For the sake of transparency, it should be noted that I had a picture of singer/composer/actor/artist PJ Harvey, torn from an old issue of UK music bible Q Magazine, adorning my hormonal teenage bedroom wall. I’ve also seen her perform live three times. I admit that I am a biased fan.
Between 2011 and 2014, PJ Harvey and Irish photojournalist Seamus Murphy travelled to Kosovo, Washington, D.C. and Afghanistan. They were continuing a collaboration that had begun in 2011, when Murphy made 12 short films to accompany PJ Harvey's album ‘Let England Shake’. Murphy has won World Press Photo awards for his work documenting life in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Gaza, Peru, Lebanon; Harvey is celebrated for her nine acclaimed albums.
Their aim was to combine and harness Murphy’s visuals and Harvey’s musical talents to see what they could create on their journey. The two published a book, 'The Hollow of the Hand', together with Murphy’s photographs and Harvey’s notes in 2015. Then Harvey’s acclaimed and politically charged album based on their travels, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, was released in 2016. Now, a new documentary titled ‘A Dog Called Money’, the directorial debut of Murphy, visually captures the artists’ globe-hopping trek as well as the making of ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’.
The documentary follows Harvey and Murphy’s three-part journey (Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan; the rugged landscapes of Kosovo; and the south-east of Washington, D.C.), recounted in footage and poems. Through a mix of reportage and local portraiture, they examine places that experience conflict on a daily basis, wrestling with the realities through their respective creative means - Harvey writing notes, which could become a song for the album or a poem for the book, and Murphy photographing and filming.
Murphy and Harvey visit people and places in search of inspiration; every moment represents a potential opportunity to 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 voiceover. The film opens with a close-up of a child peering into the window of a car, then cuts to a battered cinema. “I’ve heard, 20 years ago, you paid to get into the cinema with bullets,” Harvey enunciates crisply in her Dorset accent. On several occasions, though, her words simply describe what is happening on screen. “All that’s left from the looting, strewn in dust on the floor,” she observes of debris, strewn in dust on the floor of an abandoned house in Kabul. Suddenly, the scene shifts to Washington.
What connects the locations? Not much, apparently. Murphy has been quoted as saying: “I was in Afghanistan already and it was a place that seemed obvious because I’ve got a long history with it. D.C. made sense because it’s the source of Western power which, in many ways, decides the fate of Kosovo and Afghanistan, and yet it has its own problems.” It's probably no coincidence that Harvey was on tour in Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, the same day that she won the Mercury prize for her album ‘Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’ - she phoned in her acceptance speech while looking out of her hotel window, seeing armoured vehicles driving up the street and the Pentagon on fire.
While PJ Harvey's songs certainly have a strong impact, none of the locations are explored in any real depth and the choice of material sometimes fails to tie back into the music.
Murphy's cinematography throughout the documentary is excellent, but his director's gaze constantly changes, flickering over the characters and the places visited by Harvey. While her songs certainly have a strong impact, none of the locations are explored in any real depth, and the choice of material sometimes fails to tie back into the music. The inclusion of footage of Donald Trump supporters towards the end of the documentary not only feels out of place (considering the timeframe of the album’s creation and his election), but it’s odd when you remember that Harvey has eschewed easy anti-U.S. hectoring in the past.
‘A Dog Called Money’ also allows us to watch the recording of the songs she brought back. As part of an art installation, 'Recording in Progress', members of the public were invited to watch behind a one-way mirror in a purpose-built studio at Somerset House, London as Harvey and musicians crafted ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. This allows the audience to observe the easy-going rapport between the band members (like John Parish and the producer known as Flood), her magnetic performance and her creative process.
This documentary isn’t a profound exploration of PJ Harvey's life outside of the studio; viewers expecting a freer, more sincere portrait of the musician should probably stroll on. Björk once said that Harvey reminded her of Clint Eastwood ("everything is understated”) and as anyone familiar with her music knows, Harvey is revered for what she does not give away and keeping certain doors closed. Apart from her short, inevitably public relationship with Nick Cave (they fell in love while filming the video to their 1996 duet 'Henry Lee'), her private life is unfathomable. In general, someone who does not know the singer or her musical works may find it quite hard to relate to this film or engage with travels that seem only to serve her artistic purposes.
What we are left with is an intriguing snapshot of Harvey’s creative process, but little else. ‘A Dog Called Money’ is less of a portrait of an artist or a travelogue and more of an outline of the relationship between poetry and imagery.