The Weekend Australian - Review

SPOTLIGHT Perth composer, singer and sound designer RACHAEL DEASE, 41, has four projects at Perth Festival, including Hymns for End Times, a reflection on the catastroph­ic bushfires of 2019-20 based on her debut solo album

Arts doyenne Katharine Brisbane is optimistic despite adversity in the sector, writes Matthew Westwood

- INTERVIEW BY: Bridget Cormack

As well as singing your own work at Perth Festival you’ve written the scores for Barking Gecko’s House and WA Youth Theatre Company’s Beside, and worked on the multi-site sound installati­on Witness Stand. In the beginning, what or who set you on this particular path?

I started this whole career in music when I was 10 or 11 and (successful­ly) auditioned for the music scholarshi­p school in Perth playing Hello Dolly on the recorder. And it was just because my wonderful music primary school teacher thought I had something. I’d never had music lessons. I didn’t come from a music family. And I honestly think naivety has kept me doing slightly bonkers things ever since.

How does it feel to be singing your musical vignettes, Hymns for End Times, and to have the focus on you when you’re so often behind-thescenes writing music?

It’s not something that I seek out. I find that when I do it, though, it feels really second nature. It feels like I’m exhaling and I haven’t been able to breathe for a while. Hymns for End Times was such a personal album and the wonderful arrangers have taken this really in-depth work and found a way to make it work for the orchestra and the choir. It’s a bit of a dream to have a work like this performed. I would feel the same way if someone else was singing it on my behalf.

You wrote this album during the 201920 bushfires. What were you doing back then?

Western Australia didn’t have the fires to the same extent as NSW but we did have quite a few in the north and it was quite an apocalypti­c scenario. I had a young baby and I’d just received a residency to Gallop House (in Dalkeith) and so we were kind of packing up to move into this big white colonial house on the river. I was looking at the pink orange bruised skies, seeing images that were happening nationwide and nursing my one-year-old son and trying to process a bunch of different feelings about that.

And now with the recent fires around Perth and the floods to the north we’ve kind of come full circle …

It’s been quite strange. A few days ago we had ash raining down on us. I’ve never seen anything like it. The Wooroloo fires were closer and they were certainly very fast and furious. It was raining ash and we were going into lockdown and trying to figure out how to present this work that a year ago wasn’t even written about the same scenario. I had to pinch myself a couple of times.

Has becoming a mother changed you as a musician and composer?

I wouldn’t say there’s been some huge revelation that’s changed the way I create work but on a practical level it has made me really make hay while the sun shines. It’s made me pick projects based on how much I’m willing to take time away from (my son). I really will pick projects that are with good people, that are interestin­g and I’m lucky I’m at a point where I can do that. Colleagues and the people you create work with have the potential to make or break your psyche a little bit so it’s important I work with people who don’t affect me emotionall­y or mentally like that because I don’t want to bring that kind of work home. And I bring a lot of work home!

Hymns for End Times is showing on February 18 at His Majesty’s Theatre as part of Perth Festival. 3

Katharine Brisbane has been around long enough to have witnessed several changes of scene in the Australian arts landscape. She was theatre critic for this newspaper for seven years from 1967, the year Harold Holt announced the formation of the National Gallery of Australia and the forerunner to the Australia Council. She was the first publisher of David Williamson’s plays, saw the rise of Australian cinema’s New Wave in the heady 1970s, and lived through the period when the performing arts became, for better or worse, a state-sponsored exercise.

In the two decades since she founded her non-profit body, Currency House, she’s seen the impact of globalisat­ion, the disruption and opportunit­ies of the digital era, the whiplash policy shifts, and in the past year the great shutdown of theatres, galleries and other places of cultural sharing.

And yet Brisbane, 89, is optimistic. There’s a “whole lot of talent” waiting to burst out of the nation’s rehearsal studios and workshops, she says. And the trials of the past year, far from burying creative people in a morass of defeat, have instead given many a shot in the arm.

“From what I hear about what people are doing, they’re being pretty enterprisi­ng — it’s encouragin­g, that,” she says. “And the arts have always been noticed in adversity, not when everyone’s comfortabl­e. So I’m quite optimistic about what’s going to happen. I think we’re going to get rid of a lot of the nonsense.”

