That Privilege, a faux documentary about the rise and fall of an English pop star, can be preachy and heavy-handed was probably inevitable. Peter Watkins, who had just watched his second film, The War Game, get banned by the BBC, was a bitter, angry old man at the ripe old age of 31. A black comedy about a teen idol, the object of desire for adolescent girls, requires a light, deft touch, a sympathetic understanding of popular music. That’s not what we got.
“There are millions of people down there, millions of little people,” Andrew Butler, a record company executive says to Steven Shorter, a thinly fictionalized version of the now almost completely forgotten Paul Anka, the Harry Stiles or Justin Bieber of the 1950s. “First we must be clear in our minds about one thing. The liberal idea that given enough education these millions will grow into self-aware, creative human beings is nothing but an exploded myth. It can never happen. They’re stunted little creatures with primitive emotions that are in themselves dangerous. They’ve got to be harnessed, guided. We’ve seen this happen over and over again for an evil purpose, Germany, Russia, China, but now we’ve got a chance to make it work for our own good. You. You’re our chance Steven. They identify with you. They love you Steven. You can lead them into a better way of life, a fruitful conformity.”
That, needless to say, is not a light, deft touch, and Watkins comes off as just another severe, angry dad going on about “these kids today.” Does anybody want to hear my 90 minute rant about One Direction? I didn’t think so. What’s more, he also ascribes an intentionality to the music industry that simply didn’t exist. Watkins is rightfully creeped out by the power that corporate, popular music has over little girls, but he doesn’t seem to understand that record company executives, as sleazy as they are, don’t care if teenagers conform or not. Their objective is to make money, not to prop up the state. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Far from wanting ciphers like Steven Shorter, the record companies prefer willful, self-destructive singers like Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, or egotistical, mirror-images of themselves like Madonna and the Rolling Stones. The biggest act in 2015 is not a Christlike figure like Steven Shorter, but Taylor Swift, an attractive young woman with the soul of a corporate executive. Rince, lather, repeat for Beyonce, and Lady Gaga.
Once you get past Watkins’ heavy-handed moralism,however, and the silly idea that the British ruling class would ever use a fictionalized Paul Anka to promote a bizarre Anglo-fascism in swinging London, Privilege becomes a remarkably prescient movie. The “coalition government” that was a fantasy in 1967 has become non-fiction, with both Labor and the Conservatives acting like two wings of the same neoliberal political party. Watkins got the particulars wrong, but there’s no question that corporate, popular music not only serves to keep young people apolitical and out of the streets. He was onto the way middle-aged men manufactured idols for the youth market, and kept their investments on a tight leash. The behavior of young singers like Steven Shorter is still closely policed. After Selena Gomez tweeted “pray for Gaza,” a loud, and very tightly coordinated backlash forced her to retract her tepid statement of support for the Palestinian people. Ariana Grande created a major scandal after she was filmed licking a donut and remarking “I hate America.” Manufactured celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner provide an endless stream of fodder for the tabloids and for social media that keeps those “millions of little people” living lives of “fruitful conformity.” Taylor Swift and Beyonce will be well into middle-age before they start preaching socialism along with their “lean in” feminism. At the height of his fame in the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen always made sure to dish out a generous helping of flag waiving patriotism along with his New Deal liberalism.
Privilege can be tediously moralistic, but it does have one genuinely great cinematic moment. It comes in the first 10 minutes, when Peter Watkins gets out of the way and lets the film’s star, Manfred Mann’s lead singer Paul Jones, take over and do his thing. It’s easy to see why Patti Smith would cover the theme song “Privilege” on her late 1970s album Easter. Smith’s cover is a virtuoso three and a half minute critique of Watkins’ film that expresses Steven Shorter’s ultimate rebellion against the corporate state better than the film itself. As Privilege opens, Paul Jones is dragged out on stage, and locked up in a cage by a group of policemen. He bangs on the bars and rattles his chains. He wails “set me free” as he whips the audience of teenage girls up into an orgasmic frenzy. There was nothing quite like Privilege in 1967, a song at least 10 years ahead of its time, the violent act anticipating punk, slam dancing, and The Who’s destruction of their instruments on stage. As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, Beatlemania, far from being an exercise in brainwashing and control, was actually an excuse for teenage fan girls to knock over barricades and fight the police. Almost in spite of himself, Peter Watkins predicted the way so many musicians would grow up along with their audience. In 1964, John Lennon was the leader of a boy band. In 1971, he was a political activist with an FBI file and a place on Nixon’s enemies list.