Kriv Stenders is a busy man. The writer-director-producer best known for the Red Dog adventures has two films showing as we speak, the urban drama Australia Day, which David Stratton reviewed last week, and the one I am reviewing today, the rock ’n’ roll documentary The Go-Betweens: Right Here.
Some people thrive on being busy and on the present evidence Stenders is one of them. This documentary, an elegant, poignant take on the independent Brisbane band that never had a Top 40 hit but which is loved by lots of people, particularly from generation X, is one of the best music movies I have seen.
This is good news for another reason: it raises hopes that Stenders will pull off the almost impossible when his miniseries remake of one of the greatest Australian films, Wake in Fright, starts on the Ten Network on October 8.
The Go-Betweens: Right Here starts with the surviving member of the original two-man band, the urbane, handsome Robert Forster. As the living one, he guides us through the powerful, painful ups and downs of the band from its loose inception at the University of Queensland in 1975, when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was premier, to its frequent attempts to break into the British market, to its late success back home.
It gradually becomes clear, however, that the remarkable, tragic centre of this story is the one who can’t speak for himself any longer, Grant McLennan, a “boy wonder”, an introvert, a drinker and drug user who died in 2006 aged 48. Forster has written about their chaotic life together in his fine memoir Grant and I.
“You can’t imagine how far ahead of everyone else he was,’’ Forster says. “I hadn’t met anyone like him, not even close.”
While the Go-Betweens started as a duo, the band grew to four members and for a while five. All of them are interviewed, including the two women, drummer Lindy Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, who fell in love with Forster and McLennan respectively, and who were hurt and angry with their exclusion from the event- ual decision to break up the band. “We reject being defined as ‘girlfriends’,’’ Brown says.
Rock writer Clinton Walker, one of the funniest people interviewed, puts the case for the composition of the band with laconic humour. Australian rock was “all beefcake” at the time, led by the likes of Jimmy Barnes, Midnight Oil and the Angels. Forster and McLennan “were two guys with acoustic guitars, daggy shirts, daggy hair’’. They looked like “such poofters ... Of course they had to have a girl in the band!’’
A lot of now-famous Australian musicians are interviewed, their thoughts mixed with file footage from gigs in the late 1970s and 80s. The clips from a night in Brisbane involving the GoBetweens, Ed Kuepper and the Laughing Clowns and the Nick Cave-led the Birthday Party are a riot. Cave’s collaborator Mick Harvey tells a droll story about the day Nick picked up McLellan’s guitar and couldn’t make it work.
Paul Kelly tells a moving story about the first time he heard Cattle and Cane, one of the band’s great songs. He was driving and “I had to pull over’’. He describes the Go-Betweens as making a sort of pop that was “a beautiful, mutant thing, which is longer lasting in the end”. Dave Graney pops up, with dry wit as always, as does Lloyd Cole.
Away from the footlights, family members are interviewed too. McLennan’s sister Sally is candid and moving. She lost not just a brother but the person who bound together the family.
There are clips, too, from radio and TV interviews, including from landmark ABC music show Countdown, and it is here we see and hear McLennan. “We’re not a trendy band,’’ he says, “we’re a groovy band, and I like that.” Groovy did not result in hit records, and while the various members had different views on this, it does seem the consensus was that it didn’t matter.
The best films open other doors. As last week’s I Am Not Your Negro took me to the library so I could read more of James Baldwin, this beautifully shot, thoughtful documentary has sent me to the musical equivalent to listen to the Go-Betweens and their contemporaries.
The Go-Betweens, from left: Amanda Brown, Grant McLennan, Lindy Morrison, Robert Vickers and Robert Forster