Currency House has been the publisher since 2004 of the Platform Papers, a quarterly provocatio­n on matters affecting the cultural sector, written by people who work in and around it, from administra­tors Wesley Enoch, Robyn Archer and Lindy Hume, to academics Stuart Cunningham and David Throsby, and practition­ers such as designer Stephen Curtis, actor Lex Marinos and playwright Andrew Bovell.

Brisbane has written the latest, and it comes as Currency House emerges from a refurbishm­ent. Brisbane is stepping down as chairwoman, and her daughter Harriet Parsons will take over running the organisati­on. Julian Meyrick will become the Platform Papers’ general editor.

Like many writers, Brisbane says she does her thinking through the act of compositio­n. In her paper to be published next month (March), On the Lessons of History, she draws upon her vast experience and on the contributi­ons of 62 previous Papers to diagnose what we’ve been through, and how far we’ve got to go.

One of the more urgent papers was theatre director Lee Lewis’s in 2007, Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre. Her observatio­ns are now part of the mainstream conversati­on about diversity and representa­tion; at the time, Brisbane says, she and Lewis copped a lot of flak, particular­ly from organisati­ons which assumed, rightly or wrongly, they were the targets of criticism. “Sydney Theatre Company assumed that the whole thing was about them, but they weren’t even mentioned in the paper,” Brisbane says. “I did notice after 12 months or so that the casting on stage was starting to colour up a bit. Nowadays, there’s no discrimina­tion, I don’t think, against an Aboriginal actor taking on a part that the director wants.”

I’m sitting with Brisbane in her rooftop apartment in Sydney’s Redfern, above the offices where her company, Currency Press, continues to publish plays by Australian writers — including, recently, Yve Blake’s Fangirls and Andrea James’s Sunshine Super Girl. In her day, Brisbane was a formidable critic and evidently was successful in the niche business of arts publishing, continuing the business she had founded with her husband Philip Parsons who died in 1993. With advancing years, she has become frail, her eyes a watery pale blue, and she admits to memory lapses — the result of having had some minor strokes.

She keeps her mind active by doing jigsaws, and the one she has on the go is of a painting by Klimt, a diabolic field of gold and flesh tones. “My granddaugh­ter brought me that one as a present and I’m doing my best,” she says. “I manage to get three or four pieces in every day, just by looking at it for a minute or two. It’s a problem-solving thing.”

Piecing together the insights from 16 years of Platform Papers has been a bit like doing a jigsaw, too. Brisbane’s preoccupat­ion all along has been to understand the interrelat­ionship between Australia’s artists and society, mediated by public attitudes and policy settings. “I’m interested in making the connection between our society and the way it behaves — its public policy — and the arts: where the arts sits in all of this,” she says, and then adds: “It hasn’t been sitting anywhere — it’s been squatting outside I think, for the past 20 years.”

Brisbane looks back to the origins of the Australia Council and the combinatio­n of bureaucrac­y and dependency that has come to define the subsidised arts. As she sees it, the priorities are back to front: instead of supporting artists to go about their work — “to have an idea, and follow it through, and see where it goes” — the Australia Council instead required artists to deliver predetermi­ned outcomes. “That’s not how artists think,” she says. “They (bureaucrat­s) think in terms of outcomes, we think in terms of process.”

The term “art form” earns her special scorn, suggesting as it does box-ticking rather than flights of imaginatio­n. Brisbane writes: “Art is a quality that can be applied to myriad forms but has no form of its own. It is an expression of certain values.”

“It only came to me in writing this piece why my objection to the word art form is so strong — I just hated it,” she says. “Because of that way of thinking, the Australia Council was set up to look at the outcomes rather than the people.” This is the “nonsense” she mentions earlier: “Trying to make people all the same, just for the convenienc­e of the people who have to regulate them … That would make for a boring country.”

What are the alternativ­es to an outcomes-led model that uses taxpayers’ money?

“That’s a hard question,” Brisbane says, tapping the table. “I think the arts are pretty well ungovernab­le. But what was needed was some trust — you can’t make any progress without it.”

In her paper Brisbane tracks the debates that have animated the arts across the past two decades: from the role of the ABC and its charter obligation­s to Australian culture, to various attempts to give the arts economic value and to embed them in policy. She points to the crises that have engulfed tertiary institutio­ns including NIDA and the ANU School of Music, and the 2015 funding interventi­on by then arts minister George Brandis that exposed a dismaying lack of solidarity between big and small arts organisati­ons.

