Tim Minchin’s overnight success came only after years of struggle and failure, and hours of mucking about on the piano.
He wasn’t always the cool guy who could sit down and write an edgy song about Cardinal George Pell in one day – a song which went viral, and raised money to help abuse survivors travel to Rome.
“I spent thousands of thousands of hours playing the piano, and by thousands of hours, I mean playing in cover bands or wedding bands or disco bands or original bands or playing cabaret for Todd McKenney,” Minchin tells Guardian Australia.
“People think ‘how do musicians get those sorts of skills?’ But what they don’t imagine is that most musicians literally just fucking made it up. I just did it and did it and did it and did it for years. No one taught me how to do it.”
Minchin’s struggle to find out what kind of artist he was, and to find an audience, is laid bare in a very personal documentary, Matilda and Me, which was directed by his sister Nel Minchin and airs this weekend on the ABC. Nel, a seasoned filmmaker in her own right, weaves the back story of Tim’s burgeoning career with the drama of staging Tim’s hit musical, Matilda, in his home country.
As director, narrator and sister, was it possible for Nel to stay objective? “I think it was important not to be too objective in some ways, particularly about him,” she says. “You have to be objective about the telling of the story. What it is to sing, and what’s important to where he’s at now with his career.”
Nel doesn’t spare her big brother any embarrassment, raiding the family photo album and digging up old film to show Minchin’s very Australian childhood on the beach in Perth, and his beginnings in the industry as a young man taking work where he could find it: writing songs, acting in plays and playing piano for cabaret artists, all the while trying to find his niche. She shares family photographs and sibling memories, further drawing the story out of Tim as they sit down with a cup of tea and reflect.
Tim says after “having no money and not really being able to afford good food and stuff” he just decided to go on stage and be himself – and it worked. “In 2004, I’m like, ‘I’m sick of asking people for permission, I’m just going to show off.”
Tim’s career picked up in that year in Melbourne, and after regular gigs at the Butterfly Club and good reviews for his work at the Melbourne International Comedy festival, he debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, where he won the Perrier Best Newcomer award.
In 2009 Minchin was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to write the music and lyrics for a stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a book which he loved so much as a child he had contacted the Dahl family for permission to write a musical years earlier. Matilda the Musical – the most successful new musical in decades – has just opened in Melbourne.
“It’s weird,” Tim says. “The documentary leans very heavy on the kind of emotional undercurrent and the idea of coming home to Sydney, where I did so much theatre and where I did the really hard jobs.
“But there’s another whole emotional beat to coming home to Melbourne, because we lived here for five years before things changed in our lives. Now this is where I really was in my existential ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life, instead of working?’.”
Tim is currently working on the musical adaptation of Groundhog Day, which opens on Broadway in 2017.
“I just always thought Groundhog Day was potentially a great idea,” he says. “We’re in this incredible point now, this incredible limbo where most of the creative work’s done and we’ve got to get it on stage and a hell of a lot of people have put money and time behind it. You just don’t bloody know [if it will work].”
How does Minchin feel about George Pell now, after watching him giving evidence remotely from Rome in front of the survivors who travelled half way around the world to be in the same room as him?
“I feel quite sad about it. I feel sad for him, because he’s so clearly incapable of humility, really,” Minchin says. “No, he showed some humility, but it’s actually ... I don’t think it would be hard to do something profoundly good to the survivors, to let them know that they’re heard and believed.
“After all the times they have been deceived. Which is so, so damaging, [if you] even read one paper on sexual assault and how that affects people. One of the main things is acknowledgement. He thought it was more important for him to avoid the spotlight. I think it’s incredibly sad and shows a massive misunderstanding of what his moral obligation is.
“I’m so proud that I was able to play a part in getting those survivors over there. If you could see just a tenth of the letters I got from people.”
- Matilda And Me premieres on 3 April at 7.40pm on the ABC