His Name Is Caine
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor ANDREW COLMAN takes a look at new documentary, My Generation, directed by David Batty and featuring Michael Caine, out now on DVD…
The 1960s, more than any other decade in the last century, has had the longest legacy, the greatest attention and above all the most nostalgia. Cultural commentators have often labelled it the decade with the strongest character, a definitive, rubicon-crossing period which dispensed with many societal rules and generated widespread individualism. It went out of fashion in the late 70s, but became the focal point of pop culture again a decade or so later, with the people who had lived through it, having taken charge of the media, perpetuating the narrative and mythology.
In many ways it deserves some of the hype, although to those (like myself) who weren’t there but lived through the endless revivals and programs devoted to that decade ever since (step forward, BBC4) it’s a far too familiar tale, the footage a cosy, familiar friend that has at times outstayed its welcome – Lord John on Carnaby Street, Biba, The ’67 Be In, hippies dancing in Hyde Park, Sta Prest, Ben Shermans and tidy haircuts giving way to beads, flakiness, and unkempt weirdness. The Beatles and The Stones and The Who, all young, feisty and idealized. Would that we had been there, which is more or less the point.
Michael Caine, now in his umpteenth anecdotage, decided that the story of that glorious decade was worth one last retelling. And why not? Caine, perhaps the most cherished of all English actors (and my favourite one, as it happens) has earnt it. Although the project comes across as one for posterity, it starts well enough – Caine wittily talking about the state of the nation prior its rebirth as a hub for modernism – drab, black and white, run-down, deferential, and muddied by misguided nostalgia, something that our narrator is happy to deride as ludicrous (which of course it was).
At first the tale is all about the Caine experience, with the obligatory Kinks dominating the soundtrack – Billingsgate, school plays, and the desire to become an actor despite folk with his accent not having a prayer in what was then an off-limits, middle class club. This section has some of the best moments in the film, with Caine gently mocking Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson’s clipped, pukka voices in Brief Encounter. Caine claimed that he had no real yearning to be a major star, as he thought it would never happen, yet he persevered in repertory theatre for years, developing his craft. One lucky break (I won’t spoil it) led to a part in Zulu, and from there, Ipcress, Alfie, and fame. The old interview footage spliced with the new shows how little Caine has really changed over the years – he’s always been the assured, down to earth and benign figure, untrammelled by arrogance or pomposity.
From there, the story gets somewhat more diffuse as other icons chime in – Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, David Bailey, Twiggy, Marianne Faithful, and Mary Quant. There are moments that raise a smile, such as when Macca and Caine mention that they were both grammar school boys (“a working class lad getting access to a posh education for nothing” as our Paul has it). If there is a theme here, it’s about working class people breaking barriers, forcing their way into arenas that had been a closed shop only a few years earlier. But it doesn’t go much further than that. For these privileged ingénues, the 1960s became a playground of indulgence and pleasure that very few were privy to. And for the most part England back then may have been going through social change, but not upheaval (at least not compared to America). It was all really quite innocent and quaint, the old-school restraint of the time still visible despite the hedonism.
The film loses its focus further when it turns its attention to America, and the “British Invasion” that certainly caused a few cultural ripples at the time but barely intersected with the seismic division and change taking place there – much like the movie itself, in fact. There’s gaudy footage of Vietnam, civil rights marches and the Haight Ashbury, but it’s a brief interlude before everything shifts back to London. English songwriters and protestors spoke of revolution, but America’s 60s was far more intense, brutal, and tragic, and had little time for King’s Road chic. At 86 minutes, the film hasn’t the breadth for such context, so all we get is a Life Magazine portrayal without the commentary.
The final section, about the drug-induced comedown, is probably the best as it pierces the fantasy, even if it has barely anything to do with Caine himself, which he admits (he was in his late 30s during the Summer of Love). The noxious hatred from various quarters aimed at celebrity druggies (especially Marianne Faithful) was quite palpable, and the arrival of opiates, hinted at by Faithful as being done under MI6 auspices, very much the sea change that ended Swinging London. There’s some excellent footage of politicians desperate to kick back at youth, all of whom having the sort of plummy voice that is rarely heard anymore. There’s Keith Richards, transformed from clean cut to Jack Sparrow, and Macca, who comes across very well, chiding all the sensationalism. It seems that none of the leading light drug users were interested in revolution, but only wanted to have a good, and more importantly exclusive, time. Despite the odd casualty, the 60s glitterati really had an easy time of it before becoming co-opted. And the odd good quote aside, there really wasn’t all that much to it inside the bubble.
The rise of far-left and revolutionary politics in the U.K., which had been mounting for many years prior to the counterculture and it taking control of campus discourse from thereon is fleetingly touched upon, while the space race, motored as it obviously was by the Cold War, isn’t mentioned at all, despite being as era-defining as anything else here. At this stage in the 20th century, science was still our friend (atom bombs aside!) and the gateway to utopia, the end of hardship, exploration of other worlds and freedom. Nonsense of course, but it captured the imagination.
And it’s this thing called freedom and reaching for the stars that Caine invokes to close out the ghost tour. “Dream big” he mandates, echoing a line from the Italian Job. He hasn’t that much to make of it all except a few threadbare clichés, his calm, didactic intonation revealing the self-satisfaction of a life well-spent with all boxes ticked. But it’s Michael Caine, Godfather of the 60s, so you don’t mind.
A friend of mine from San Francisco, who was around during the 1960s (and was very much part of the SF scene) told me that at the end of the day, the politics, reinvention, drugs, sexual freedom, etc. were overrated, their legacy rose-tinted to oblivion. “What has lasted”, he said, is “The music. That’s all that’s worth taking with us”. Indeed. My Generation is a useful, and probably final, primer for more in-depth documentaries on each of its subjects and themes, a reminder of how fabulous the 60s seemed but for the most part probably weren’t. If it elicits interest for the newbie regarding this hallowed decade then it’s done its job. And as for Caine, we can more than forgive him his sentimentality curating this little diversion – he’s still effortlessly good. There’s some wonderful clips, and it’s a beguiling ride, but its allure derives partly from being so distant, the gauze-filtered London on show another place altogether. Worth the watch for one last lap on the 60s myth machine.
My Generation is out now on DVD and Blu Ray