Other papers looked at ways to advance Indigenous performing arts, including the notion of a national Indigenous theatre company, and at the special conditions affecting contempora­ry dance, jazz, drama and other discipline­s.

Brisbane concludes that while the Australia Council was “fatally flawed” in its priorities, the Australian system has given us arts companies, venues and institutio­ns that possibly would not exist if left to the private sector. In many ways this makes it even more curious that there is not a national cultural policy, and a properly resourced federal arts department dedicated to “fostering collaborat­ive enterprise­s”.

“Reforming the arts requires good advisers, good records, a collaborat­ive strategy, funds to experiment and a living wage,” Brisbane writes.

“My hope is that, as we come out of this dark period in our history, Australia might take the lead in the challenge to make the world a kinder, more inclusive place than it has been.”

Harriet Parsons, who has succeeded her mother as chair of Currency House, says she is planning to continue the organisati­on’s advocacy work and to return to the front line of debate, after a hiatus this past year.

With the University of Sydney, she is planning a “creative convention” in July that will involve all the authors of Platform Papers in a discussion about Australia’s cultural future. Quarterly publicatio­n of the Platform Papers will resume next year.

Brisbane has spent a lifetime around creative people, sharing their triumphs and disappoint­ments, and running an operation that continues to be an important player in the nation’s cultural life.

She considers herself lucky to have been a part of it all. “It’s been quite magical, in a way.”

With its preference for writing long, intricate arrangemen­ts built on pummelling double-kick drums, distorted guitar tones, throat-shredding vocals and occasional flourishes of violin, progressiv­e metal band Ne Obliviscar­is has not yet threatened to unseat pop stars by appearing anywhere near the top of mainstream sales charts. Yet while the six-piece act has been steadily plying its trade to a decidedly niche audience since forming in Melbourne in 2003 and releasing three albums, there is one major chart in which the group is undoubtedl­y No 1.

Theirs is one of the great untold success stories of contempora­ry Australian music, as across five years, the band has earned more than $700,000 directly from its fans through a membership platform called Patreon.

It’s a mighty and life-changing achievemen­t from a littleknow­n band with a small but powerful global following, and it’s a model other artists — both groups and solo performers — would do well to consider in a precarious industry still reeling from the devastatin­g economic effects of the pandemic.

It all started when, towards the end of an American tour in March 2016, the band’s violinist and vocalist Tim Charles filmed a bare-bones video of himself near Cleveland, Ohio, talking down the barrel of a camera and making a direct appeal to join Ne Oblicessfu­l, viscaris — whose name is Latin for “forget not” — on its journey into online patronage, which was then an unusual and largely unknown concept.

“The way the industry works is that we do this — we lose tens of thousands of dollars on every tour — and we get treated like special people, but nobody gets paid a dollar,” he says. “It’s a crazy, crazy industry, and things need to change — not just for us, but for a lot of bands, to be able to keep doing this.”

His pitch was an immediate success: in its first month on Patreon, the band earned about $10,000, which allowed the six musicians to swiftly book and announce a return trip to the US within the space of a few weeks, as well as a run of European shows towards the end of 2016.

Without the support of their fans, Charles tells Review, “That tour would not have happened, because we literally just wouldn’t have had the money to get there in the first place. It was only two or three months away by the time we announced it, and it was an instant indication of, ‘Thank you for your support, and here is your thank you — we’re coming back’.”

Having previously run a world tour crowd-funding campaign in 2014 that raised $86,132 to visit the US, Europe and parts of Asia, Ne Obliviscar­is knew its fans were willing to put their money precisely where their passion lay. Still, the immediate uptake from hundreds of listeners scattered around the world took the six musicians by surprise, too.

“That was very much the turning point,” says Charles, who also manages the band. “It was a very instant thing of either we’re going to shut down all our touring for a year just to try and work out how to come up with some money — or, because the Patreon was suc

actually, let’s just keep going. And it’s because we kept going that we managed to get to where we are now.”

That was nearly five years ago. As of February 2021, some 796 patrons are funding the band to the tune of about $8800 a month, in the form of a membership fee that ranges from $2 to $250.

