Andrew Cole is desperate to be a rock star. He took up the electric guitar as a teenager – though, as he notes, his playing was so poor that he frequently turned off the sound – before, in his 20s, becoming a Jim Morrison impersonator, then moving to Los Angeles to seek fame (a curious point here: an early subtitle in the film refers to him as a Canadian musician, but his accent is Scouse and he flies back and forth several times between LA and his home town of Liverpool). Cole soon realises that you can’t get very far covering other people’s songs, but he doesn’t have much luck writing his own, either. Luckily for him, Scottish singer-songwriter Andrew Frew donates a little anti-bullying ditty called “No Joke” to him. Cole, bullied as a youth, connects with the song and, inspired by the icky awful “We Are the World” single that’s such an embarrassment in the discographies of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen et cetera, decides to rope in a number of celebrities who inexplicably seem to owe him a favour, and chronicle the whole thing in a documentary film that also explores wider concerns around bullying.
The ten minutes or so showing the recording process might provide some interest to devoted fans of the musicians (Slash, Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy) and non-musicians (Jeff Goldblum, Sir Patrick Stewart, Charlie Sheen) who lend their talents – Pat Stewart’s confession of having been a bully might be called brave – but the song is relegated to being a subplot in what ultimately seems to be a piece of misguided therapy for Cole, who comes across as a deeply unappealing character. He’s unhealthily fixated on tracking down the main perpetrator of his bullying, someone whose full name is given many times, spoken aloud and in on-screen writing, which feels irresponsible when you think that the man is likely just some unremarkable figure with a job, a wife and kids nowadays. Certainly, he’s unlikely to be doing what Cole is, schmoozing it up with celebrities and pretending to be one himself.
But that sort of moral hypocrisy is evident everywhere in #NoJoke – the film so nakedly a piece of self-promotion that its title is its hashtag – which self-importantly puffs up the significance of Cole and Frew’s pretty lightweight song, drawing an unconvincing line from bullying to the Columbine shooting, whose perpetrators Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were both bullies and victims of bullying. This fact is mentioned but never really ruminated on, since precious time in the 70-minute flick is needed for a seemingly gleeful montage of CCTV footage of the actual shootings. Later, we’ll be told that “it’s a short walk from schoolyard bullying to hate crimes to genocide”, with no justification offered, and we’ll also get to enjoy a wrongheaded exploration of Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, that old favourite of armchair psychologists and bête noire of actual psychologists: a methodologically flawed experiment whose results have never been replicated, nonetheless routinely trotted out to support tedious arguments. You’ll be praying for the next time they cut back to Slash, playing his solo alone in an empty bowling alley. Of course, he’s backlit and there’s smoke everywhere, but I suspect that Slash supplies his own backlighting and smoke machines everywhere he goes.
#NoJoke itself is a charitable endeavour, with proceeds going to the Centre for Abuse Awareness. This is no doubt a noble cause, though the picture is unlikely to raise much in the way of proceeds. I’d recommend just donating directly, and skipping the movie. There’s something entirely seedy about the way Cole uses charity as a justification for his own narcissism (ranting at a bouncer that he deserves to be let in, since the bouncer would surely allow in Bruno Mars), revenge fantasies, and show-offism. He’s clearly getting a kick out of having celebs at his beck and call, and without needing to justify his position with, say, musical talent – his guitar playing is barely passable; his singing is beneath busker level; as for songwriting, it takes him months to finish writing the basically complete song that Frew hands him; and no charm or charisma is evidenced. His real motives are explicitly clarified towards the film’s end: “If [the song] helps anyone, great. But it’s not about them.”
#NoJoke is available on Demand from 22nd October.