Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Te Arepa Kahi.
Recorded by the Patea Maori Choir in 1984, Poi E was an infectious song that became a cultural phenomenon and a cultural touchstone for the Maori people. It was the first song in the traditional Maori language to top the charts in New Zealand. It topped the charts for four consecutive weeks and even outsold Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. It has remained in the charts for nearly thirty years.
This lovingly made documentary is a celebration of the song and its impact over thirty years. Director Te Arepa Kahi (Mt Zion, etc) has drawn upon a wealth of archival material, super 8 stock footage, and interviews to tell the story about the creation of the song and what it means to New Zealand’s Kiwi population.
The success of Poi E created a new voice for the Maori people, and gave them a sense of pride in their identity and rich culture and history. We meet singer Dalvanius Prime, a larger than life character, who sounds like he might be a character from the latest Transformers movie. However, he was a successful singer and song writer in his own right, who had toured with the likes of Tina Turner and had even enjoyed a successful world tour with his band The Fascinations. Following the death of his mother, Prime returned home to Patea on the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Inspired to celebrate his own Maori heritage, Prime collaborated with teacher composer Ngoingoi Pewhairangi over a kitchen table one night in 1982 to create the titular song that has become a landmark of Kiwi culture. The song fused Maori language with a pop sensibility, and struck a chord with Maori people.
In the 1980s, the livelihood of the small rural town of Patea was threatened when its largest industry, the meat freezing works, was closed, putting many people out of work. But the town found its salvation through the recording of the song Poi E. We learn of the process to record the song in a studio that was built by contributions from the local community and of the immediate success it had in New Zealand. The Patea Maori Choir was even invited to perform the song before Queen Elizabeth at a Royal Command Performance.
Even though Prime died in 2002 his presence still looms large, and we get plenty of archival footage of the man through television interviews to give us a sense of his forceful personality. Some of the interview subjects are disarming and natural and bring some good natured humour to the material. Filmmaker Taika Waititi (the recent Hunt For The Wilderpeople, etc) and singer Stan Walker discuss the song and talk about what it has meant for generations of Kiwis.
Wisely the producers have resisted playing the song in its entirety until the end, when it is sung with the lyrics printed colourfully across the screen. We hear about the song and its impact, which creates a sense of expectation for audiences unfamiliar with it.
At an overly generous 92 minutes though this film is overlong for what it has to say, and there are moments of padding though. This could have been a 50-minute made for television documentary and it would have been much more effective.
Poi E: The Story Of Our Song is essentially a feel good documentary brimming with a sense of nostalgia and a sense of community spirit. Poi E will resonate strongly with New Zealand audiences but the film may not travel well in other markets.