Midnight Oil: 1984 takes us back to a time of widespread gloom and pessimism about the future of the world. The mainstream political groups and their leaders seemed out of touch with young people, while fear surrounding the possibilities of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction pervaded popular culture . It does not seem too dissimilar to what we’re experiencing today.
Shot by filmmaker Ray Argall on over 28,000 feet of “glorious” 16mm film, 1984 gives tribute to the Australian rock-and-roll band that rode this wave of pessimism and discontent to great success: Midnight Oil. The rolls of film had been wasting away for 30 years, until Argall, perhaps seeing the increasing cultural relevance of the band’s messages, finally decided to cut them together, and with the aid of digital restoration, turn them into a proper documentary film.
The film centres on 1984, the year of the band’s Red Sails tour, and of frontrunner Peter Garret’s failed political bid for the Senate through the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party. The band was one of the few Australian bands to overtly tackle political issues, and this earnt them a loyal following among a disenfranchised ‘Generation X’. Garret harnessed the spreading disconnect to bring his anti-nuke stance to mainstream Australia, campaigning for a seat in the Senate with the NDP and all the while still continuing to write and perform in one the country’s most popular bands. Argall captures the band’s journey of this year mainly through the aforementioned archival footage.
The 16mm film, shot mostly in a handheld style, gives the footage a pleasing grit and texture, like a mixture of 80’s rock-and-roll attitude and a warm flush of nostalgia. The footage will most likely deliver a targeted dose of this nostalgia to viewers of a certain age range, but even for a young person with only a passing knowledge of the band, its details were still entertaining. Midnight Oil performed in tiny pubs without air-conditioning, where sweat dripped from the ceiling, oxygen masks had to be on standby to revive the passed out, and drum kits had to be nailed to the stage to prevent the whole thing from collapsing. Off stage, however, they didn’t conform to the typical image of a rock band—they didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or have groupies. When police started to inspect their performances during the NDP’s campaign, it’s the backstage crew who are worried.
The relationship the band and Garret had with its fans is memorable and strangely touching. During performances, the band seems to be engaging the audience as equals, and when an overzealous devotee jumps on stage, Garret joins them with his trademark frenzied dancing. He doesn’t condescend to his younger audience, either. The footage of his trips to schools show an earnest but passionate man, who truly believes that young people can engage with the issues of the day. It’s fascinating to see a time in which young people were not only genuinely interested in political issues, but actually took part in physical activism.
One section of the film shows that that the NDP’s failed bid at the senate nevertheless had a wide cultural impact; enough so that a Q+A between then Prime Minister Bob Hawke and a panel of pre-teens revolved mainly around the ethics of selling nuclear weaponry to other countries. A young fan at a show rightly points out that the issue of nuclear bombs isn’t exactly political, more than it is practical; if a nuclear war were to happen, there would be nothing left to debate about.
The wild performances are a joy to watch, but they sometimes feel adrift in a film struggling to find a focus. Argall can’t seem to decide between making a concert film or an observational documentary; while interviews with band members are peppered throughout sporadically, they aren’t the focus, and there’s little in the way of exposition about the band’s history. These interviews bring up some intriguing topics that the film only lightly touches on—the strain that touring put on Peter Garret’s personal life, and the one-issue nature of the NDP, to name a few—that could have been explored in more detail. We don’t get a full picture of the band’s group dynamic; hints at the growing distance between Garett and the others during his political run are left frustratingly vague. The filmmaking itself also doesn’t do much to represent the band’s unbridled spirit, apart from an overuse of harsh jump cuts to rollicking performances.
Fans of the band, of course, will most likely see the film no matter what any critic says. Even then, there may be some who will be more disappointed than I was. The details of the archival footage will not be as new to uber-fans as it was to me, and those hungry for a complex portrait of Garret and the other members will be left wanting. Midnight Oil: 1984 is an enjoyable, arresting experience, but I can’t help but wish for something more focused and revealing; something that had embraced the raw, angry energy of Midnight Oil more in its tone and filmmaking, rather than just through footage of its subjects.
Midnight Oil: 1984 is on at Luna Cinemas until May 23.
Image sourced from Stuff.co.nz.