The One Review: Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021 Adam Curtis)

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World (BBC)
Written and directed by Adam Curtis
Available on YouTube

Just to be clear, this documentary seemingly has nothing to do with Kylie’s 2001 hit ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ despite sharing the title. You could find a connection somewhere in the material, but it is not massively obvious. Indeed, Adam Curtis’s latest sprawling BBC documentary series connects with a whole lot of different things that it is sometimes hard to make any obvious conclusions. But the seven-hours of material that is presented is so deeply riveting and engrossing that it is impossible not to engage with it on a number of levels.

Curtis has made some amazing stuff in the past 25 years or so. He has a style that is unmatched in the school of documentarians. He narrates in an unwavering and inquisitive manner, which is marked by his upper middle class English accent, and he exclusively presents in a series of images and footage, I presume from the BBC news archives. The purpose of his documentaries is not immediately attainable but he broadly focuses on the radical social, economic and political forces that drive our lives in the modern world. The nice thing I find about Curtis’s style is that, although he asserts himself in his narration he never shoves his own theories down the viewer’s throats, but rather explores the theories of other, more authoritative figures to paint his own ideas. He does make some interesting points himself (and not all are agreeable) but his thoughts, I find, are never the prevailing thrust of his films. His films are more of an experience in themselves – the choice of music, the effect of the images (sometimes played backwards), it all seems very experimental and endlessly intriguing.

His latest is nothing short of an epic masterpiece. I am still grappling with what it all means, but I think Curtis’s desired effect is to show that meaning is very hard to grasp, period. The film is bursting with oceans of information and reflections on humanity from the past 100 years or so. After the first episode, where a number of apparently random subjects is examined, you get the feeling that he is overreaching and that it is all too incoherent to make sense. But the intellectual approach by Curtis ensures a steady focus as the episodes progress.

Curtis himself has stated that his film ‘tells the story of how we got to the strange days we are now experiencing. And why both those in power, and we, find it so difficult to move on’. Essentially, he is exploring how:

  1. Brexit happened;
  2. Trump happened;
  3. China has become a huge economic power; and
  4. Russia is the way it is.

Unsurprisingly, these are not easy to explain. But Curtis gives it a red-hot go, and the road he travels is long, convoluted and often terrifying. Importantly though, there are fascinating connections made in order to make sense of it all. These involve figures such as Michael X, Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Tupac Shakur and a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald, and it recounts events such as the introduction of Boolean logic, the Opium Wars, Live Aid and the LA Riots. Every episode is filled with stories that you may not have heard before, and the accompanying visuals are cut from various footage of shocking historical events and sometimes mundane news reels. Then there is the vast amounts of magnificent music samples – Phosphoresent, Aphex Twin, Sex Pistols, Cocteau Twins, Cigarettes After Sex, Bright Eyes and even John Carpenter. When all of these things are added together, there is very little to criticise. Particularly when Curtis signs off with a hopeful message about collectively working towards a better future.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 5/5

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