Steve Read wasn’t huge on Gary Numan when he saw the godfather of electronic music play his hit “Cars” at a festival, talked to him backstage, and within five minutes told him that he wanted to make a film about him. The result, Gary Numan: Android in La La Land, made its world premiere at SXSW this week.
“I’m not a Gary Numan fan,” Read said during the Q&A. “I kind of am now, but I wasn’t then.”
If you’re not a Numanoid, you’ve probably at least heard the Foo Fighters cover of his song “Down in the Park,” or maybe you’ve seen him play with Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor, Lady Gaga, Beck, Billy Corgan, and Marilyn Manson are among the many who’ve been influenced by Numan’s electro pop and his leather jumpsuits, eyeliner, and cosmetic masks. But more than anything, Read was struck by the enigmatic synth star’s relationship with his wife, Gemma, a fan who stalked him as a 14-year-old and is now raising three young daughters with him.
“Obviously, they’re very funny together,” Read told the crowd at the Alamo Lamar on Monday. And it’s true: when Gemma isn’t doing Gary’s makeup before shows, she’s giving him grief for being too chickenshit to see horror movies. Or he’s mocking her for having said there’s a “good kind” of serial killer.
“Everything I’m not, she is,” Numan says at some point during the film. “Without her I’m just this boring, monotone nerd in a corner.”
We’re inevitably reminded of The Osbournes, so it’s not surprising that the couple was considering a reality show when Read and his co-director Rob Alexander came along.
“We said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s shit,’” Read deadpanned.
While Read and Alexander knew they wanted to make a documentary, they “never planned it to be a conventional talking head, archive film,” Read said. Instead, they followed Numan, starting in 2012, as he moved from his relatively modest home in East Sussex, England, to a full-on Los Angeles “castle,” complete with hidden passageways and coats of arms on the wall. It’s at Numan Castle where he bunkers down and works on Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), his first album in seven years.
Numan has a reputation for being “robotic” and aloof—part of why the media savaged him in the years after his album The Pleasure Principle (one of the first to ditch guitars for purely synth sounds) went to number 1 in 1979. (“I must’ve had more bad press in the first 10 years than anyone else in the history of music,” Numan says.) But the filmmakers found that “Gary was willing to be super candid. The access was phenomenal.” And that shows as Numan and his wife speak honestly about their bouts with depression and bankruptcy (their house was almost repossessed), as well as Numan’s rift with his father, who was also his longtime manager. Late in the film, Numan explains why, exactly, he seems so detached and emotionless— for years, he suffered from undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome.
It’s easy to see why Numan considered the documentary a “therapeutic process,” according to Alexander. Numan describes, heartbreakingly, how one of his new songs is about the lowest point of his marriage, when he was on the brink of walking away from it. More optimistically, he describes how he learned, after a years-long career slump, to stop caring about making commercial hits and began pursuing a heavier, more personal sound that’s clearly influenced by Nine Inch Nails. (Numan’s enthusiasm for live performance was rebooted largely thanks to the appearances he made with NIN in 2009, covering his song “Metal.”)
Rest assured, the film isn’t all darkness and insight. At one point, Numan and his family take a cross-country RV trip, and we get to hear the guy who sang “Cars” scold his wife for sending him on so many detours, while his kids squeal in the background.
During the q&a, Read recalled the moment he heard that Numan was going on vacation. “I just said, ‘Gary, do you think we could come along?’ And he was just like, ‘Yeah, of course you can, mate.’ I said, ‘Rob get the camera, we’re going on holiday with Gary Numan.”