Gurrumul: the must-see documentary that’s about so much more than music

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How one man wore the weight of two worlds on his shoulders.

Warning: the following article features discussion about deceased persons which may cause sadness or distress.

The best music documentaries aren’t really about music at all. Through the work and the life story of an artist, we learn something new about them, about their culture, and about ourselves.

Gurrumul, Paul Damien Williams’ documentary about the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, is a film about compromise, about potential, about expectations. It’s a film about how far apart the worlds of the Yolngu (the people of North East Arnhem Land) and Balanda (white people) remain in 2018.

It's a film about compromise, about potential, about expectations

At its core is an extraordinary man with an unbelievable gift. A man who carried the weight of expectation of both cultures.

“Everything he was doing was absolutely anti-success,” Gurrumul’s close friend and musical partner Michael Hohnen says early in the film.

But that all depended on how you measure success.

For many around him – promoters, agents, bookers, labels – it meant world tours, packed houses, talk show appearances, record sales and having this raw, once-in-a-lifetime talent recognised the world over.

For Gurrumul, it meant being true to his family and to his culture.

The film starts with the discovery of Gurrumul and his considerable talent. The ‘quiet genius’ and the ‘shy blind boy’ with the otherworldly voice.

The first time we hear his isolated vocal in the studio, it’s so impossibly beautiful, so sorrowful yet full of heart.

Soon, we see Gurrumul as the high-flying, high-selling superstar. Word is out about this man with the golden voice, and the world wants a piece of him. It’s here that the most powerful theme of the film begins to become evident. He sits in front of a camera for an interview with the ABC’s 7.30, but he doesn’t speak. Ruby Rose pulls him up on the ARIA red carpet, he utters just one word.

Your immediate – and perhaps prevailing – thought is that he’s uncomfortable. But are we just projecting our own discomfort? Who’s to say you can’t just sit quietly in a TV interview and be perfectly at peace?

Spend time with this film and you’ll probably ask yourself a lot of these questions, particularly if you’re Balanda. Just because something seems right or wrong to you, that doesn’t make it a universal truth.

“It puts a very optimistic gaze on what the future of this country can be if we all closely examine each other’s side and have sympathy and empathy with it,” Williams told Double J’s Zan Rowe of the film.

 

The complexity of the Gurrumul story is staggering. As a child, his family believed he’d never show independence due to his blindness. When he didn’t show up at the airport for his first US tour, his team worried they’d lost his trust – and the trust of those in the industry who championed him – forever.

Gurrumul constantly proved people wrong. While a gaggle of hangers-on freak out that he doesn’t know who Sting is, let alone know the words to ‘Every Breath You Take’, which he’s due to sing on live TV with the megastar later that day, Gurrumul remains composed. He nails the show, Sting lavishes praise, Gurrumul says thanks and not much else.

It’s a tale of a man with a gift and a steadfast vision as to how he would share it with the world.

The last part of the film tracks the making of Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), a stunning piece of work that looks to bridge the gap between the two cultures.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra – some of our country’s finest musicians – struggle as they try to replicate the arrangements Gurrumul has written.

“Even though you’ve got the musical skills, you haven’t got the ear turned to the style and the rhythm,” Williams told Double J’s Zan Rowe. “I thought that was a broader simile.”

There are moments of sadness so profound they’ll render you breathless – the funeral procession for Gurrumul’s father, with his song ‘Bapa’ underlaid, is crushing.

There are moments so funny you’ll choke with laughter – the way Gurrumul impersonates people mispronouncing his name, or the note he tells Guy Maestri to read when accepting the Archibald Prize for his portrait of the singer in 2009 are hysterical.

One thing that’s not covered in the documentary, but that lingers through its duration, is that Gurrumul is no longer here. He died a young man last year.

In the rush of his most successful moments, it felt like he could have pushed harder. He could have toured more. Made more albums. Done more television appearances. Showed up for that tour. Played the game to capitalise on his talent.

But that wouldn’t have been the best use of his time. His connection with music was non-commercial, and entirely spiritual.

The time he spent at home, in ceremony, undoubtedly meant far more than a sold-out US tour ever could have. None of us are here forever, you might as well spend what time you have doing what you truly love.

This doesn’t ever feel like a tale of ‘overcoming the odds’ – that kind of descriptor is condescending at best. It’s a tale of a man with a gift and a steadfast vision as to how he would share it with the world. If only he were still here to continue to do so.

The film Gurrumul, and album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) are both out now

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