There are few performers as dynamic as Polly Jean Harvey, and this documentary attempts to capture her at her most raw: recording a new album.
A Dog Called Money has so much potential. The premise is great: PJ Harvey following photographer/director Seamus Murphy to some intense locations, including Afghanistan, Kosovo, and parts of Washington, D.C. as she journals her thoughts which she then weaves into lyrics for her latest record (which becomes the 2016 release, The Hope Six Demolition Project). At its most basic, this is a beautifully shot travelogue. The breadth of what Harvey and Murphy saw is both painful and compelling, capturing war-torn towns and extreme poverty. What subsequently bloomed from the experiences are trademark PJ – thoughtful and powerful.
Unfortunately this is also where the film fails. We see the horror and pain contained in many of these scenes, yet… that’s it. That’s as far as it goes. There is no narration or explanations. No characters are introduced, followed, or deepened with any examination on the part of the filmmaker or Polly. Instead, PJ floats through the wreckage, with no additional thoughts offered. (At least on camera. I guess that’s why you have to buy the album?) At one point, in a very poor/embarrassing reflection, she’s picking through a bombed-out apartment and says, “Wow, I’m walking over their stuff in my expensive leather sandals.” Yes, you are. And what are you going to do about it? I couldn’t help but wonder, what is the point? If it’s simply for your own artistic growth, that’s pretty rough. What did you offer the people you spent time with? Did you help anyone while you were there? Did you donate money from this project back into any of these communities? Set up a school? Anything? (Maybe so, but it’s not revealed here. Instead, though surely well-intentioned, it comes across as if the artists are profiting off the pain and then walking away.)
When she’s not filming, she’s recording in an exclusive location – the basement of the Somerset House in London, which was set up to also double as a museum exhibit. (Patrons could pay to watch PJ and longtime collaborator John Parrish work on the album in real time.) It’s interesting to see the juxtaposition of collecting ideas out in the real world to hashing them out with a talented crew of hotshot musicians. But, again, it would’ve been better if Harvey and Murphy had been willing to go deeper. In the end, A Dog Called Money is much like PJ herself; lovely, elusive, and never quite available to be yours.
A languid, gorgeously shot film that never fully aligns itself with a larger goal. Hardcore Harvey fans will appreciate seeing the process behind her ninth studio album, but the casual observer will be left wanting.