Loving the man behind the name
“All of them, they were just blinkin’ larrikins. We were busy keeping them out of trouble.”
That’s Joy McKean, who turned 90 in January, remembering the first time she met Slim Dusty and his musical mates.
Perhaps she was not surprised, then, that Slim’s first international hit was the 1957 song A Pub With No Beer, which went gold in Australia.
By that time, Joy had been married to the larrikin for six years. She was his wife, muse, coperformer, manager and, most of all, songwriter. Some of Slim’s best-known songs came from her mind and her pen, including Walk a Country Mile, Indian Pacific, The Biggest Disappointment and Lights on the Hill.
Slim, born David Gordon Kirkpatrick, near Kempsey, NSW, died of cancer in 2003, aged 76, as he was putting together his 107th album.
He is still at the centre of this documentary, directed by Kriv Stenders of Red Dog fame but so is the “I”, his wife and artistic collaborator. She was, Slim’s old mates remember, “the boss’’.
This movie is not about bringing a woman out of the shadows. Country music fans know how important Joy was. They know she wrote some of Slim’s most famous songs. Joy knows it, too, and she says so. Slim sold more than seven million albums, and she was an indispensable part of that.
And she was a singer-songwriter before she met him. She and her sister Heather, who is gloriously mischievous when interviewed, were the McKean Sisters, or the Famous McKean Sisters as they were billed on the poster for one of Slim’s early shows. There is wonderful footage of the two young women putting one of their songs on the air at Sydney radio station 2KY.
This is a movie about love. The love between Slim and Joy and their mutual love for rural Australia, which was returned in spades during their 50-plus years on the road together.
Joy is upfront about Slim’s imperfections as a husband and the challenges she faced as the mother of two young children. When Slim started “going to the movies’’ with attractive showgirls, Joy reeled him in. “There began the toughening up of Joy,’’ she says.
Joy is direct in the interviews. She tells it like it is. When she talks about sending her children to boarding school, so she and Slim could continue their Australia-wide tours, she cries, all these decades later. The children, Anne Kirkpatrick and David Kirkpatrick, country music singersongwriters themselves, are interviewed. They love their father. David notes that after “crossing the Nullarbor five times by the time I was six”, boarding school wasn’t so bad. There is a beautiful moment when Joy, who had childhood polio, remembers, soon after she met Slim, him helping her fix a broken shoe and being gentle and kind about her calipers. “He was a good man, even with all his shenanigans.’’ She laughs when she remembers how he coped with living in Sydney in the 70s, a decision she more or less forced on him. “Quite frankly, my beloved Slim was impossible to live with.”
They went back on the road and there is a heartlifting extended sequence about their relationship with Indigenous communities and Indigenous musicians.
That goes to another part of this love story: the love younger musicians have for the music Slim and Joy made. There are interviews with Paul Kelly, Don Walker, Missy Higgins, Kasey Chambers and Keith Urban, some of whom perform Slim Dusty classics.
Kelly is fascinating on Lights on the Hill, a sad song about a truck driver who runs off the road, for good. Yet it has an upbeat tempo. Kelly doffs his hat to this fine example of “music at odds with the lyrics”.
Slim and Joy were in the 1984 dramatisation of their early life and career, The Slim Dusty Movie, directed by Rob Stewart. Stenders skilfully blends scenes from this movie with real-life home movie footage supplied by Slim and Joy’s grandson James Arneman.
This archival film, which is beautiful to look at, and the interviews with Joy, are what make this movie “new” and a little bit special.
There are lovely snapshots from a different Australia, such as the letter Slim received offering his first recording session, addressed to “Slim Dusty, Esq.”. He chose the name when he was 11, but Joy spent her days with the man not the legend. “I loved the man. I didn’t care much about the name,’’ she says.
A Pub With No Beer gets a look in of course. We see Slim singing it in duet with the bloke who wrote it, Gordon Parsons, one of those “larrikins” Joy and her sister met back in the day.
This is an utterly charming film. It is chronological, so it ends with Slim’s death. The final song we hear, ahead of the end credits, is an exquisite rendition of The Biggest Disappointment from Missy Higgins.
Slim and I is in selected cinemas. If you can’t see it that way, look out for it on a streaming service or wait for its DVD release on December 9.
I think, for people of a certain age, it is a perfect Christmas stocking filler. As Slim noted in his 1969 song Christmas on the Station, “Ohh the kids are hanging stockings/And there’s one for me and you”.
Joy McKean, Slim Dusty and their baby daughter Anne