Gurrumul review – stirring and soulful ode to Australia's most important voice

Paul Williams’ must-see documentary about the late, great musician does justice to a life lived between two worlds

In a scene in the Shawshank Redemption, Red (Morgan Freeman) contemplates the sound of Mozart: “I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.”

Those words returned to me while watching the writer/director Paul Williams’ new documentary about the late, great Indigenous Australian musician Gurrumul Yunupingu. How could a documentary possibly do justice to a voice like that? Against the odds, perhaps, the film succeeds: a rich, dense, stirring and soulful work, laced with footage of many of his performances, from jamming at home to playing in front of adoring concert crowds.

Formerly a member of Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who was blind from birth and passed away last year at age 46, released his first solo album in 2008. He sang mostly in the Indigenous languages of the Gumatj, Galpu and Djambarrpuyngu people, and attracted immense global acclaim, including being hailed by Rolling Stone as “Australia’s most important voice”.

Gurrumul became a media sensation, partly because of his enigmatic personality, which was counter to the very nature of show business. “Everything he was doing was anti-success,” says one interviewee, before the film-maker displays a rapid montage of red carpet photographs of celebrities. It’s a striking contrast to scenes capturing the natural, exquisite beauty of Gurrumul’s community and country, Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in far north-east Arnhem Land.

The ultra-reticent singer did not enjoy talking to the media, to put it lightly. The film begins with an awkward interview that, by contrast, would make Bob Dylan’s famously combative press conferences in the 60s seem rote and generous affairs. The interviewer asks Gurrumul whether not being able to see might have enhanced his ability as a musician. Tight-lipped, he says absolutely nothing, remaining silent as the questions get progressively easier (“How old were you when you first started playing?”).

One has the impression these sorts of questions may have been the reason Gurrumul did not like interviews. They are not the kind explored in Williams’ film, either, which was approved by the subject himself three days before his death.

Gurrumul performs
Freed from the cliches of the musician biopic, Gurrumul shoots off in different, more liberating directions. Photograph: Madman

In one sense the documentary is limited by Gurrumul’s elusive and mysterious personality, barely able to answer questions about the artist’s motivations and his thoughts on his own life, or the lives of others.

But in another, more exciting and liberating sense, it is freed from cliches we often see in portraits of musicians (ie the tortured genius and the “light bulb moment”), and shoots off in different directions – among them a focus on family, community and land.

In one scene, home footage shows the subject as a baby and young child, as the sounds of his profoundly spiritual Gurrumul History (I was Born Blind) play on the soundtrack. It is among several not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house moments, and much more meaningfully explored than the director’s occasional, unnecessary riffs on what blindness might be like via insertion of blank black images – a rather simplistic way of going about it.

Core to the film is the question of what it means to be an Indigenous Australian in the modern world. Or as Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Company and director of the feature film Spear, once put it to me: “To have a foot in both worlds” – ancient and contemporary.

This has emerged as the most compelling theme so far in 21st century Australian cinema, explored in many films including Spear, Samson and Delilah, Mystery Road and Goldstone. Gurrumul comes at it from the perspective of a person who achieved great success by almost any modern definition, but whose art and legacy questions whether the measures of success – such as money and fame – have any real, enduring value.

A line key to Williams’ documentary is repeated: “One life, one death.” On its second utterance, his aunt Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi adds a caveat: we have one life and one death, she explains, but we don’t know where the start or finishing line is.

For Gurrumul fans, the film is obviously a must-see. For those unfamiliar, or vaguely familiar with his work, it’s an even greater treat: they will be entertained, enthralled, perhaps in some small way changed.

• Gurrumul is screening at Berlin film festival, at Perth festival, and opens in Australia in April


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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