As a Dr Martens-wearing teenager in the 90s, I loathed the anarchist indie band Chumbawamba and their chart-topping anthem Tubthumping. (What a bunch of jokers, I thought.) Well, I take it all back after watching this funny and surprisingly sweet documentary co-directed by frontman Dunstan Bruce and Sophie Robinson. It begins with Bruce, now in his late 50s, overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness as he thinks about the future of the planet, wondering what he can do (“I’m a washed up, rinsed out retired radical”). As a film-maker he indulges in a bit of wallowing here: taking the negative voice in his head and bringing it to life, played by an actor wearing a papier-mache head, who sarkily takes the piss out of him.
But from here the film settles nicely into an enjoyable blast of pop history. Chumbawamba started out as an anarchist collective in Leeds in 1982: living together in a squat, they went vegan (“I’m from Burnley! I didn’t like vegetables”), shared money equally and took it in turns to do the cooking. They’d been going for years when Tubthumping topped the charts. With a worldwide smash hit on their hands, the band decided that here was an opportunity to do something positive – to be a political band inside the belly of popular culture. They gave a lot of the money they made away, and in 1998 at the Brit awards, singer Danbert Nobacon poured a bucket of cold water over deputy prime minister John Prescott, furious at the Labour government’s treatment of Liverpool dockers.
Chumbawamba were massive in America, and did the talkshow circuit. (“If you can’t afford our music, steal it,” said bandmate Alice Nutter on late night TV.) In the present day, Bruce interviews their big time American record label boss from that period, who says none of it changed a thing. No one was listening to the political message. “It went largely over everyone’s head.” That’s what’s so unusual about I Get Knocked Down: it has a streak of humility utterly foreign to most music documentaries. Bruce puts in the bits every other band on the planet would leave out. That includes a montage from the 90s of music critics slagging off Chumbawamba. (“They’re not very good pop stars and they’re not very good political activists either,” is the damning verdict of a young Caitlin Moran.)
Chumbawamba split up in 2012. They’re still mates and come across here as extremely likable, not taking themselves at all too seriously. Scenes of them nattering together, having a giggle now, are lovely. So too are the end credits featuring clips from YouTube of ordinary people singing Tubthumping – everyone finding power and defiance in the song, from Christian choirs to heavy metal bands and small kids.