The mark of a really good documentary is it tells you a story from various sides, without an agenda from the start. If it’s a subject you know well, it should confirm stuff you know, but present you with elements and truths, images and sounds you haven’t previously seen.
The brilliant new documentary about the seminal Australian band Radio Birdman : Descent Into The Maelstrom manages to tick all of these boxes and more. Through archival footage, hundreds of previously unseen photographs and interviews with all the major players in the band history, director Jonathon J Sequeira has done a sterling job on telling the not always pleasant Birdman story.
As a music fan, I think it’s often true that we romanticize the rock and roll band as a rag tag ‘gang’ of rebellious no-goodniks, out to change the word on their own terms. An us against them brotherhood that gives us something to believe in. That’s how all good bands start out. A surrogate family of kindred spirits combining their talents, ideas, talents and aspirations to make something special out of nothing. But like most families bands are rarely perfect and don’t always stick together forever.
Radio Birdman certainly did that. They were in many ways the ultimate outsider band when they started playing gigs in 1975. They didn’t sound like Chain or Skyhooks, they were taking the path of energetic back to basics rock’n’roll, that sixties garage rock bands started but the Detroit sounds of Iggy & The Stooges, The MC5, The Sonics cranked up and played super fast and mega-loud. This was not very welcome in the pubs and bars of Sydney. They tell the story of the formation of the band, their history of getting chucked out of every venue in Sydney, finding their audience, creating the now legendary Oxford Funhouse venue and it’s own vibrant scene.
The original run of the band was only four years of conflict and turmoil, hostile industry, venues and audiences from which was forged a determined band and a devoted legion of rock’n’roll soldiers. They fell apart after moving to the UK in 1978 and their brief, but influential, legacy was left to grow. After an eighteen year break they regrouped in 1996 for the Big Day Out and have continued to tour sporadically ever since.
Along the way various of the original and crucial members have left or been decommissioned by Tek and Younger. Sequeira talks to all the members of the band past and present and fans, journalists and contemporaries pivotal in the Radio Birdman story. Like the music they made it is uncompromising and no punches are pulled. Former bass player Warwick Gilberts passing, but loaded, comment about all the ‘unpaid artwork’ he had done for the band to Chris Masuak’s devastating parting shot “I don’t think they are good enough for me to play with them any more.”, there are some wounds on show that are nowhere near healed. Original drummer Ron Keely states with a steely glare that he hasn’t talked to Deniz “after what they did to Chris. I don’t think I ever will.”.
Don’t think Descent Into The Maelstrom is a dour affair. It is a documentation and celebration of the remarkable band Radio Birdman were (and are) and one of the greatest things about is finding out that each member in there own way is very funny. Younger and Tek both exhibit dry, almost brittle humour. Pip Hoyle has the wry wit of a maths teacher who knows his comic books and Warwick Gilbert is laugh out loud hilarious, laughing at various parts of the Birdman story with resigned reflection at the ridiculousness of some of the situations in which they found themselves as well as their inability to interact with each other in a way that could have potentially seen many problems avoid or resolved.
That some of these wounds are still festering for various ex-members, it is a signifier that they have all been part of something bigger that any of themselves, that they have all agreed to participate in this film and tell their various sides of the story. Sequeira has done a sterling job, keeping balance and focus on Birdman as the ferocious and larger than life beast that is was, while getting the story from all angles. No mean feat.
Radio Birdman in their original form two and a half albums (there are two versions of Radios Appear and Living Eyes) and that may not sound like much. But they were so much more. Descent Into The Maelstrom pays great tribute to that spirit and stands as a really important document of a crucial band and can’t be recommended more highly.
Review by Ian Bell
Thanks to the good people at Monster Fest and Umbrella Entertainment we have four double passes to be won to the Adelaide screening at 7pm on Friday July 21. Check out the Hi Fi Way: The Pop Chronicles Facebook Page for further details.
The screening at the GU Film House (128 Hindley Street) will feature a Q&A with the documentary’s Jonathan J Sequeira after the movie. There is only ONE session of this remarkable film. Get yourself there – YEAH HUP!