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AACTA Docs Fest | Australia’s Music Legends on Film

Article by film and music reviewer Paul Waxman.

Music has always been a powerful force in popular culture so, understandably, an alliance between movies and music has made for some of modern film’s most celebrated achievements. Whether it’s the depictions of music fans (HIGH FIDELITY), ambitious musicians (WHIPLASH) or some of our musical greats (AMADEUS, I’M NOT THERE, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), there’s something about music on screen that strikes a chord with many of us.

Because of this, the popularity of the music-documentary has soared in recent years. Oscar®-winning and nominated features such as AMY, SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN and WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? help us remember fallen legends and discover artists hidden under our noses.

Australia’s music history is rich, extensive and enduring, but its documentation on film has been surprisingly lacking. The AACTA Award-winning mini series' MOLLYINXS: NEVER TEAR US APART: THE UNTOLD STORY OF INXS, and feature films such as BRAN NUE DAE and THE SAPPHIRES shed light on some of Australia’s great musical past, but it’s not quite the grounded style of the music documentary. Two of the feature documentaries making up AACTA's first-ever Best Feature Documentary Shortlist, WORKING CLASS BOY and GURRUMUL, explore two very different yet equally important parts of Australian music’s lineage in a format far-removed from the oft forced-feeling dramatisations of musician’s lives.

Since DON’T LOOK BACK (1967, Bob Dylan) and THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976, Led Zeppelin), the format of the music documentary has been quite simple: musicians are seen from a more candid perspective, often intercut with concert footage and backstage interviews. In more recent times, the popularisation of Ken Burns' documentary style and its subsequent editing effects has given filmmakers leeway in how they archive the lives of prolific artists. Tour logs, archive footage, interviews from family and friends, and in-studio recordings present the most exposed and emotional side of artists, creating tragic tales on screen. With so many important stories from artists needing to be told, there has been a commendable influx of music documentaries delving into the behind the scenes lives we barely know about and preserving iconic musicians on film. 

The Australian music scene, current and historic, is full of important stories that have been surely told but have never graced the silver screen. It’s because of this that the lack of Australian music documentaries is so confusing. This too is why features like GURRUMUL and WORKING CLASS BOY are in need of recognition.

GURRUMUL follows the life of the late ex-Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band member and solo musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu as he completes his final album, 'Djarimirri'. Accompanying Yunupingu through his great rise to recognition and his relationship with the Yolŋu people and his birthplace, Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island), the feature takes an honest look at him and his place in Australian history. The film spans his entire life, utilising Super 8 film from his childhood and fortunate home-video of his early days in music to highlight how his astonishing talent came to be. First-time director Paul Damien Williams was chosen specifically by Yunupingu to direct the film, and his inquisitive yet affectionate gaze is palpable throughout the film, capturing the bashful artist’s wonderful personality. The use of black screens also gives the audience a way to see from Yunupingu's perspective, as he has been blind since birth. Yunupingu was a shy and fragile man and this is respectfully clear throughout the documentary which celebrates his flaws and doesn’t belittle them. In many ways, GURRUMUL is how Australian music documentaries should be made in future. As a director, Williams took care - almost four years of production - to make sure Yunupingu and his legacy were depicted rightfully and graciously. It would be comparable to other artist documentaries but the story of Yunupingu is too important and unique to be like anything else that’s been told before.

The story of WORKING CLASS BOY is much more autobiographical. Adapted from his 2014 autobiography of the same name, the film explores the life and times of ex-Cold Chisel frontman Jimmy Barnes in complete, unreserved chronological order. From his poor childhood in Glasgow to his iconic Australian music career, his life story is told by the best possible documentor, himself. Directed by Mark Joffe, sit-down interviews with Barnes and his family are cut up by archive footage of Glasgow and live speeches Barnes gave across the world. The film adds a distinct edge of intimacy to the story as Barnes reflects about his early life on camera and even on location in his childhood towns in Cowcaddens, Glasgow, Gepps Cross, and Elizabeth in Adelaide. The soundtrack confirms many of the story’s themes as Barnes’ live performances of  ‘Reflections Of My Life,’ a duet with his son David Campbell, and his own song ‘Still A Long Way To Go’ act as the eloquent end of storyline chapters. Where another documentary would perhaps use disembodied narration to tell a story, WORKING CLASS BOY allows Barnes to tell the story using his words, his voice, his face and his body.

With these two distinct and compelling features paving the way for how we look at and make music documentaries, the future should be in good hands. Documentaries like GURRUMUL and WORKING CLASS BOY receiving praise forecasts a time in the future where untold Australian stories are documented with care, affection and curiosity. With other documentaries like HER SOUND, HER STORY aiming to change the way we see our industry, the time to make an Australian music-documentary has never been better


GURRUMUL and WORKING CLASS BOY are screening as part of AACTA Docs Fest.

GURRUMUL will screen online via AACTA TV (see more here).

WORKING CLASS BOY will screen in Sydney on 5 October, in Melbourne on 4 October, in Brisbane on 5 October and online via AACTA TV (see more here).

AACTA DocsFest screenings and AACTA TV are exclusive and complimentary to AFI | AACTA members. Membership is open to everyone and starts at just $70! Click here to join today and enjoy AACTA's Film Fest, Docs Fest and over $650 worth of annual benefits and events.


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