It's the risks that pay off most handsomely in It's All Gone Pete Tong, a curious mash-up of dance-culture mockumentary and searing drama. Despite its unevenness, writer-director Michael Dowse's conception makes for admirably novel viewing or, in other words, the kind of gamble more filmmakers should be taking.
Before screening It's All Gone Pete Tong, I knew virtually nothing about the UK/Canada co-production, and my ignorance paid off handsomely. In fact, you may want to stop reading now and come back after you've seen the film. The sometimes trying first act plays a bit like a tepid This is Spinal Tap, with Paul Kaye's dim-witted but wildly popular DJ Frankie Wilde making a world-class ass out of himself in the infamous Ibiza dance clubs and at home with his uncaring wife Sonja (Kate Magowan).
The Wilde life is a 24/7 tear through DJ gigs, studio work, sex, drugs, and alcohol. He finds himself shadowed by a devil on each shoulder (or "monkeys" on his back): American manager Max Haggar (Mike Wilmot) and an imaginary, crusty Coke Badger that goads him through his substance abuse before predictably turning on him (perhaps a mockery of Donnie Darko's rabbit). The first half establishes Dowse's non-sequitur humor, like a running gag of Haggar's abortive earset phone calls, or the early exchange between Wilde and a heavily accented Spanish reporter. She: "How is it being a husband?" He: "How is it being an ass-band?"
As it turns out, that exchange prefigures a left turn into tragicomic territory. In a scene seemingly played for laughs, Wilde develops tinnitus, a buzzing in the ears that's a common result of exposure to loud noise. But the laughter begins to fade when it's apparent that Wilde is going deaf. To Dowse's credit, the film darkens but never abandons either its humor or its characterization of its anti-hero as a bastard. The scant rooting interest in the ultimately stone-deaf DJ, despite his horrible plight, is a double-edged sword, but by film's end, most viewers will find themselves hopeful of his redemption.
Star Paul Kaye is up to the task, delivering a performance of decided abandon. His Wilde meets his fate with a progression through denial, anger, and eventually acceptance enabled by the instruction and affection of an attractive lip-reading teacher named Penelope (played winningly by Beatriz Batarda). As one talking-head prognosticator drily notes, "Generally the field of music—other than the obvious example—has been dominated by people who can hear." Wilde ends up channeling that obvious example with a Beethovian effort to perpetuate his work. Though he first dismisses sign-language as "hand-jive," he takes Penelope's advice to heart and learns to capitalize on his other senses (his epiphany comes during a terrific scene in a flamenco club).
It's All Gone Pete Tong has obvious cult appeal—numerous dance world luminaries, including DJ Pete Tong, pop up—but it may remain impenetrable to a wider American audience, beginning with its head-scratching title (Anglophiles will recognize Cockney rhyming slang translating to "It's all gone wrong"). Hopefully audiences will pick up the good vibrations Dowse and Kaye send out with this unusual and therefore welcome comedy of ear-rors.