Directed by: Seamus Murphy
Distributed by: Abramorama
Written by Jeff Sparks
The first documentary I’m covering at Drink in the Movies is a unique one. It doesn’t really document anything as a whole, but rather gives an insight into the mindset of an artist who uses her music to try to make sense of the chaos and instability that plagues societies around the world. Nearly every time I listen to an album by PJ Harvey, I pick up on something new that she’s trying to say with what she writes in her songs. I’ve listened to a lot of her music, especially her two newest albums whose themes are explored in this documentary that she made with photographer, filmmaker, and writer, Seamus Murphy. In half of “A Dog Called Money,” Murphy documents Harvey as she travels the world, observing the struggles of people from different walks of life as she searches for inspiration for her next album. In the other half of the film, Murphy records her and her band as they record the album in a studio. The film acts not as just a portrait of who PJ is as an artist, but also as a human. In her travels, we see the things that she sings about in her album. The album, “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” largely focuses on issues of war, poverty, and the selfishness of mankind. The album’s style of music is classified as alternative/folk rock, although I personally don’t think PJ’s ever-changing style of music can be classified. This particular style, which is on her previous two albums, polarized her fans. Many were excited to see her change her style and focus heavily on global issues, while others disliked the new approach.
The warning signs for this new type of music were all there. Even in her early days when her music was loud and experimental, she often used themes about struggling as a woman in these albums. A decade in her album “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” mentioned human struggles that she saw in her everyday life on a few tracks. Things like prostitution, drug abuse, suicide, police brutality, and the lack of human connection are all mentioned in this album. Two albums later, “White Chalk,” marks the first serious deviation in her sound in quite some time. The softer, piano-based sound made fans wonder what happened to the punky, art rock singer of old. Then in 2011, she released her anti-war album titled “Let England Shake.” This set of songs marked a new age in her career where her style became folk rock and the themes became the center of her work, not the sound. In preparation for this album, she read testimonies of citizens and soldiers who were in Iraq and Afghanistan. A large part of the lyrics also focuses on World War I, which was referred to as “the war to end all wars” at the time. To me, PJ focuses on that war because since then wars have continued to destroy lives, which means millions died for a lie in the first world war.
“The Hope Six Demolition Project” follows this, which acts as a sort of sequel to “Let England Shake.” The style is similar but focuses on a wider range of topics. In “Hope Six”, PJ sings about poverty, drug legality, governmental hypocrisy, missing children, homelessness, war, humanity, and more. I don’t speak for her, but to me, PJ Harvey is a person who feels lost and fails to understand the lack of regard for human life in the world around her. PJ’s questioning of humanity’s selfishness and brutality can be heard as early as 2000 with the anger shown in the song “Whores Hustle” or the disappointment she lets loose in “Big Exit.” In her earlier years, her music often used individuals to represent wider struggles, such as the conflicted woman in “The Dancer” or the desperate girl in “Angelene.” But in later years I think the suffering of millions around the world and the lack of interest by the rest became more prevalent in her mind and caused her to write these two newest albums that focus on humanity as a whole which brings us to who she is in this documentary. The songs on “Hope Six” don’t always make a clear statement but rather are PJ’s outlet for the thoughts that eat away at her. This frame of mind is present in her song “The Orange Monkey” with its opening line “A restlessness took hold my brain.”
In “A Dog Called Money,” Murphy records PJ as she roams around Washington, D.C., and areas of Afghanistan where she talks to a range of different people. She tries to understand who they are and what they’ve experienced by watching or talking to them. Murphy films not only the discussions she has but also the things she sees along the way. In Afghanistan, she sees people trudging down dirty streets, kids begging for change, soldiers hiking through farmlands, and destruction littering the land. In Washington, she learns of the separation between the two parts of the city. On one side of the river are pristine houses, friendly faces, and business meetings. On the other side are poverty, crime, and desperation. The title of “The Hope Six Demolition Project” refers to a plan by the government to tear down public housing and replace it with better housing with the effect that the previous residents could no longer afford to live there. To fix the food shortage issue, Walmart planned to open stores in these poorer areas but canceled those plans. A nearby church that supplies social services to the area remains a constant for that region. This church is referenced in the song “The Community of Hope.” The choir of the church is seen performing PJ’s song in the film. This is one of many song references that are seen. Before Murphy shows PJ performing Chain of Keys we see her in Afghanistan, talking to a woman holding a chain with keys on them, telling them the horrors of war she has seen, which is referred to in the song.
