See it to believe it. Six “must-watch” Australian music documentaries

I’ve realised something recently about this blog. If you have never lived in Australia, my talking about its music scene purely theoretically might not be enough. I get it. Words and links to songs are cool but sometimes it’s best to see something to believe it. And if travelling to Australia is not an option…

… Australian cinematography comes to the rescue.

Part 15 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

Thankfully, several worthwhile music documentaries presenting very different aspects of the Australian music industry have been produced over the (not so very distant) years.

Here are the ones that – in my humble opinion – you should definitely put on your “to watch” list. They might be rare to come by outside of Australia but at least you’ll know what to keep an eye on.

GIRLS (DON’T) ROCK IN THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC INDUSTRY

HER SOUND, HER STORY

“We interrupt this program now to bring you the distressing news that women in music appear to be missing across the nation.”

The above words are taken from the trailer. Although Australia is perceived overseas as one of the most progressive countries when it comes to equality and human rights, female representation and respect for women in the Australian music business are still controversial topics. And they shouldn’t be, frankly speaking.

At the beginning of 2018 a Melbourne-based band, Camp Cope, brought attention to the poor representation of female bands on festival bills in the country. They called out the very popular Falls Festival specifically. Their comments sparked a huge and lengthy discussion across the industry, with even the Aussie edition of Huffington Post reporting on it as well.

Gender diversity is still one of the biggest issues in the festival line-ups Down Under. Female musicians getting paid like men do is another. So is being respected as a performing artist in general, holding decisive positions in the industry, working as hard as anybody else or just being taken seriously. And it’s all backed up by stats, facts, interviews and numbers in the doco.

I’ve mentioned before that Australia is a very diverse country and that diversity is reflected in the music business as well. But it’s not apparent enough on the female front. And all the women making appearances in the film (artists, music journalists or venue managers) give examples of why GENDER INEQUALITY is still reigning in the Australian music business right now and how it should be improved. ” It has to be a cultural shift”, says one of the interviewees.

And no, there aren’t too many men in this movie. And yes, the film makers are women as well. But maybe for once men can see what it’s like when they’re not part of the conversation.

THE AUSTRALIAN “WOODSTOCK”

SUNBURY 1972

Okay, to be fair – no other festival will ever compare to the legendary American Woodstock from 1969. But Sunbury, which you’ve most likely never heard of before, was definitely the closest music event in Australia.

First of all, because it wasn’t a one-off festival. It had four editions: from 1972 to 1975. They all took place around the Australia Day (26 January) long weekend on a private farm in rural Victoria belonging to George Duncan who offered his land to the organisers free of charge (epic!). The name – Sunbury – actually refers to a nearby town.

Secondly, because in its best first year approximately 35,000-40,000 people attended the festival. It was promoted as “the Rock Happening of 1972” and “three days of sun-filled togetherness” and, initially, it definitely lived up to the expectations. Sadly, last year attracted only about 16,000 music fans, for various reasons (amongst them, weather, mind you) but mostly due to higher ticket prices (from AUD 6 in 1972 to AUD 20 in 1975 -> from approximately AUD 64 to AUD 213 today).

Thirdly, due to its initial popularity, a second stage to promote the so-called “alternative” music (i.e. poetry, acoustic) was added in 1974 and 1975. Apart from popular local acts, like Wild Cherries or Chain, and imports from from the neighbouring New Zealand (Max Merritt and The Meteors), international artists had interesting episodes at the festival as well. Queen, who performed in 1974, were allegedly booed. And headliners from 1975, Deep Purple, saw their roadies have a beef with AC/DC’s roadies (legends!).

There were other festivals organised in Australia in the first half of the 70s. And there are heaps of music events happening in Australia nowadays. But Sunbury became a legend because it was fortunate to have been DOCUMENTED so well for its time. To the extent that its artwork was featured on a stamp series Australian Rock Posters, released by Australia Post, and several recordings from various editions of the festival are still in circulation.

Many of you reading this blog weren’t even born when the first Sunbury took place in 1972. So treat this documentary as an authentic music history lesson. Most likely, on a VHS as well 🙂

ABORIGINAL STORIES

GURRUMUL

I had a little argument with myself choosing the right documentary for this section. There are at least three awesome movies narrating Aboriginal legacy and influence on the Australian music scene and all of them are super interesting.

There’s The Song Keepers – a positive message about a group of Indigenous women who have been passing on German hymns and Baroque music in their native languages for four generations, and finally took them on tour to Germany. Or Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy – a touching story of an Aboriginal leader who tries to convince his son to carry their traditions through music and employing Gotye. But I’ve decided that the portrait of Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu shows the duality and COMPLEXITY of living the Aboriginal and “White Fella” lives in the most comprehensive way.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was a revered, visually impaired Aboriginal musician who played the guitar “upside down” (the right-handed guitar, being left-handed). His extraordinary craft and soft voice made for an exceptional combination that contributed to his global fame. He was one of the very few Indigenous musicians who performed at the Sydney Opera House. He also won numerous ARIA awards and travelled the world with his records. Although he sang in English as well, his last album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) contained only songs performed in native Aboriginal languages, with the accompaniment of a philharmonic orchestra and arranged in the classical music way.

Apart from Gurrumul’s musical journey, the documentary concentrates on his internal identity struggles. He was faithful to his land, language, family and traditions to the core. On the other hand, he also lived in the “Balanda” (a white person’s) world. His story clearly shows how different the two realms are. But the hope is that – somehow – they can be “reconciled” through music.

