If you didn’t know the context, some things Kate Spicer says could sound really wanky. “I have a really deep connection with Tom”; “I feel very, very, very close to my brothers.” Lots of celebrities surrounded by PRs seem instructed to insert the odd spurt of emotion like this to make their otherwise sterilised answers sound a little bit human. The result is just, well, wanky.
But Kate, a journalist, talks about “deep connections” without sounding fake. When you take a road trip across America with your two brothers to meet Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and record the arguments and the anguish – “this beast that took on its own identity” – those family relationships are picked apart. And rebuilt stronger.
You decide on this slightly mad plan because for ten years your brother Tom Spicer has said, “wanna meet Lars”. You do it because he has a learning disability called Fragile X syndrome, which shares some traits with autism, and you want to make possible the relationships he struggles to build for himself. You do it because while you and your other sibling, Will, a film maker, have been getting on with cosmopolitan London lives, Tom lives in a care home in Devon. You realise you’ve drifted apart.
Mission to Lars is not an art house documentary. It’s about a real family on a real trip to make a real dream happen for Tom. The three siblings pack their bags, hire a camper van and take off, following the heavy metal band on the last three dates of their US tour.
The film rebuilds the Spicers’ relationship. Their parents divorced when all three children were very young, and the family split. At the beginning of the film, Kate admits: “I’ve never earned that mug [Tom] gave me with ‘Best sister in the world’ on it, and Will – he hasn’t even got a mug.”
“I think all of us were hoping and dreaming it [Mission to Lars] would rebuild our relationship, which it did,” Kate explains. “But then what’s kind of annoying is people then look at it as if it’s this kind of passion project and you’re taken less seriously as a film. I think that’s a bit unfair, you’ve got to take something on its merits.”
She’s right. That family nucleus does not detract from Mission to Lars as a film. It makes it all the better. Kate says: “A lot of people have said this when they come out of the film – they go, ‘Look, don’t worry, that’s not a portrait of a learning disabled family – that’s the portrait of a family.’” The strewn coffee cups, Kate filmed in an old nightie at 7am, Tom’s protests. People with Fragile X find unexpected situations very difficult. They get upset about being outside their comfort zone. And about lateness. And noise. Unsurprisingly, as the three siblings roll along American motorways, and through Las Vegas, there are a lot of unexpected situations, lateness, and noise. Tom is definitely outside of his comfort zone. At times, he just says, “I want to go home.”
But the film is about learning, and all three siblings do.
“We had to do it [Tom’s] way – and that’s what’s humbling about it.” Kate and Will learn to listen to the clues “that we were so up ourselves we hadn’t noticed before.” So when Tom says one of the Metallica concerts is too loud (people with Fragile X hear sound about ten times louder than others) headphones are provided. It makes sense.
I’m going to spoil it. They do complete the mission. Tom does meet Lars.
On the last date of the tour, the very small drummer of the biggest metal band in the world walks through a backstage door. Tom beams, and leaves clutching his own pair of Ulrich’s drum sticks.
You might cry watching Mission to Lars. But you will more probably sit there with a big smile on your face. Kate says that was one of the aims: “The point of the film was to entertain people. If you entertain people, they will think about it. That was it.”
Mark Goldring, CEO of learning disabilities charity Mencap, spoke at the film’s premier. He tells me now: “What is also important is that the film highlights that Tom is not just a person with a learning disability. He is a complex, likeable person with dreams and aspirations, and plenty of challenges, just like any of us.”
Kate laughs a lot, but she speaks seriously about society’s treatment of people with learning disabilities. She says there is “massive, massive prejudice … Our treatment of them is still barbaric.”
But the point of the film is not to create pity. Kate says she did not want to represent her brother, “like an African kid with flies round his eyes. That wasn’t how we were going to represent Tom.”
The family learn to show their love in Lars, and there’s nothing wanky about it. Kate wants to hug Tom a lot in the film. Was that a new feeling? “I started to want to hug Tom a long time ago, cos I wanted to communicate love to him, because you can’t communicate it in other ways.”
Hugs bind the film together. “[Tom] knows it’s funny, you can see, like I chase him for a hug and then we have one and it’s quite fun.”
It’s probably fair to say that by the end of Lars, Kate has earnt her “best sister in the world” mug.
Mission to Lars is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 8th April. 50p from the cover price goes to Mencap.