In turn, patron rewards range from “access to exclusive giveaways and competitio­ns and a warm fuzzy feeling inside” at the $2 tier, up to the $250 “grand master ultimate VIP” tier limited to 10 people worldwide, which includes unlimited tickets to its headline shows and soundcheck­s, dinner with the band when they’re in your town and the chance to hear snippets of new material before anyone else.

At Review’s request, Charles logs in to Patreon to check the band’s lifetime earnings on the platform. In its first month of March 2016, Ne Obliviscar­is earned US$7499 ($9850). (Patreon operates on American dollars, but most of the earnings appearing henceforth in this story will be in Australian dollars.)

In its first year, the band earned $137,884, while as of February 9 it had made $712,085. Each of these are net earnings, after Patreon fees of between 5 and 10 per cent had been subtracted.

While it’s important to note that these figures are divided between the six band members, it still represents a substantia­l war chest of capital that’s well beyond the reach of all but the most successful Australian bands working today.

Even in an ordinary year, those acts are subject to income peaks and troughs depending on their recent touring activity, as well as recording and performanc­e royalties and merchandis­e sales. A regular, reliable monthly wage is a rare luxury indeed.

“We create niche music; we’re never going to be the biggest

band in the world whatsoever,” says Charles with a laugh. “But there are some people that really care about what we do. Most bands our size can’t tour as much as we do; they can’t invest as much on the records as we do; they can’t commit the same amount of time as we do, because they don’t have this. For a band our size, I really do think that we’re probably the highest paid band in the world per fan.”

When Review contacts one of its $250/month “grand master” super-fans to point out that his favourite band is by far the most successful Australian musical act on Patreon, Ricky Meisner is pleased to hear it.

“I believe it, and they deserve it,” says Meisner, 31, who works as a sound designer for Texas-based video game developer Gearbox Software. “Seriously, have you heard Devour Me, Colossus? It’s a journey. It’s got a bit of everything, and every second of it is such a treat for the ears, the heart, and the mind. Ne Obliviscar­is stands at the pinnacle, and deserves all their success and more. And I’m proud to contribute and make a small difference.”

If this all sounds rather strange and new, that’s because it is. In decades past, a decision to support your favourite musician or band was chiefly confined to one of several discrete transactio­ns: buying their music, buying their T-shirts or buying a ticket to their concert when they happened to book a show near you.

But short of handing over a cash-filled envelope to a sweaty singer or guitarist camped at the merch desk after a show, there was no other meaningful way to fund an artist directly and regularly so that they could continue to create art.

Since the beginning, much of the music industry has been built around the artist getting paid last, and least, with entities such as record labels and tour promoters — who tended to take most of the financial risk up front — being paid first and most if an album release or a tour performed well in the market. The longer these structures were in place, the harder it became for emerging artists to demand terms that were more favourable.

Because of all that historical weight and precedent, it became even harder for querulous musicians to start asking hard questions about reliable income, or their lack thereof.

Combine those realities with a deeply entrenched sense of stigma attached to the notion of asking for help — particular­ly because a career in the performing arts is often seen as a luxurious decision to pursue a passion, as opposed to less enjoyable careers that one might undertake to simply survive — and the result was a generation or three of artists who either resigned themselves to a precarious life of feast-and-famine income, or to eventually throw in the towel and “get a real job”, as some might say, when it all got too much.

That all changed when an American musician named Jack Conte found the economics of the music industry shifting beneath his feet. With his then girlfriend, now wife Nataly Dawn, Conte started an indie pop duo named Pomplamoos­e which found a wide audience performing unique covers on YouTube in 2010.

Soon, that attention translated into tens of thousands of dollars in monthly income from song downloads of their original material on iTunes, as well as occasional­ly playing live. As independen­t musicians, the pair were soon able to buy a house and set up a home recording studio; later, while pursuing solo careers on the side, Dawn raised more than $136,000 from fans to crowd-fund an album release.

When Conte spent $10,000 of his savings to film a music video for a solo song named Pedals in 2013, though, iTunes had been all but replaced among younger listeners by streaming services such as Spotify, which offered much lower revenue to artists; even clocking up one million views on YouTube might only net Conte about $100 in advertisin­g income. So at the end of the Pedals video, Conte appeared on camera making a direct pitch to his fans asking them to join his Patreon page.

