Now mind, I love Billy Bragg...at least his first three albums before he settled down, got married, and got all lyrically and musically mushy. Dzhrew once called that bit where he sings about "skies all dark with bombers" in "Between the Wars" one of the finest lyrics ever written by anybody. He's right. As this film proves definitively, however, Billy Bragg is also a bit of a git.
We knew this, of course. It's one thing to be a inveterate, vitriolic anti-Tory; it's quite another to record a cover of "The Internationale," surely one of the more embarassing recordings made by a musical figure over the past 20 years. Still, I had no idea until I saw this film how clueless poor Billy really could be. The first give-away is the Lenin shirts: a black one and a white one, worn every time Billy gets on stage, and worn, I might add, without a hint, without a smidgen, without a modicum of irony. Every time the camera turns to the audience, and you see the expressions on the Russian faces, they're all saying the same thing "What a git!" (or, more to the point, "Какой придурок!"). It's a little sad that nobody took Billy aside and gently explained to him that in 1988 a Lenin shirt was about as likely to signify "hipness" to crowds of young Russians as a shirt bearing the likeness of the Queen Mother would to a crowd of young Brits. But there it is.
Of course, it's not just the shirts...it's Billy standing outside the Kremlin wanting to know why "everyone in Russia is called Sasha?" It's Billy wearing a bunny-shapka moonily staring at a snowy Lenin's tomb. It's Billy's maundering along on stage as if anyone present had the ghost of a clue what he was saying in his ultra-Cockney drawl (Awl roight, oy joost wantered to tell ya...). It's Billy attempting to cover "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" during a solo club outing in Moscow before a crowd so impassive and unimpressed they could be standing in a bread line. Ouch.
The whole thing succeeds in being uproariously amusing, and yet mildly melancholy at the same time. Throughout you can see Billy trying so hard to like it in Russia—Слава Рабочему Классу! and all that—and failing miserably. He looks constantly befuddled, uncertain and out-of-place, peering about wistfully as if to say "There must be a Worker's Utopia around here somewhere, sod it all! Where did they go and put it?"
Of course the film appears here in this Stuffography courtesy of an appearance by Borya and Akvarium. BG is interviewed for a couple minutes in English: I can't remember what it was he said, but it struck me as one of the only intelligent things that anybody said during the entire film. There are also some snippets of Akvarium playing—nothing like a whole song or anything—and it's here that the film becomes annoyingly disingenuous: the photographer keeps cutting back and forth between a crowd going ape-shit and Billy Bragg bouncing around spuriously on the crowded stage, with the clear implication that the crowd is totally psyched to be seeing (noted-Western-rock-icon) Billy Bragg. Nothing of the kind, of course: they're clearly loving the 10-minute Akvarium "Babylon" space-jam, and attempting to ignore the irritating, sheepishly-grinning doofus in the Lenin shirt.
I must admit under the influence of jet-lag and bourbon I fell asleep before Billy made it to Virginia, so I haven't a clue what that bit's all about. It's certainly not worth seeing/getting this for the trifling BG content alone—see The Long Way Home instead, where Borya gets his turn to be the gasping fish out water—but the wonderful thing about Which Side Are You On? is its power to reassure: However much of an innocent, bewildered, naive schmuck you were the first time you set foot in Russia, at least no one was following you around with a camera. Count your lucky stars.