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Tuesday, June 25th, 2024  

Camden

Hulu, May 29, 2024

May 29, 2024 Photography by Hulu Web Exclusive
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Camden is a shallow and wandering, surface-level examination of the titular London borough that is the birthplace and gestation area of numerous music scenes and musicians. Explored in four episodes packaged loosely by genre, each clocks in at just under an hour. The docuseries is produced in part by Dua Lipa’s company Radical22—which might have something to do with why she has so much airtime throughout. It might also be the reason why this series doesn’t peel back more layers to reveal the dark side of this historic neighborhood.

Camden kicks off with “Made in Camden” focused on pop with Lipa as the tour guide. Sparkly-eyed with a perma-grin plastered to her face, from the safety of a chauffeured car, Lipa points out the flat her family moved to when first arriving in London. She flicks through the bins in a record shop emptied for filming and recounts childhood memories as the camera pans over key buildings and businesses. Coldplay’s Chris Martin fills the hayseed role of the wide-eyed country bumpkin coming to the big city with his recollections of early gigs in Camden. The real gems of this episode are Madness’ Suggs and the son of the owner of The Dublin Castle, the local pub that was the starting point for many bands including Madness, Blur, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys. The early footage of Madness gigs at the pub—the first group to establish the back room of The Dublin Castle as a music venue—is priceless, visceral and raw. The 1998 video of Coldplay in the same space shows the group at its most unpolished and real, if imminently boring.

“Rebels and Misfits” is the punk rock/working class rock ‘n’ roll episode with Noel Gallagher, Pete Doherty of the Libertines, members of Bob Vylan and Yungblud chiming in. A significant amount of this episode is dedicated to Oasis with vintage gig, interview and news footage. The venues spotlit here are The Good Mixer—the Britpop pub, as well as the Electric Ballroom. “Rebels and Misfits” veers off into mini-biographies of the artists, losing its focus on Camden and then its focus altogether as it centers on fame more than anything else. There is no explanation of why this area became the mecca is was, and sometimes still is, for music.

The hip hop and soul episode, as it were, is “Pioneers” with The Roots’ Questlove, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Black Eyed Peas and one of the UK’s top tastemakers, Gilles Peterson. “Living over there prepared me for life as I know it,” Questlove says of Camden, where he subsisted on a giant piece of fish and chips every day. London, and Camden in particular, were destinations for American groups who couldn’t find an audience in their homeland. Here, they found deep appreciation for what they were doing, and brought the influence of the area into their music and back to the US. “Black singers in America who were having a hard time fitting into whatever is the status quo is in America, they find a home in Camden,” will.i.am says in the episode. He continues, “We found our herd, found our flock, playing at the Jazz Café.”

Camden comes full circle with “Freedom to Party,” the dance music episode led by Boy George, Nile Rodgers, Norman Jay and Lipa. Boy George is the most knowledgeable of the talking heads with firsthand experience of the city, and Camden in particular, from the ‘70s onward. A transatlantic dance music trade went on for years through house music from Chicago, which thrived in London. Rodgers took inspiration from Roxy Music album covers in Camden record shops after seeing the group play. He then modeled Chic upon the Roxy Music album art. Studio 54 found its British counterpart in Camden’s Music Machine, facelifted to Camden Palace where trendsetting Steve Strange threw his Club for Heroes party. But it’s not so much venues and as it is the Camden shops where the records could be found, and Camden Market where fashion lived that were influential.

The area’s venues are the stars of Camden with the landmarks of the borough serving as costars. The artists change as do music trends and styles, fashion and businesses, but the venues, even when they change names and go through refurbishments, are the heartbeat of Camden. Camden does right by these storied spaces in giving them their due. But it would have been great to see how these venues came about, and why so many of them are in such close proximity to each other.

A documentation of Camden’s importance in the history of music, fashion, art and creativity needed to be done. Asif Kapadia (Amy, 1971) as series director is the obvious choice. Yet Camden is scattered with much of the series not directly connected with Camden itself. The structural choice to package the story by genre makes the trajectory of Camden difficult to trace with the chronological flip-flops in each episode making it that much more confusing to follow. The entire thing could have been told in a tight and easy to grasp two hours and could have used a lot more grit and grime to ground Camden in authenticity.

Still, there is plenty to learn from Camden, albeit in a CliffsNotes version. For a destination that has drawn music lovers from across the globe to its mythical musical environment for decades, Camden should get ready for an even bigger influx of fans after Camden. (www.hulu.com/series/camden)

Author rating: 6/10

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