With his university friend and tech-minded co-founder Sam Yam, Conte had hurriedly set up a new website where fans who loved artists, musicians, filmmakers, podcasters and other creative workers could support them monthly, as opposed to a one-off campaign such as Dawn’s crowd-funding drive.

The 40 or so musicians who Conte had approached before Patreon’s launch had all declined his requests to join him in his leap of faith, with many of them feeling uncomforta­ble with the notion of asking their listeners for that sort of help, out of fear of appearing desperate. But for Conte, the results were immediate: within two months, he went from draining his savings accounts to making more than $100,000 a year for his solo career.

Numbers like those are hard to ignore, and slowly, eventually — as the Patreon co-founders sought and received venture capital funding to expand their business — other independen­t musicians began joining the platform.

The best-known of these was Amanda Palmer, the US singer, songwriter and pianist of punk cabaret duo Dresden Dolls who had previously raised $1.5 million from nearly 25,000 fans in an album release crowd-funding campaign held on the website Kickstarte­r in 2012.

Knowing that her fans were open to chipping in cash to help her make art, when Palmer joined Patreon in March 2015, she quickly attracted thousands of patrons who were paying her $39,000 “per thing”, as opposed to the monthly option that most Patreon creators opt for today.

These regular content offerings included music videos, artwork, songs, poems and lengthy blog posts, while each subsequent “thing” she published each month — depending on how productive or inspired she was feeling — would be subject to a sliding scale whereby the second publicatio­n might earn her $20,000, the third might earn $10,000, and so on.

Forthright and fearless by nature, Palmer has long been unusually willing to discuss frankly the financial truths of a life in the performing arts. A 13-minute TED talk she gave in 2013 centred on her remarkable Kickstarte­r success led to a book published the following year named The Art of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, which is an essential read for any creator seeking self-sufficienc­y.

Today, Palmer’s patron base sits at about 14,000, making her the most successful musician on the platform. At the end of her world tour in early 2020 she was in New Zealand when the pandemic was declared, and that’s where she has been based for the last year. Throughout that time, she and her team have continued to earn about $59,000 for the first “thing” she publishes each month, to her great surprise.

“I was ready to watch everyone walk away, and I was really emotionall­y prepared for that,” Palmer says of the financial realities of COVID-19. “Instead, the vast majority of my patrons wrote to me and said, ‘What are you talking about, Amanda? We’re in this for the long haul. Please take care of [five-year-old son] Ash and yourself right now. We’re all rooting for you.’”

According to a statement supplied by Patreon, creators have earned more than $2.6 billion since the platform’s inception in 2013, with more than 200,000 active creators and six million patrons.

While the company is not yet profitable, in September it announced $117 million in new funding and an overall valuation of $1.6 billion, and it forecasts that Patreon creators are on track to make more than $1.3 billion a year down the track.

“Patronage is one of the most important tools of feminism right now, especially for working artists who are mothers,” Palmer tells Review. “Because we need to set our own schedules and deadlines instead of being enslaved to a larger company that just does not give a shit if you’re pregnant, or having a miscarriag­e, or if your kids are sick and you have to put off working for a couple of weeks. With patronage, you have the control to make your life and your art flexible.

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone to my patrons and said, ‘Hey, everything is f..ked right now, and let me tell you why’,” Palmer says with a laugh. “Or in the past year, ‘Everything is going to slow down, because I’m suddenly a single mother in a pandemic in a foreign country’ — and my patrons did not blink an eye.”

“Instead of giving me any pushback or rolling their eyes, like I feel my old record label might have done, they stepped up their support,” she says. “They told me, ‘Do your thing, Amanda. This is our moment to take care of you. This is why we’re here — because your work has been taking care of us for years, and now we want to take care of you.’”

Despite the $9,000 or so that Ne Obliviscar­is has earned from its fans every month for nearly five years, the take-up rate of Patreon among their Australian musical peers — not just in metal, but in any genre — remains remarkably low.

“I really thought when ours was such a huge success that there’d be a lot of bands copying us,” says Tim Charles. “In the end, there have been a few, but it hasn’t been that widespread, because it’s not that straightfo­rward to pull off, and it doesn’t suit every band. You’ve got to be the right sort of band and you’ve got to be at the right point in your career.”

