Going into the viewing of the documentary Gary Numan: Android in La La Land, I knew nothing of the rock star in question. I’d read up on the doc and knew only that he was a British electronic musician from the 1980’s who suffers from anxiety. The name didn’t ring any bells, which surprised me because I thought I had a pretty vast musical scope, particularly when it comes to 80’s synth-pop.
After getting his start with band, Tubeway Army in the late 1970’s, Gary’s musical career didn’t fully take flight until he released his first solo album, The Pleasure Principle, from which the classic song “Cars” debuted. “Cars” plays in the first ten minutes of the doc, and of course, I immediately recognized it.
The film focuses primarily on the year leading up to the 2013 release of his newest album, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind). Throughout the doc, Numan speaks of the pressures involved in making an album, where expectations are high to reinvent the music. He makes it clear throughout the 1 h 25 min running time of the film that his priority is to make music he loves, music that he can proudly stand behind, as opposed to just creating radio-friendly fluff with mass appeal.
Not knowing if the album was successful as I watched the film, I felt myself really rooting for Numan. Once it was revealed at the end of the film that Splinter made the UK Top 20, his first album in three decades to do so, and received international praise from critics, I couldn’t help but smile and feel proud of the 58 year old, goth-punk musician with Asperger’s Syndrome. He put his heart and soul into the seven years it took to make the album, and it really paid off for him.
The doc serves not only as a platform for the making of Splinter, but more so as a lens through which we get to see the deeply personal parts of his life. His wife, Gemma figures prominently in the film, as well as his three young daughters, Raven, Persia, and Echo. The film documents the family’s move from the English countryside, to a castle with secret staircases, hidden passageways, and gargoyles in LA – just the kind of home you’d imagine a makeup-wearing, black garbed, electropop musician would live in.
Throughout the film, both Gary and Gemma describe their struggles with mental illness, as well as their difficulty in conceiving children. After marrying in 1997, they tried to conceive right away, but it just wasn’t sticking. After numerous failed IVF treatments and miscarriages, Gemma became pregnant with Raven in 2003, whose twin died in utero. They were told they would not get pregnant again, but voila! They were blessed with two happy ‘accidents’ by the names of Persia and Echo. The girls are cheeky and precocious, telling their dad he looks older when he wears makeup.
These genuine private moments between the family are the highlights of the film, as it does seem to get bogged down with a few tedious scenes involving Numan’s producers and his creative process in the studio. I found myself checking to see how much time was left in the film several times – 1h and 25 mins felt a lot longer to me.
However, I did enjoy getting to know the musician intimately. His struggles with depression and anxiety are so humanizing, and hearing him speak on this provided the most poignant moments in the film. In the pop-culture obsessed world we live in, we often forget that celebrities think and feel just like the rest of us, so it’s refreshing to see an honest account of how mental illness affects every aspect of the lives of the afflicted.Numan’s depression and anxiety served as the main inspiration for the album, as well as how it adversely affected his marriage and family.
After viewing the film and hearing snippets from Splinter, I can’t wait to explore the rest of his musical repertoire. I took a great liking to Numan, who comes across as an incredibly endearing, genuinely talented man and musician. The film has been receiving mostly favourable reviews since its world premiere at SXSW in March, and is being screened during Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival April 28-May 8. Click here to find the full screening schedule for your chance to dive into the heavy mind of Gary Numan.