was doing in “Drive the Nail”, framed against a backdrop of strobes. There was also a perfect close-up of a cymbal on “Ceiling Granny”, and close-ups on “It’s What I Want to Do, Mum” ricocheting across his kit.
For an encore, Mogwai chose “How to Be a Werewolf” (white strobes all the way) and “Like Herod”. OK. I try, I REALLY try, to avoid being one of those irksome fans who constantly wishes Mogwai had any interest in their Young Team-era sound. But here are the facts: “Like Herod” was the one simmering moment of intensity in the whole set. The one moment when anyone on stage look liked (a) breaking a sweat (b) god forbid, enjoying themselves. The only two moments when my partner jumped out of her skin in surprise. It was the only song that had me so enraptured I forgot my notepad. Suddenly every half-obscure image worked. The lighting was set to “the building’s on fire”, and from the first notes, everything felt louder, hotter, as one watched/heard Mogwai cruelly blowing their own album off the stage.
Ultimately, as a filmed experience, what was on display was a paucity of ambition. Mogwai gave up on stagecraft, set design, and film technique, even suggesting that playing their music gave them joy. Watching a live show via a screen is an artificial experience. Still, if you refuse to embrace that artificiality, if you won’t commit to the creation of a spectacle, then you’re left with pretty lights. There was nothing that indicated there’d been time taken to familiarize the cameramen with the material or any effort to plan how to bind the visual and sonic layers compellingly. Mogwai proved on “Like Herod” that you don’t have to be Prince or Freddie Mercury to give a filmed performance that rises above “watchably average”. But it does require a band that doesn’t look like their own album premiere is a matter of disinterest.