MIDNIGHT OIL: 1984
Director: Ray Argall
Screenwriter: Ray Argall
Runtime: 89 mins.
Australian release date: 10 May 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 3 May 2018.
Before the decimation of live music venues in central Sydney, there was a period in the ‘70s and ‘80s when you could go to your local pub and listen to some of the best rock‘n’roll in the country. This active pub scene supported dozens of groups like The Angels, Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil before they went on to playing bigger venues. In the words of Peter Garrett, bands were “able to play that many shows, sell them out real quick and have that tribe queue outside and still be a mystery to everyone else.” This situation kept Aussie rock music live and accessible to many, without the restrictions imposed today, namely exorbitant ticket prices and NIMBYs complaining about the noise and the crowds. Oh yes, and the pokies taking over many smaller venues.
The Oils rose out of that heady time and went on to become one of the loudest and most popular bands around, largely due to their energetic front man, Peter Garrett. The singer sweated and gyrated like no-one else, his long limbs, bald head and paroxysmal movements fascinating all who saw him. He was simply amazing! Still, a front man is nothing without a great band behind him and drummer Rob Hirst, with guitarists Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey and Peter Gifford were that band; serious and competent musicians all. Director Ray Argall worked with them from 1982 to 1986 shooting their music videos and concerts. On their 1984 tour promoting the album Red Sails in the Sunset he captured hours of footage on 16 mm. film that lay largely forgotten for years until recently, when it was resurrected, digitised and cut into this concise, informative documentary, Midnight Oil: 1984, and it rocks!
The members of the band had always been political but it was around this time that Garrett decided to run for the Australian Senate as a candidate for the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party. The Oil’s audiences provided a willing platform for the NDP’s message; they were prepared to listen to lyrics and follow this group that was not just entertaining but was also committed to serious issues largely ignored by the sitting Government. Garrett swung between his dedication to the music and his politics but always had the support of his fellow band members, although they never really sat down and considered what would happen if he was elected to the Senate. As it turned out he ran close but was ultimately unsuccessful and the group lived on to play together until 2002. All of this forms the backdrop to the documentary.
As far as music docs go, Midnight Oil: 1984 is as good as it gets. Argall’s footage of the performances put you in the thick of the action, up there on stage with the boys, and interviews with the band members and crew, past and present, give a comprehensive view of their experiences and the times. Vox pops with audience members add further detail. Red Sails in the Sunset still resonates with lyrics such as, “sitting on the fence, both ears to the ground, the fat cats still push the thin cats around.” True that, for 34 years later many of the same issues are still not sorted. It goes to show how important a band like Midnight Oil can be, because people need reminding that politicians invariably suffer from a “short memory, must have a, short memory.” And music like theirs is a great way to get the message out.