Film Review: Gurrumul

Paul Damien Williams’ documentary study of blind indigenous artist Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was given the approval of the man himself a mere three days before he died (at 46) on July 25, 2017.

The whole film therefore could have felt terribly sad, as we know of his fate from the very beginning. Yet Williams (a longtime mate of the subject from his Darwin-based Skinnyfish record label) turns this into a celebration of Gurrumul’s life and work, all in rather warts-and-all fashion, as here was a man who didn’t believe in publicity or celebrity or unnecessary talk. For him it was all about the music.

Opening with Gurrumul seemingly refusing to speak in an interview for The 7.30 Report in 2008, we’re then treated to a history of his life, from his youth in Elcho Island (Arnhem Land), to his time in Yothu Yindi (where he often seemed to quietly steal the limelight by doing nothing) and Saltwater Band, to his rise to solo success with his self-titled album. His producer, bandmate and close friend Michael Hohnen talks about him with great affection, and frequently for him when Gurrumul won’t talk, and various reasons are given for this. Was it to do with English being his fourth or fifth language (he sang in several Yolngu languages)? Extreme shyness, perhaps? Or did Gurrumul simply not want to play the whole fame game?

His blindness is also much-discussed, with no less than Sting rather cruelly making a joke about it when they appear together on French TV, and yet Gurrumul never really talked about it, as he never considered it a problem or burden. He can seem remote and angry when we don’t see him converse in the old footage, but then he’ll suddenly smile broadly and laugh. You can’t help but warm to him, and see what Hohnen loved so much. And will miss so badly.

Naturally, as this is about a man who lived for his music, we see Gurrumul on stage a great deal here, and when he sings in that gorgeous voice it’s beautiful and seriously haunting. And when we realise that some of his songs are adapted from music and stories up to 10,000 years old, it’s truly staggering. Will any current hits by, say, Taylor Swift be played 10,000 years from now?

Rated PG. Gurrumul is in cinemas now.

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