If you ever want to try and begin to understand the First Peoples of Australia, I believe Gurrumul is a very good place to start.

MELBOURNE MUSIC SCENE

NOW SOUND. MELBOURNE’S LISTENING 2016-2018

I’ve said it numerous times and I’ll say it again: Melbourne is the Live Music Capital of the World. And this documentary proves it 100%.

Now Sound shows a very “here and now” Melbourne. The movie was released only last year (2018) and documents the years 2016-2018. And let me tell you this much: it’s incredible to see how quickly things are happening in this very dynamic business in the span of only 2 years.

The documentary concentrates on the “music mecca” in Melbourne, that is: the inner northern suburbs, like Fitzroy, Brunswick, Preston, Thornbury or Northcote. But I assure you they represent the “Melbourne music identity” like nothing else. The bands, the clubs, the trends, the labels, the record stores… Music is the centre of it all. This is the happy aspect of the story.

Funnily enough, despite the globally recognised status it has in the live music scene, Melbourne doesn’t really have it easy. There are constantly things that threaten it and make it difficult for both the artists and fans to do what they love – perform and listen to live music. Neighbours complain about living close to “loud” and “rowdy” music venues, musicians are not paid what they should be, liquor laws put music-related businesses at the risk of bankruptcy… And, on top of that, literally nobody can make a living from music in Melbourne. Yep, the music industry struggle is real.

What this film shows very well, in my view, is the constant change, reaction and EVOLUTION of the “Melbourne sound”, according to the circumstances that surround and shape it. Something that definitely helps it stay relevant all this time. Melbourne loves its music, and the music loves its city back.

As per the trailer itself, Now Sound “speaks to an experience of what it’s like to live in Melbourne at this time”. True that!

  • If you want to dive a bit deeper into the history of the Melbourne underground music scene, check out this documentary as well: We’re Livin’ On Dog Food. It talks about the post-punk movement between 1977-1981 and mentions Nick Cave and INXS, amongst others.

A LEGEND

MYSTIFY – MICHAEL HUTCHENCE

“Michael always had this aura about him”, says one of the voices in the documentary’s trailer. It’s hard to disagree. His story, whether as the lead singer of INXS, a celebrity or human being in general, fascinates Australia (and the rest of the world) till this day. Even over 20 years after his unfortunate and premature death, there is a certain desire to dig into his complicated and tragic personality which was tied intimately with the music he created and STARDOM he couldn’t come to terms with.

There have been several attempts at showing Michael’s “true” story, his role within INXS and the band’s place in the Australian music scene. In 2017 Channel 7 (Australian TV) aired a documentary Michael Hutchence: The Last Rockstar that was not fully endorsed by the band but had some new insights into his life and music career. For two evenings Australians held their breath in front of the TV to hear previously “unreleased” songs and Michael’s “famous last words”.

Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to show the INXS singer in the way that will satisfy everybody. Michael Hutchence was one of those people who polarised: some loved him to bits, some hated him to the core. At least he evoked feelings and, as an artist that he always wanted to be perceived as, it would definitely make him happy. It’s public knowledge that Michael was (sadly) a troubled and alienated personality. That vulnerability made him so talented and exceptional but – ultimately – took him away from us.

Richard Lowenstein, who directed Mystify, filmed both Michael and the band for many years. He promises “a powerfully intimate and insightful portrait of the internationally renowned INXS frontman”, composed of footage obtained from friends, acquaintances and family. It’s said to shed some more light on the events that made Michael “cross over to the dark side”.

The documentary was premiered in Australia at the beginning of June and is now coming to selected cinemas in Europe and the UK as well.

And here’s a bombshell: I haven’t had a chance to see it yet* but am hoping to catch a screening in the (very) near future. Being an INXS fan, expect a review when I do. And for now, I can only trust the critics…

AN EXPERIMENT

PRISON SONGS

Correct me if I’m wrong: prison life wouldn’t normally be the first choice for a musical. But it didn’t stop the film makers from fighting for the project.

Prison Songs is an Australian TV documentary (produced by the SBS channel) that shows life in the Berrimah prison in Northern Territory (NT). Stories of the individual inmates are told through songs. The music for the songs was written by acclaimed composers but the lyrics came from the project’s participants directly. And just to be clear: the protagonists are real inmates, jailed for real crimes with real life problems. And the prison is as real as it gets as well.

To my knowledge, it is the only film of its kind in the world. It wasn’t easy to make it, either. Because it depicts the inconvenient truths about Australia, i.e. the percentage of Aboriginal population in state prisons, their problems with alcohol, drugs and violence, the living conditions in Aboriginal communities… It’s not easy to watch but if you concentrate on the LYRICS, you’ll be able to decipher some interesting and moving stories.

  • The Fauves – 15 Minutes To Rock is another interesting Australian music documentary. For a change, it is a story of a band that “almost” made it in the music business.

UPDATE:

*I have watched Mystify since and I think it’s awesome

References:

  1. Sunbury (1972) IMdb note
  2. Her Sound, Her Story official website
  3. Now Sound. Melbourne’s Listening 2016-2018 official website
  4. Gurrumul IMdb note
  5. Mystify – Michael Hutchence official Facebook page
  6. https://www.roninfilms.com.au/feature/11690/prison-songs.html

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