TL;DR – This might be one of the most important cultural touchstones of Australian cinema that I have ever seen, a beautifully honest look at the intersections that exist in Australia, and a powerful call to action.
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – Watch all the credits
Warning – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be advised that the following review contains depictions, images and voices of people who have died.
I truly did not know what to expect when I walked into the cinemas today. I had heard of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu but I honestly to my own shame while I had heard of some of his more famous songs, and the work he did in the opening song for Cleverman, it is clear that this has barely scratched the surface of his body of work. What I was not expecting was that I was about to have one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever experienced watching a work of cinema. I think I spent most of the film with tears rolling down my face. So today we will look at what I feel is one of the best cinematic touchstones to encapsulate Australia, its past, present, and future.
So to set the scene, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu grew up on Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. He was born completely blind and his parents feared as to what life he would live. However, at a young age he discovered music when his mother gave him a toy piano to play with, soon he would spend days helping out with the music at the local church and he mastered many instruments, including most notably the guitar. He toured with Yothu Yindi and the Saltwater Band and with the help of Mark Grose, Michael Hohnen and the Skinnyfish Music label soon he was adventuring across the globe as an independent artist. The whole world was listening to his music, becoming captivated with this shy Indigenous Australian artist that rarely gives interviews. Indeed one of the core aspects of the film is his relationship with Michael as they chart the waters of his music career. However, as the world takes notice, is touring the world really what is best for the artist, or it just what is best for everyone else.
The first thing you notice when watching Gurrumul is the respect that the film has for both Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, his family, his community, and his music. Gurrumul gave the final cut of the documentary his blessing in the days before his death. As well as this, it is clear that the documentary had the strong support of the local community as this was filmed over a very long period of time, and the filmmakers were allowed to document some of the more deeply private parts of the family’s life. Indeed, throughout the documentary, we see Gurrumul’s life, what drove him, and what was true to his life and his music. We also see his relationships with those around him especially his parents and music partners. It is a world full of joy but also responsibility and at times sadness.
Now I am not someone who would usually say this, because you should watch films in whatever way you like, or how it is most convenient for you. However, if you can, I do recommend in this circumstance seeing it on the big screen because part of what makes this documentary work is how it shows the power of Gurrumul’s voice. It washes over you and around you and in the first few minutes it had brought me to tears. Indeed, if you are going to see this film can I highly recommend that you bring some wipe away your tears because you will need them, as Gurrumul does not hold its emotional punches. There are moments of true and deep grief and you feel them in your soul in a way I don’t think many other films have affected me before and I think if they had been disingenuous even for a moment it would have lost all its impact. Because of it this honest look it is able to tackle issues like what music means to Indigenous life, and how it works in a world that prioritises things like money and fame.
As well as being an intricate look at Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s life and music it is also a gorgeous film. We see that first in the visuals, there is great care as to how every shot is framed. It captures the beauty of the Northern Territory and uses that beauty to complement with the rest of the world, finding the splendour in a small music store and the grand performances in the Sydney Opera House. However, it also contextualises those moments were worlds collide, sometimes in very stark and awkward moments. Throughout the film, Gurrumul uses a very effective technique where during the transition between moments in the film it cuts to black, so we only get the sounds around us. This draws you into the narrative of the film and what it wants to impart to the viewer. To add to this our narrator for the film is primarily Gurrumul’s Aunty Susan Dhängal Gurruwiwi. Once again this adds the authenticity of the documentary, but also, in at least my experience, it makes those emotional moments hit harder as this is someone who has also experienced those moments of grief themselves and understand intimately how this affects people’s lives and how indeed it affected her own.
In the end, do we recommend Gurrumul? Yes, of course, we do. You need to go to hear his music envelop your soul, you need to go see the life of one of Australia’s most important musicians, and you need to go see it because it encapsulates a world most Australian’s don’t have a good understanding of and this is a good way to start on that path to understanding. I think the most powerful message the film has is left for the end and this is a bit of a spoiler in the traditional sense but it is such an important message I think it needs to be repeated. Every day we are losing our culture our heritage here in Australia as languages disappear and songs are lost. Once they are gone, they are gone forever and we as a country and a people need to be better at helping make sure that nothing else gets lost to time.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Gurrumul
Directed by – Paul Damien Williams
Written by – Paul Damien Williams
Music by – Michael Hohnen, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu & Erkki Veltheim
Cinematography by – Gavin Head, Dan Maxwell, Katie Milwright & Matt Toll
Edited by – Ken Sallows & Shannon Swan
Featuring – Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Mark Grose, Michael Hohnen, Sting, Djunga Djunga Yunupingu & Susan Dhängal Gurruwiwi
Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: PG; United Kingdom: na; United States: na