The titular dog named Money is never actually seen in the film. The only time it’s referenced is by PJ in narration when discussing a local girl and her friends who live in the ghetto in Washington, D.C. “Paunie’s rolling dice for dollars sitting in the shade on the steps outside the house. Her dog is called Money” PJ narrates. The film’s title comes from a song she made with her husband that never made it to the final album. In it, she sings about this group of young people and the grind that they go through to make a dollar. “It’s all about money that’s what’s going on” the song says. The separation between the two sides of the area, the rich and the poor, isn’t really focused on much beyond the initial time that the film shows PJ’s travels in the United States. Sometimes Murphy shows shots of the Washington monuments before later cutting back to the kids on the other side of the river rolling dice for change and discussing shootings that happened recently, which speaks for itself.
One of my main takeaways from the viewing experience of this documentary is Murphy’s ability to put PJ’s curiosity about these tribulations into context. No matter how many times I’ve seen other countries portrayed in movies or shown on the news, none of it matched the bluntness of “A Dog Called Money.” The hundreds of people cramming into muddy streets, the open sewer ditches, a stampede at the border, tanks smashing through fields, it’s all easy to see why PJ would feel like she had to say something about the things that she saw. She doesn’t just observe the people who live in these places, but she also tries to understand who they are. In one scene a man invites her into his home to show her his music, some of which she incorporated into a couple of demos. I think it’s important to mention that I don’t think PJ Harvey believes she understands the lives of these people because she traveled there for a bit. I believe her travels were an attempt to make sense of the inequalities in other countries, and hers. One way Murphy shows this is by having subtitles for foreign languages in some scenes, but not in many. Just because we can watch what they do, that does not mean we can understand everything about them.
Besides her travels, much of the documentary also shows an inside look at PJ working on the album in the studio. Sometimes she’s testing out different vocals or instruments, other times she’s discussing ideas with her team. Because she has mostly shied away from the spotlight in her career, this footage shows new sides of PJ that some fans may not have seen before. In some scenes she’s silly, messing around with instruments and laughing. Other times she’s serious, like when she orders her team to clean up water bottles and coffee cups when the cameras come in. In one scene she even sits behind the drums for a full song which is something I’ve never seen her do despite the plethora of instruments she has used in live performances throughout the years. We see her recording a handful of songs that are featured on “Hope Six” such as “Chain of Keys” and “Dollar, Dollar.” The song selection of the film is a bit of an odd one as many of the choices featured heavily are either songs that did not make it to the final album or are not very popular among fans. Fan favorites like “A Line In The Sand” and “Medicinals” are not present whatsoever. Meanwhile, “The Wheel” and “The Orange Monkey” are barely used. Besides the songs from the “Hope Six” era, no other songs are used.
One great choice by Murphy in song selection is the usage of the unreleased studio version of “The Age of The Dollar” while showing shots of people from all the countries she visited. Toward the end of the song our view transitions from her singing the song in the studio to different clips of people dancing. Whether it be the teens from the ghetto or the kids in the war-torn streets, we all have things that bring us together, but also things that separate us. The money and the war PJ sings about in the song are part of the reason for the problems that these individuals are victim to in their lives, calling back to PJ’s distaste for choices made by governments around the world that she indirectly refers to in her previous two albums. Snippets from the turbulence during the 2016 election time in the United States are also shown late in the film. The shots of people arguing, biased advertisements, and people toppling police barricades all hang heavy over the rest of the film. The instability and troubles PJ sings about in her songs are not just relegated to a certain type of people, but to the turmoils we all face as a species living on the same planet.
Narration by PJ is constant throughout the film. Sometimes she’s explaining her thoughts but much of the time she just seems to be wondering about the absurdity of the things she sees. In one scene she wanders through war-torn ruins. “What happened here? Who lived here? When did they leave?’ her voice asks. Like some of her music, I don’t think this film is trying to make a defining statement. Similar to the music, this documentary is looking at the absurdity of the suffering that millions go through, and for what reason she wonders. Both the album and the film have faced some criticism saying that the works are exploitative or voyeuristic. I don’t agree with these accusations because “A Dog Called Money” is not a film about the struggling people from around the world that are shown, but rather an abstract portrait of a mystified woman who steps into their worlds in a futile search to make sense of the unbalanced hardships that plague the planet.
“A Dog Called Money” Trailer