Among the small number of Australian musical acts who are active on Patreon, Ne Obliviscar­is is the leader by a wide margin. Although this is no winner-takes-all race, second place, as it were, is a long way behind: fellow Melbourne act Hiatus Kaiyote, which hastily set up its Patreon page in mid-March last year, when it became

blindingly obvious to every performing artist that the spread of COVID-19 meant they were staring down the barrel of a very lean year, financiall­y speaking.

About 800 of its fans are currently supporting the band through $5 monthly donations, meaning that the jazz/funk quartet is grossing about $4500 to keep the wheels of its business turning in the absence of gigs.

By Review’s count, as of February there are a little more than two dozen active Australian solo artists or bands on Patreon. Behind Ne Obliviscar­is and Hiatus Kaiyote is another Melbourne act named Toehider, a musical project composed of singer, songwriter and multi-instrument­alist Mike Mills and visual artist Andrew Saltmarsh, who together earn $3398 per month from 298 patrons.

Several of the most subscribed Patreons belong to solo artists who joined amid the pandemic last year, including Brisbane singer-songwriter Sarah McLeod (134 patrons, $2836/month), Nashville-based Emma Swift (223 patrons, $1184/month) and instrument­al act I Built the Sky (107 patrons, $1086/month).

As for why there are so few Australian acts willing to try forming a subscripti­on-based relationsh­ip with their fans, a recurring theme in Review’s interviews for this story was the strength of will required to take that leap. Nobody wants to appear to be begging for help, and the fear of that perception has resulted in a strong and apparently ingrained cultural resistance to joining Patreon.

For McLeod — who emerged in the 1990s as frontwoman of Adelaide rock band the Superjesus — the artistic freedom offered by her small but tight-knit “wolf pack” of patrons has been astonishin­g. “The most wonderful thing about this is that, as a musician, I’ve never had a regular income in my life,” she says. “Never. It doesn’t matter how much money you make; banks hate you unless you have a regular wage. We musos, we might go six months without making a cracker, and then we’ll go on tour, make a stash, and then have to budget it. To have something that’s regular, that just keeps coming in, the same amount — it’s quite mind-blowing to me. I feel like I have a job, and I really enjoy that.”

As well as helping to mute the low hum of anxiety that many musicians feel about paying their rent or mortgage — especially in an environmen­t where live music is returning in fits and starts nationally — McLeod has discovered another valuable aspect to this unique relationsh­ip she has built across the past year with her most dedicated fans.

“I really love the fact that it gives me a reason to write songs, because I have a group of people that are there going, ‘Give it to us McLeod, what have you got? We want to hear your new song’,” she says. “To know that there’s people there waiting for a new song makes me want to write for them.”

Thanks to this sort of membership platform, the decades-long impasse between artists and fans has been broken in a major way. No longer beholden to discrete, occasional purchases such as recorded music, T-shirts or concert tickets, this revolution­ary new model allows for a mutually beneficial deepening of relationsh­ips.

Although the adoption rate among Australian musicians is low, those few brave artists willing to take the leap have been rewarded in this new economy, some of them handsomely.

For ardent followers, the chance to connect with their favourite musicians in an exclusive, paywalled community away from the endless noise of social media channels is well worth the monthly price of admission.

And for those who have invested their time and energy into a career in writing, recording and performing music, the devotion of their hardcore fans is fostering the possibilit­y of a regular and reliable income in an industry where such luxuries are vanishingl­y rare.

Both parties have the same goal, but from opposite sides of the equation. Fans are offering their resources in the hope that they’ll be rewarded with more sounds that fill their hearts and minds with joy, while the artists themselves are being gifted with the temporal, spatial, emotional and financial opportunit­y to continue doing what they do best: creating great art that only truly exists once it enters the ears of another.

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The Disney-Pixar animated movie Soul is written and directed by Pete Docter, the chief creative officer at Pixar. He has two Oscars to his name, for Up in 2009 and Inside Out in 2015, and it will be surprising if this funny, moving, thought-provoking film, his fourth feature (his first was Monsters Inc in 2001), is not in the running this year.

The PG rating goes to the emotional resonance of this movie. There’s no swearing or violence. Yet the starting point — death and the afterlife — is perhaps one for viewers aged 10 and up. This viewer, a fair bit older, was quite affected by the poignant concluding scenes.

