Mogwai & Mark Cousins at EIF: An assault on the senses

Mogwai provided the live soundtrack to Mark Cousins’ film about atomic power at the Playhouse, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival

Mogwai have always ploughed a purely instrumental furrow, so their gravitation towards soundtracks – from 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait to the recent French paranormal drama The Returned – should come as no surprise. While their primordial pace and ghostly arpeggios underscored footballing maestros and undead children perfectly well, you get the feeling that a film about the history of atomic energy is the project they’ve relished most.

Mark Cousins, the cineaste par excellence who gave us The Story of Film, has assembled Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise from archive footage depicting moments in nuclear history like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Faslane. Interviews with the real people affected by these catastrophic events and controversies are translated, but there’s no overarching narration from Cousins. These images, familiar as they are, require no explanation.

This allows Mogwai the space to step in with a soundtrack that’s at first optimistic, as we are given an abridged history of the pioneering scientists who laid the groundwork for atomic power, from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie.

But with the onset of World War II and the US bombings of Japan (codenamed, deceptively, as “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”), the Glaswegian band’s soundtrack gets deeper, darker and more disorientating, in sync with the disturbing images on-screen above them.

This being a Mogwai concert, the decibels penetrate the Playhouse to its 87-year-old foundations: each thwack of Martin Balloch’s tom-tom is like a peal of thunder, while Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns conjure avalanches of guitar scree that tower high in the old venue like the strangely beautiful mushroom clouds which form the film’s main motif.

It’s an assault on the senses that almost threatens to overpower some of the film’s more tender moments (an archive interview with the mother of a young cancer victim is particularly heart-rending). However, this is a documentary about a man-made technology that’s capable of destroying mankind, and Mogwai have created a suitably ominous, alienating soundtrack to match this disturbing fact.

Mogwai & Mark Cousins, 27-28 Aug, Edinburgh Playhouse, more info

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