Meal Tickets is one of the best critically acclaimed rock’n’ roll documentaries (or ‘rocko-docos’) to come out in the past few years, having created quite a shake-up in this niché genre, especially as its director, Mat de Koning, and the majority of its cast are Australian—nay, Perth, locals. But Meal Tickets won’t just seduce rock ‘n’ roll wannabes—or even fans of The Screwtop Detonators and Will Stoker and The Embers, whom de Koning made the film about—this picture will intrigue you if you want to know what success really means, and what it takes to make it in the industry.
The desire to be famous, to be something bigger than what we were born into; it’s a sweet aroma we all know and crave. It’s something the Perth best friends, a quartet of young men (Charlie Austen, Lee French, Ben Ward, and Mitch Long), who ride the high wave out of Kalamunda Senior High School where they met and onwards to a national tour of the United States, under the sometimes troublesome, controlling leadership of their manager, Dave Kavanagh, know all too well. Joining them is their dreaming, self-deprecating roadie, Will Stoker, who admits that his ambition is to be just like the other boys, a rock-star in his own right—which means he spends more time writing his own songs than doing his job, and which ends in his eventual departure from the tour. The Detonators nonchalant delight at this news quickly fades to an ironic deflation, as the young boy climbs his own staircase to stardom.
This raw, shaky, whirlwind of a documentary attempts to capture the story of success and failure that belongs to the two bands, and it ain’t holdin’ back; this is one big party, and no one’s going home until the fat lady sings. We are privy to the exclusive underbelly of a world so often clouded in shadow: the music industry, and the lives of the many small bands who struggle to be seen and heard. Or even, as the band members allude, just to sell their $20 CDs, which no one wants anymore as they can have it all free online anyway. Oh yes, as de Koning began filming this over 10 years ago, we can inhale a little bittersweet nostalgia as the Internet, Myspace and Facebook are captured springing into our shared reality in those years.
The sniffing of drugs in bathrooms before a gig, the stoned faces on stage, and the hungover mess that is the boys rolling around on cigarette stained floors the morning after a less than adequate shag, shows de Koning took the fly-on-the-wall approach to a whole new, exhilarating level. Every moment of badmouthing, bitching and every childish shenanigan, seems to have been caught by the director’s incessant camera.
The question on everyone’s lips is unchanging: will we succeed? What does it take? The audience won’t be able to stop themselves from cheering on the Screwtop Detonators and Will Stoker, praying that the Perth boys can take their incredible Aussie rock to a whole new international level. Their addiction to the band, and their, at-times, insatiable hunger to make history, is a taste we are left licking from our lips with relish. Yet, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll isn’t everything here: what lingers in the end is the friendship, love, loss and the importance of being true to yourself, that these young men really represent.
Despite de Koning’s clear storytelling success and creative skill, Meal Tickets has been just as controversial as it has been triumphant. The filmmaker admits himself that it was a ‘battle’ to create a film that told an ‘even-handed story (Sydney Morning Herald).’ Over 700-hours of footage was taken by de Koning of the bands and their journeys, and this meant, as in any documentary, only a very limited, and selective amount of film, could make the cut. Thus, only some stories could be told, and not everyone who was filmed was happy with how their perspectives were shown or not-shown in the final version. In the 25 editing drafts that de Koning made, this film has been re-told and re-constructed many times, proving once again, that documentary is not the telling of the truth, but the telling of what we want others to see. It is a story, like any other.
Is it a story worth watching then, despite the backstories we will never know, the hundreds of hours of footage that remain doused in mystery? Abso-bloody-lutely. This movie is fun, filthy and frivolous. The sweaty, unashamed rock ‘n’ roll music alone that pumps its way into our hearts is all-encompassing, unadulterated, and fills every frame with passion. You will gain a fleeting glimpse into what it takes to become successful, what success means in the end, making and losing friends, and how a rock-star “is a person you are not”. We are told from the beginning that, “You gotta give yourself the chance to follow your dreams”; but in the end, we receive the wise old fable of, “Life ain’t a porno, man.”
So, give yourself a chance to gain some life wisdom, and go see this film. It is pure, damn good, thought-provoking, eye-rolling, mouth-hanging fun.