The Go-Betweens were musicians’ musicians; a description one can wear with pride but as this latest documentary shows, it does come at a cost.
So many who would struggle to recall one of their songs will still stop and recognise the importance of Paul Kelly citing them as an inspiration. Watching the documentary is a fantastic showcase of their music and the industry as a whole during a particular time and place. Much more though, it is about looking back with warmth, affection and regret at relationships that defined you.
It starts with two young men Robert Forster and Grant McLennan sharing a similar outlook and sensibility in the mid-1970s at the University of Queensland. Forster delights with some deadpan delivery and awkward faces as he relates how certain things developed unconventionally. For example when Robert first asked Grant to join him in a band his best friend said no. Yet a band they became and with a roster of rotating musicians over the next two decades. None more influential than Lindy Morrison who became the band’s drummer, Morrison remains a life force, full of ideas and personal drive that was a huge influence on the boys.
The years get ticked off and the albums discussed by talking heads. Journalist and friend Clinton Walker seems to be having the time of his life as an unapologetic and colourful narrator of their story. Unlike other rock docos there is no great ascendancy or an against-the-odds comeback. Even when songs broke through the band never really did. Instead something far more poignant and honest is revealed as we track back through the years.
The interpersonal relationships of the band members were of paramount importance to seeing them through some tough times but like most bands there comes a point where you don’t want to live in each other’s pockets anymore. Yet as Forster touchingly relates in the trailer “that’s what I miss – the witness”.
A repeating image of band members walking up to a Queenslander (apparently owned by Forster’s sister) frames the entry and exit of them from the group. Robert himself struts around the property in moody slow-mo strumming his guitar or looking at a bonfire burning into the night. We feel we’re building towards a reunion of sorts for the members as they speak heartbreakingly about old loves and deep regrets either vocalised or demonstrated by quick turns away from camera. Tellingly the only reunion is between later member Amanda Brown and Morrison, the only two women in the band whom were such a vital part of both Grant’s and Robert’s lives.
The band ended abruptly, and like its trailer the film does too. Life too can end abruptly and it feels that director Kriv Stenders is articulating this on purpose. Life is fleeting, memory does play tricks, some things don’t need to get dug up and some connections can’t be reforged again. Some things endure because they were real and they meant something and in that sense, The Go-Betweens now have a documentary that reflects the appeal of their music very well.
Byron Bay Film Festival runs until 15 October.