Midnight Oil 1984 tells one of rock’n’roll’s most unique stories
Midnight Oil 1984, the new documentary from director Ray Argall, is a curious piece of work.
It’s an intensely focused film that looks at just one chapter – albeit a very significant one – in the iconic Australian band’s long career.
As the title suggests, it’s 1984. Midnight Oil are still riding high on their breakthrough album 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 from a couple of years earlier as they release their fifth album Red Sails In The Sunset.
The new record goes to number one on the charts – the first of theirs to do so – and they embark on a tour of the country that sees them play to tens of thousands of young fans at shows the band and their team have organised themselves, from the ground up.
At the same time, frontman Peter Garrett aligns with the new Nuclear Disarmament Party and seeks election as a senator. He works around the clock, balancing duties as the country’s biggest rock star and a fledgling political candidate.
It's an intense and utterly fascinating time.
This film must not be your introduction to Midnight Oil: their music, their politics, their relationships. There’s a certain assumed knowledge, meaning any true newcomers to the band will be lost.
But that’s a risk worth taking for Argall. Without the need for much in the way of editorialising, this allows space to focus more heavily on the footage.
And this film all about the footage.
Footage of the band and their road crew playing around and working their arses off as they delivered huge shows around the country.
Footage of Peter Garrett standing up at a school assembly in Manly and preaching about political engagement to a couple of hundred teenagers.
Footage so clear and brilliantly shot it could have been filmed yesterday.
And, most importantly, footage that takes us on stage, backstage and into the frenzied crowds of a Midnight Oil show in the mid-1980s.
"There are a few moments in the film where [the band] throw their arms and you see the sweat just pour off them," producer Rachel Argall told Double J’s Zan Rowe.
"You really have that sense when you're watching it that you're about to be hit with sweat yourself. That you're there in the crowd, with your friends, who are all covered in sweat and having to take off their t-shirts because it's such an intense environment."
There was a lot of energy, but also a lot of anxiety in the camp about how things would work out.Rob Hirst — Midnight Oil 1984
There is a fair amount of footage already out there that shows us what an incendiary live force Midnight Oil were in the 80s.
But this film adds significant value as it sidesteps and shows us just how frenetic things were on every level at this particular inflection point of the band’s career.
Garrett was working at a rate that was probably unhealthy; appearing on breakfast television first thing in the mornings, campaigning through the day, playing intense, high-energy rock shows each night.
“There was a lot of energy, but also a lot of anxiety in the camp about how things would work out,” drummer Rob Hirst says in the film.
The footage captured here gives the kind of insight into the band that we got so vividly in Mark Dodshon’s 2005 book Beds Are Burning (Dodshon was the NDP’s campaign manager and is interviewed for the film).
But when you see it all unfolding in front of you – the disparity between nights of intense rock’n’roll and days of press commitments and quarrelling with politicians – it becomes even more profound.
Given what ended up happening in Garrett’s post-Oils career in the 2000s, and the current global political situation, the film perhaps serves as a more fascinating now than if it were released in the 80s.
“I think we would have thought it was a different film back then,” Ray Argall told Zan. “It's such a blessing – or luck, or whatever – that it did get shelved for so long.
“The technology allowed us to use all of the footage that we'd shot, also that reflection in hindsight of what we'd filmed and what it means now. How it resonates for an audience today.”
The film is an almost perfectly focused time capsule. A unique piece of cinema and an essential experience for Midnight Oil fans.