Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul Williams.
This is a reverential and respectful documentary about blind indigenous singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu, who died at the age of 46 in July 2017 from liver and kidney disease caused by hepatitis, which he contracted as a child. According to traditional aboriginal lore, after a person has died his name and image cannot be used. However, the tribal elders gave the filmmakers special dispensation here as they thought Gurrumul’s life and legacy was important. Gurrumul himself approved the documentary only three days before he died.
Born blind, he has become an important figure in the local and international music scene with his haunting and soulful voice and his songs – a blend of gospel and folk sung in his traditional Yolngu language. He was a member of indigenous bands like the Saltwater Band and Yothu Yindi, best known for their chart topping anthemic hit Treaty, but he stood out for his musical ability and it was not long before he was convinced to go solo. His debut solo album recorded in 2008, sold over half a million copies and won an ARIA for Best Independent Release.
His music has seen him feted on the world stage where his voice captivated audiences. He has performed for the likes of Barak Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, sung with Elton John and even performed a duet with Sting for French television, although, as he admits, he didn’t feel any spiritual connection to the song Every Breath You Take.
But the introspective and elusive Gurrumul himself seemed indifferent to his success. He spoke little, preferring to let his music speak for itself. Gurrumul himself was a rather shy man, reticent to talk about himself, which was evidenced in the film’s opening scene, an awkward interview for the ABC in which he doesn’t answer even the blandest questions from the reporter. Michael Hohnen, his long-time musical collaborator and friend, does most of the talking where necessary. This means though that we don’t get any really personal insights from the man himself about his struggles, his motivation, and his attitude towards his success.
A humble man, he always seemed more comfortable at home amongst his family and friends. The documentary focuses on his roots and cultural heritage as much as the man himself and his musical journey. The film has been sparsely narrated by his aunt Susan Dhangal Gurrwiw, who gives us some insight into his family background, his struggles as a child adapting to his lack of sight, and the importance of country, culture and tradition in shaping his music.
The film has been directed by Paul Williams, who makes his feature film debut after having shot many music videos and short films in the Northern Territory, many of them for Skinnyfish Music, a company established by Mark Grose and Hohnen with the aim of taking aboriginal music to aboriginal people in remote communities. Grose, who was Gurrumul’s manager, and Hohnen were Williams’ entrée into making this documentary. Williams knows his way around these remote communities and he has an obvious respect for and understanding of their culture and traditions. He spent some four years working on the film, which was a labour of love for both him and Grose.
Four cinematographers have worked on the film – Gavin Head (Bad Girl, etc), Dan Maxwell (tv series House Husbands, etc), Katie Milwright (Looking For Grace, etc) and Matt Toll (Oscar nominated short film The Eleven O’Clock, etc) – and they capture some spectacular scenery of the harsh but beautiful natural beauty of Elcho Island and the magnificent countryside. There is some footage of Gurrumul in concert, as well as some archival footage and some rare 8mm footage shot at the Elcho Island community in Arnhem Land that was his home. Occasionally the film fades to black, a simple but effective reminder of his blindness. Veteran AFI award winning editor Ken Swallows (Malcolm, etc) has pulled the wealth of raw footage together and deftly shaped it into the 96 minutes we see on screen.
While this documentary may not be as incisive or as comprehensive as Amy, arguably the finest music doco of the past decade, it is still a fitting legacy to the man, whom Rolling Stone magazine called “Australia’s most important voice”. It is also a wonderful introduction to his music. Fans of the late singer will want to put this at the top of their must-see list.