Midnight Oil 2018 concerts sold out around Australia within hours of going on sale. The band’s mix of pub surf punk activist rock still resonates. “The music was just <kiss>,” notes a twenty year old, seeing the band for the first time on film at a premier of Midnight Oil 1984.
Ray Argall has taken six years of footage from 1982 – 1986 with acres of concert footage from the surrounding years to tell the tale of a band that is still being made. Some of that was shot by himself (for the band), the soundtrack made by JJJ of the Hordern Pavillion Concerts in 1985 form the basis of the music audio, news broadcasts and images of newspapers complete the visual description of the activist phenomenon that was Midnight Oil and Peter Garrett, separately and together.
The band is tight. So tight. The transition from rehearsal to stage is a testament to that discipline.
The larrikin humour and sheer audacity of the Australian spirit is retold in so many incidents. “Pete would tell them to behave and mostly they would,” reminisces manager Gary Morris, “When they didn’t he’d send me in. Knee high to a grasshopper, I’d dive into the crowd and head for the trouble and tell them, politely, we’d negotiate, to calm down. It wasn’t aggression. It was passion.”
For me, the images that haunt are Garrett after days on the campaign trail for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, giving everything on stage in
the Red Sails tour. A skull with veins, the sweat pouring off him faster than the vascular system can keep up. He collapses on the stage, drinks water, leaps up and sings.
Elvis at the Edge of Reality takes one where the title suggests, Garrett takes us, the audience, and the band, across the Styx, back, up to Olympus and into the mud. Teenagers dance with him, again and again, across songs, concerts, continents. One 16 year old sings two verses and a chorus before Garrett gently and firmly places him back in the crowd. Najinski of the Australian Pub.
“There’s not many people who can put themselves out there like that as a dick-head on stage, observes drummer and den father, Rob Hirst, “I mean, that’s not dancing. I watched it for 26 years. Kids stared at him, like just stared and watched. He’s not dancing! He’s fully expressing emotion … but he’s totally in control.”
That intense nexus of the politician and the performer is the climax of the film. The band operates at the extreme limits of its capacity: it is a well oiled machine, but it’s not sure where it is going. The ultimate outcome of Garrett’s ambition is dealt with in a couple of vignettes. He has retired and the band is reforming while the film is being finalised. This is a timely document.
Most common comment at the preview? “I was there.”
“It feels like a concert film,” noted one film lecturer and fan. “But it adds social documentary.”
“In 1984 I was in High School, in East Germany. I knew the Oils. That’s how I knew Australia before I came here.”
Garrett is the star of the Oils, the central focus of the film but not the star of the show. The Oils is a living, breathing organism, the creation of the human imagination that transcends analysis. The music is the body of work and the history of the creation of that music is an important document. It’s fun to watch, too.
Thanks Ray Argall