Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Film Review: Swagger of Thieves (a film by Julian Boshier)

As per my previous post, last Thursday evening I attended the local Film Festival screening of Swagger of Thieves at the Lighthouse Theatre in Petone. Let’s call it the “Hutt Valley Premiere” for the Julian Boshier-directed documentary, which focuses on the life and times of Wellington hard rock band, Head Like A Hole. It was all at once equal parts confronting, sobering, and exhilarating …

I’ve stopped short of calling it a “rockumentary”, because that would imply that the film traverses a standard formula or cliché path. It doesn’t, and it’s all the better for that. And for all that it will be regarded as the definitive story of a “band”, it’s really the tale of the two key protagonists within the band, the two Nigels, vocalist Beazley (aka Booga), and guitarist Regan.

The mostly black-and-white film is essentially something close to – on and off – 15 years’ worth of fly-on-the-wall footage condensed into a digestible form, with Boshier’s first cut of some six hours eventually being reduced down to a rather more manageable 110 minutes. There’s no voiceover narrative or any real obvious timeline as we skip back and forth between archival footage from the band’s earliest 1990s incarnation(s), to the 2009/2010 “comeback” period, with a strong focus on the recording of the band’s fifth – and most commercially successful – album, Blood Will Out, and the national tour that accompanied it.

And yet, while so much footage will have been discarded along the way, the documentary wasn’t over edited to feature only the most obvious stuff (the performances, the few successes, etc). There’s a lot of focus on the broken individuals, the lost dreams, the sweet souls, the fights and internal personality clashes, and the resilience of those close to the band – most notably that of Beazley’s partner, Tamsin. All the dirt and raw grit – including sequences of graphic intravenous drug use – is left in there unedited, with no feelings spared, and no attempt to gloss over any of what Regan himself calls the “bad decision-making” along the way.

It is to a large extent a tale of contrast and extremes; Beazley, the hard living cocksure rock god who morphs into the somewhat insecure, yet extremely likeable “Mr Local” of Otaki, a window cleaning father of twin girls. Ditto, his relationship with Regan. One moment they’re the closest of old friends (they were schoolboy mates), and the next minute they’re falling out over what appears to be a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing. There are moments of pure hilarity, which are often immediately followed by moments of genuine sadness, but mostly there’s a real sense of frustration as the band continually seems to get in its own way. All the while, we (the audience) keep willing them to sort their shit out.
Nigel and Nigel ... in full flow

There’s understandable angst from Beazley as he contemplates the possible amputation of an infected foot (doesn’t happen, but a tour is postponed), acknowledgement of the key roles played by other band members (ex and current members alike), most of whom are desperate to keep the two Nigels off the hard drugs. And of course, there’s the story within the story, one that was also covered in the recent Shihad documentary – reflections and thoughts around the untimely drug-fuelled death of the otherwise inspirational Gerald Dwyer, who managed both bands.
There’s a fair amount of archival footage of the band in its early (naked and semi-naked) pomp, and coverage of the significant events like the Big Day Out(s) and Mountain Rock. This stuff is gold for grassroots historians/local music fanatics like yours truly.

I’m not sure where the independently-made/funded Swagger of Thieves will go from here. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a widespread/mainstream release in any format other than DVD, due mainly to its graphic content and the fact that the wider public perception will be that it’s a very niche sort of thing.

Which is a shame really, because while the principal theme is certainly fairly narrow on the surface (the portrait of a struggling local band, ala Spinal Tap even) it’s far from niche; it’s a close-up, no-holds-barred, intimate portrayal of the human condition. An honest, uncompromising, frequently very funny film about highs, lows, loss, and the continual struggle we all face when trying to overcome our personal flaws. With quite a lot of hard rock music thrown in for good measure.

No comments:

Post a Comment