TV on the Radio, Ruben Guthrie, and Vivid Lights were among Sydney’s cultural highlights in June. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.
1. The Sydney Opera House is a lovely venue; TV on the Radio are a terrific band. Tunde Adebimpe has a beautiful voice and a dynamic presence. ‘Careful You’ is poetic and pure:
Oui, je t’aime
Oui, je t’aime
From the cradle to the grave
You’ve done a number on my heart
And things will never be the same
Freeze a frame, freeze a frame
From a fever dream of days
We learned the secret of a kiss
And how it melts away all pain
Other highlights include ‘Happy Idiot’ and ‘Young Liars’ (view the complete setlist here).
2. Alex Gibney is an exceptional documentary maker. Presenting his documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for Vivid Ideas, he cogently argued how people across the spectrum can be straightjacketed by their views. The left’s Assengeistas are a telling example. Formally, Gibney makes the case for voiceover narration (“form follows the story,” he later adds). In person, Gibney is confident and articulate. A lapsed Catholic whose wife is a “shop-around Protestant,” he’s not your tired sneering atheist. He interviews eight ex-Scientologists, notably writer-director Paul Haggis, and assembles a damning case against Scientology, especially Tom Cruise.
Going Clear is salutary, but my money from this industrious fellow’s current troika is on his James Brown documentary Mr Dynamite, which adds notably to this much covered artist’s record. The hardworking soul brother, hip-hop’s most sampled artist, “could also be a bastard.” And not just to the women he shamefully beat. I ask Gibney what surprised him about Brown making the film. “How much he changed the culture, his rags to riches story. He had such a profound influence. That’s what really turned my head.” How did he get Brown’s band to open up? “By being into the music. By asking interesting questions, not just the usual bullshit.” In one memorable scene Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield talks about how he despises his influential number ‘Funky Drummer’. In others Brown campaigns for both Humbert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. “No more black stuff,” Nixon is recorded in private, after pretending to listen to Brown’s case for a Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday.
3. One of the Sydney Film Festival’s strengths is the guests presenting their work. In the age of Netflix and a tsunami of online content to distract us, community elements are important. In addition to compelling overseas visitors like Gibney and Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes), I enjoyed watching writer-director Brendan Cowell introduce his Ruben Guthrie at the charming State Theatre on Opening Night. Ruben Guthrie is a Sydney ad man who has just won a major French advertising award for the fourth year in a row (for his Vivid Sydney campaign!). His model Czech girlfriend leaves him, because he can’t restrain his out-of-control alcoholic lifestyle. She says she’ll give him another shot if he stops drinking for a year. But his attempts at sobriety draw pungent criticism from friends, colleagues, and parents. Ruben Guthrie is very funny from start to finish. Well-written and acted, with the great Jack Thompson as Guthrie’s restauranteur father. It’s also spikey and moving, exploring Australasia’s big, under-addressed alcohol problem. Head, shoulders, and funny bone Australian film of the year. I raise my ginger beer to it. Grand Jury Prize: Tehran Taxi, by Jafar Panahi.
4. Vivid Lights enhance Sydney’s beautiful harbour, an appealing walk from Walsh Bay to the Opera House, with diverse installations. The lights on the facade of the Museum of Contemporary Art are an enduring attraction. Inside, Luminous’ light installations are playful and engaging. Visiting the Gallery of New South Wales is a reliable outing, collections from Aboriginal art to Brett Whitely.
5. Les Misérables is my favourite musical. This lavish, reenergised version delivers the goods. So much so I saw it three times in one year- Melbourne, New York, Sydney. ‘Lovely Ladies’ to ‘Drink With Me’ via ‘Master of the House’, the classic songs are entertaining and rousing. With special mention going to beguiling Tuhoe Patrice Tipoki as Fantine.