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Android In La La Land centers around an interesting moment in Gary Numan‘s career. In the middle of recording his 2013 album Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), he packs up his family and transports them from their rural cottage in Nottingham, England to a lavish mansion in Los Angeles. It’s here that he finishes his first LP of all-new material in seven years, experiencing all the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with both moving across the world and releasing a record. Couple that with his well-documented bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and admitted social awkwardness, and that’s already a hell of a film.
But directors Steve Read and Rob Alexander get a little too greedy with their subject, and as a result, their documentary starts to sag under its own ambitions. It’s perfectly understandable. Numan is notoriously reclusive, and as fans, it’s only natural for the filmmakers to want to explore too many aspects of his life, rather than a handful of interesting elements.
Over a scant 85 minutes, they interview Numan, his charismatically strong and hilarious wife Gemma, his parents, and many others who are close to him about all things past, present, and future, touching on everything from his mental illness to his near-bankruptcy and musical comeback. But the directors never stopped to think if the past and future could be folded into the present. That’s the approach Sam Jones took with 2002’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the Wilco documentary that uses the recording of Yankee Hotel Fotxtrot to address tensions within the band and the state of the music industry as a whole. Unlike Android In La La Land, however, it’s able to do so without giving us a backward-looking Wikipedia summary of the group’s career.
To be fair, Numan’s become much more obscure in his post-“Cars”/”Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” success, so maybe a history lesson is in order. But in its currently summarized form, it’s not nearly as effective as the more active portions of the film. One learns more about Numan as a person – who he was and who he is – by watching him take care of his three little girls or lovingly bicker with Gemma about serial killers. It’s this at-home dynamic that proves to be most interesting in Android In La La Land, an untapped familial well that reveals the musician’s talent, humility, insecurities, and devoted love simply by showing the way he interacts with his loved ones.
Most of these strengths and weaknesses emerge naturally when spending time with his wife and children. For instance, when they take a camping trip to escape the hectic press and industry machine leading up to Splinter, he continues to fret about reviews, the chaotic performance schedule, and everything else that comes with putting out an album. All the while, his daughters run around the RV as Gemma barbecues in the background. It’s an intriguing instance of domestic bliss rubbing up against the often nonstop stress of being a working musician, and yet the impact feels softened because of everything that’s come before in the film. Read and Alexander go out of their way to front-load Numan’s struggles in a tell-don’t-show framework at the very beginning of the movie, rather than slowly teasing them out through his exchanges with others. Is this a Numan biography, a making-of-the-album documentary, or a complicated family snapshot? Had the directors placed a higher currency on staying in the moment, it could have been all three.