Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: MIDNIGHT OIL: 1984

I am not nor ever was a fan of Midnight Oil. Their big shouting sloganeering choruses felt purpose built for all the wrong reasons. The music was prog rock without the solos. Their singer danced like a hippy at a party. They were playing to someone else. So, I went to this one to see what I'd missed.

First a little about Midnight Oil for those who have forgotten or have remained unknowing.

This sober documentary does what it says on the label and addresses the events and issues that influenced the band at its peak. Peak or plateau, though? Midnight Oil's career is the story of solid effort sustained for over a decade by 1984 to the point that the Oils were the biggest band in Australia, massive sellers in the charts and a legendary touring outfit. they weren't just big, though, they were politically minded and committed to their politics. Ponder, this is the era of synthpop, orange boofy hair where Goth was forming, providing nations of teenage pariahs with justification for withdrawal. Midnight Oil were reminding us that the world was a hair trigger away from nuclear apocalypse and brought fist pumping rock to the message. And then their singer campaigned for a Senate spot with the tiny People for Nuclear Disarmament. A rock star stepped away from mass adoration in order to accept an armful of manilla folders and an endless schedule of meetings and to-do lists. To go from masses of people singing his words back to him to a public gallery that assumed everything he said was smeared with agenda. That's big.

Through concert and backstage footage that director Ray Argall shot at the time, contemporary and recent interviews with band members and other figures in the organisation around them and a lot of contexualising news vision we are told the story of how a band that achieved everything it attempted to do in rock music might have taken it one crucial step further. And it's believable. Why? First, by this stage Midnight Oil had jettisoned the lifestyle. They were constantly touring and had found a kind of communion with their audiences that transcended the sex and drugs prerequsites. They had found that their message resonated into the furthest reaches of the landscape. This was at the dawn of the Hawke years when optimism and activism could be adopted by the same person without attendant cynicism. This film shows why there was no great contradiction about the notion of the swap that Peter Garrett intended. It was a year before Live Aid and seemed to emerge from nothing other than his own conviction.

Important word, that. Garrett's and the band's convictions about how their society could be and how a public gesture might assist the individual in the crowd to act. I used the word sober before to describe the whole film but that shouldn't be read as dull. Actually, you might take it as relief when you consider how even the least engaging figures from rock music history are given the rags to riches with a line of speed as long as the Bruce Highway. What's blessedly missing from this story is the PARTY (well, the Party only gets sentence case when it appears) and what's left is the work.

And work is what we see. Tours are organised. Records are made. Success is recorded. And then infiltrating from within is Peter Garrett's go at electioneering. Considering his evident ease with bridging the two types of interaction and the band's support, it begins to feel like metamorphosis. You can Google or Wiki the result of the campaign and I'll let you go ahead as that is only one thing on offer here. The other is extraordinary and defied my expectations: humility.

This is a rockumentary we're talking about, here. A film about a band who ascended to great popularity in the '80s and not a single clip of Molly Meldrum making a fool of himself talking about them. There is a clear sense of satisfaction from the band members at their success as an act but it's never smug. Montages of the origins of the band are laced with humour and fondness but we don't get anything like an upward trajectory. From steamy clubs where the human condensation rose to fall again as salty rain from low ceilings to oceans of fans in stadiums to outback gigs the message is about work. It's true that a comparable documentary about Cold Chisel  might feature this maxim but it would be plagued by the kind of '70s rockism that they managed to sustain as though punk really was the flash in the pan that hindsight made it. Then contrast the superb The Go-Betweens: Right Here which works from a very different part of the spectrum where the anecdotes are all personalities and quirks but is tempered by the ghostly spectre of riches that never arrive. And I guess I've reached my point.

I smirked at Midnight Oil and why? I sided left, walked near the banners (if not actually holding them aloft) at marches in Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Brisbane, felt the same unease at the ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher, feared the threat of nuclear annihilation ... you get the idea. So why shouldn't I have gone to at least one Oils gig or shelled out for an album? Why did I and everyone I knew smirk at the sound of the big OzRock intros and shouty slogans that I wouldn't dare contradict? Maybe it's because I didn't want to be schooled by more oldies, because the jolly pink giant at the mic doing the funky chicken between lines just seemed like another teacher doling out industry doses of worthiness. Maybe. But do you want to know what it really was? We ridiculed Midnight Oil because for all our middle class posturing and the sloganeering of our own, because all of us with the Soviet Poster haircuts and op shop fashion, our crappily unrehearsed bands with their derivative songs and the quiet smiles of approval from friends in the audience, our fishbowl exclusivity and imperious campus pluck were not needed by the likes of Midnight Oil. We were scarcely visible to them.

Go and see this film and take a good look at the audience. There's not a gelled spike among them. They come from the burbs full of beer and war cries and punch the light or each other the same way. And above them in the solar blast of stage lights the tall bald bloke called the times in a wail that cut stone with perfect pitch and swung and flailed, hemorrhaging kilojoules by the second with movements that never looked like dance moves but blurred in the light as the same festive anger that drove the punters in front of him. And while we triumphed at the twenty people we dragged along to an inner city pub they were reaching into the bush, filling town halls with experiences no one who saw them would forget. And they knew all the words and sang the choruses like football chants. Sheep in a flock? More like a demonstration.

We didn't get it because we didn't want to. We didn't get it because sour grapes. Maybe we missed out on music we really didn't dig (I'm still not a fan even after the film) but we did miss out on the message the same way we did when we laughed at the advice of the old bastards who had reared or taught us. The ones who did get the point didn't care about any of that because they knew the full body experience of the greatest rock music event. We even thought of that as bullshit. I'm not saying we were wrong, I just know now that they weren't either.

No comments:

Post a Comment