Saturday, August 10, 2013
MIFF Session 15: THE SUNNYBOY: Concentration
After Uni my gig going career trailed off. As a creaky twenty-one year old I pretty much stopped going to gigs and put my head down to write the great unfinishable Australian novel. I no longer had a working band. Going to other people's gigs felt like a self-punishment (yep, that's the humbling modesty of youth). So I lost touch with Sunnyboys apart from being hooked by their video for Love in a Box, a terrific plaintive song with a beautiful chiming Stratocaster riff, none of the old limited musical vocabulary, and sombre floating vocals. An interview with the band I came across in RAM revealed it was about dependence on various things like drugs or anything that could be packaged as a cure all. Noting this lovely bit of work I set them down again and moved to Melbourne. Many years later a girlfriend put a compilation album of theirs on and I heard Love in a Box again but much bigger and fuller through a decent system. It padded my hangover life codeine and I wondered what had become of them.
Well, here it is. Jeremy Oxley, songwriter, lead guitarist and instantly recognisable vocalist had ridden the fame wave in the early '80s until the business with its solid claws found his secret weakness and throttled it until he collapsed in a heap of schizophrenia, became erratic, imploded as a working musician and descended into a fog of uncontrol. Well, that's the story I heard.
It's pretty much the one that happened as well but there's a lot more to tell. In the Q&A after the screening, director Kaye Harrison revealed that her first point of entry into the project was the issue of mental illness, finding her human subject later. What we see in the film, to use the language of the Occupy movements, is a one-percenter schizophrenic. I don't mean he's rich but that, after his travails, he is cared for by family and in a relationship that while it can be visibly tested seems stable and healthy. He is not among the great grey statistics of socially paralysed shut-ins, tram stop ranters or heavily medicated still-lifes of the stereotype.
Nevertheless, frequently bizarre, diabetically obese, he is immersed in his condition and needs the care he receives. What's left is the rest, the lost years and changing relations with family and others, particularly his brother Peter Oxley who in the family history traditionally followed his younger brother's example from boyhood onwards. Their history is an uneasy one a kind symbiosis of competition and support interrupted frequently by abandonment. A truly cinematic moment occurs when Peter, angered by getting a journalist out to speak to a resistant Jeremy kicks a deflated soccer ball around the backyard and curses himself for his lack of foresight, only his foot and the ball are in shot.
After a spry but solid introduction detailing the brothers' upbringing on the northern NSW coast and formation of the bands that would lead to Sunnyboys we land on the problem of Jeremy's schizophrenia, the thing that won't go away. Perhaps it's because he got there from fame, and I was already interested in his story that I didn't feel the screentime dragging. The repetitive exchanges between Jeremy and his wife to be almost always end in stalemate or exasperation. He plays to the camera with a glint in his eye. Yes, he's crazy as a loon but there is yet enough of what he always was to shine through and keep us hoping for deliverance, the way we might well have hoped for Syd Barrett or Rocky Erikson. When he sings his old songs it's in the voice of someone uncomfortable with the memory of them, mocking them on a kind of first strike principle.
When, after a lot of time and trouble he joins his old band on stage for a test gig under a false name the introduction to Happy Man stutters to life and the big D minor chord sounds to herald the first line, he delivers it perfectly, concentrated, meaning every syllable. He loosens up visibly and the song roars on. I welled up.
The journey here might seem a little gentle but as it progresses there is an inescapable sense that some agonising care has been taken over years to make it look that way. If this is counterproductive to offering a holistic portrayal of Oxley's condition it might also serve to calm fears of the nature of the disorder (that it is not always unmanagable) and to assuage the vats of scuttlebutt which had him tearing up the rubber room. He's doing ok.
But one moment haunts me still. He is speaking about a phase of his condition which left him confused and angry and he describes it with a phrase which was the title of another band's album and line of one of its songs, a band rising at the same time as Sunnyboys to a more sustained success: "it felt," he says, staring off," like a blurred ... crusade. It was a blurred crusade."