Lov­ing the man be­hind the name

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

“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

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