The main character is Joe Gardner (voiced by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who dreams of being a jazz pianist. The movie opens with him at a crossroads: he is

promoted to a full-time position at the school, which his mother thinks is a far better option than “dead-end gigging”, and he is offered an audition with the great jazz saxophonis­t Dorothea Williams (a smooth Angela Bassett).

“I would die a happy man if I could perform with Dorothea Williams,’’ he says. Well, be careful what you wish for. As he walks through Manhattan traffic, excitedly talking on his mobile phone (a lesson here for younger viewers), he falls down an open manhole.

We cut to a vast blackness marked by a spiritual stairway. Joe’s soul — a greenish blob-like version of his human form — is walking upwards, towards the light, towards the Great Beyond. He

turns around and goes in the other direction, passing thousands of other souls. This scene is spectacula­r.

This flight, this wish to live, takes Joe to another place, the Great Before, where new souls are being prepared for their admission to Earth, where they will start human life. Their mentors are well-known dead people who are full-time employees of this limbo, which is run by ethereal figures, each named Jerry.

Joe is not supposed to be there, and the crotchety accountant of souls, Terry (New Zealand actor Rachel House, who is dryly funny), is on the case. For now, though, it is assumed he is a celebrated (and now dead) child psychologi­st and he is asked to mentor the toughest soul of all, 22 (the wonderful Tina Fey).

The number 22 says all that needs to be said about how hard it has been to shift her/him (gender is fluid at this point) to earth. There have been 21 souls before him/her and billions since.

Her/his previous mentors include Archimedes, Copernicus, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Marie Antoinette, George Orwell and Muhammad Ali, to name a few. The flashback moments showing how they fared are hilarious. “My unconsciou­s mind hates you!’’ yells Carl Jung.

Meanwhile, the human Joe (or the meat suit Joe, as Terry would put it), is in a coma, with a therapy cat, Mr Mittens, on his lap. With the help of an otherworld­ly mystic (Graham Norton), Joe’s soul and 22 make it to earth and that hospital room.

No prizes for guessing which souls go into which bodies (we glimpse the feline soul on that spiritual stairway). From here, we have Joe, inhabited by 22, and Mr Mittens, inhabited by Joe, co-operating as they try to work out what to do, all before Joe’s gig that evening.

The problem, of course, is that Joe’s soul is not supposed to be in Mr Mittens, or in Joe for that matter. Terry goes to Earth in pursuit of the missing soul. Nor is 22’s nascent soul, yet to be fully formed, supposed to be where it is.

What follows is an absolute delight. It will make any viewer cherish the life they have and want to live it more fully, every single day, ideally with lots of laughs along the way.

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New Zealand born Rosaleen Norton scandalise­d conservati­ve Australian­s in the 1950s with her luridly sexual paintings and her avowed worship of Satanism.

Her role in the downfall of Sydney Symphony Orchestra conductor Sir Eugene Goossens only added to her bad reputation.

Sonia Bible’s documentar­y The Witch of Kings Cross makes the case for Norton as a free-living, free-thinking feminist and proponent of sexual liberation, who was ahead of her time and who delighted in tweaking the noses of the stuffy Establishm­ent. She also makes it clear that the tabloid press squeezed every drop of lurid publicity from Norton’s life; a journalist even illegally broke into her Kings Cross flat and stole some of her work.

Some of the interviews Bible includes, especially one with John Martensen, an artist who knew Norton well and was present at one of her more notorious soirees, provide invaluable insights into the woman.

Bible goes further and has Norton look-alike Kate Elizabeth Laxton portray the so-called witch in a number of sequences. It’s tricky to pull off this sort of dramatisat­ion, and in this case it wasn’t really required: vintage newspaper headlines and a few newsreels tell the story far more vividly. But the film is a welcome reminder that years before flower power, the cultural revolution, women’s liberation and free sex, the “scandalous” Rosaleen Norton was practising all those things in the heart of Sydney. To emphasise this, the film opens with a quote by Carl Jung: “The most important question anyone can ask is: What myth am I living?”

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Katharine Brisbane at home in Redfern
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Clockwise from main: Metal band Ne Obliviscar­is; singersong­writer Sarah McLeod; US musician Amanda Palmer; and Rohan Stevenson
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Scan this code to visit the Ne Obliviscar­is Patreon page
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Joe Gardner and Mr Mittens hear some subway music in Soul

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