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BERLINALE 2019 Panorama

Review: A Dog Called Money


- BERLIN 2019: Seamus Murphy's PJ Harvey documentary is sumptuously shot, but struggles to choose a precise narrative path and lacks consistency

Review: A Dog Called Money
PJ Harvey in A Dog Called Money

Yesterday, Kino International hosted the world premiere of the Irish-British documentary A Dog Called Money [+see also:
film profile
, directed by filmmaker and photographer Seamus Murphy and presented in the Panorama section of the 69th Berlinale. Murphy's debut feature opens with a child’s face pressed against the window of a car in which British musician PJ Harvey and the director himself are sitting. It is a beautiful shot, which arouses the viewer’s curiosity – one of many, in fact. The documentary follows PJ Harvey's search for inspiration and the rehearsals for her album The Hope Six Demolition Project. Murphy follows the singer in three main locations: Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan; the rugged landscapes of Kosovo; and the south-east of Washington, DC.

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Back in London, PJ Harvey decides to work on her album in a purpose-built studio that also serves as a kind of peep show, allowing the audience to observe her performances and her entire creative process. Viewers will see the musician constantly travelling, and visiting people and places in search of inspiration; every moment represents a potential opportunity to write a new song, find a good title or compose a powerful rhythm. Here, the singer's wanderings and impressions are often accompanied by her thoughts, which can be heard in voice-over. On several occasions, though, her words are repetitive and simply describe what is happening on screen.

From the start, the documentary lacks consistency and cohesion: the director's gaze constantly changes and does not delve deep enough into the characters or the places visited by the artist. Therefore, the interminable sequences of beautiful shots are pleasant enough to look at but rarely tug at the viewer’s heartstrings. In general, someone who does not know the singer or her musical works would find it quite hard to relate to this film. All of the scenes revolve around PJ Harvey, her band and her album; her travels seem only to serve her artistic purposes, and consequently, the movie struggles to touch on more universal themes that could have enhanced its potential beyond her fan base.

Furthermore, the documentary lacks any form of powerful conflict, as we never see the lead character experiencing any kind of crisis or genuine doubtfulness during her creative process. Perhaps it could have benefited from a more profound exploration of PJ Harvey's life outside of the studio, and if it had, viewers could have enjoyed a freer, more sincere portrait of the musician.

On a more positive note, Murphy's cinematography is excellent, and some of PJ Harvey's songs certainly have a strong impact. Overall, the feeling is that the film had great potential and a significant amount of decent footage, but additional work should have been carried out in order to guarantee a more coherent narrative, as well as a deeper, more mature insight into the artist's life and creative process (here only hinted at by the conversations with her band, and her on- and off-screen comments).

A Dog Called Money was produced by Pulse Films (UK), JW Films (UK) and Blinder Films (Ireland) in association with Somerset House (UK). The film is being sold worldwide by Autlook Filmsales (Austria).

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