Film Review: Midnight Oil: 1984

This insightful documentary from Ray Argall is mainly constructed from film he took of Midnight Oil in 1984 (and slightly beyond), and which remained unseen and untouched for 30 or so years thereafter.

It seems extraordinary now, not just because the band was one of the biggest in the country at the time, but due to the fact that there was so much material to work with: 28,000 feet of 16mm film, to be exact. The finished result captures the raw energy of the group live, the ways in which they politicised young audiences at a time when new romantic music predominated, and just how formidable a presence frontman Peter Garrett was back then (and yes, he still is, although he has slowed down a little).

Argall (who went on to direct films like the Adelaide-shot Return Home) shows the Oils on the stage as the Red Sails from the Sunset tour continued, and they perform blistering versions of songs from that then-new album (When the Generals Talk, Best of Both Worlds, Sleep) as well as tracks from their huge-selling 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (Power and the Passion, Read About it and the classic US Forces). The members are also interviewed now and discuss the footage, the 1984 mood and more, with drummer Rob Hirst up first to explain how the fear of nuclear war was so real at the time, and how Red Sails bravely reflected that.

There’s a little about the early days of the outfit as they played in pubs and universities, a few words from other figures (like stage manager Michael Lippold, who jokes about the drum kit having to be nailed down) and a great deal concerning Garrett’s involvement in the Nuclear Disarmament Party. Some called him naïve, and perhaps he was for thinking that he wouldn’t be attacked for moving into politics — and he was, mercilessly.

With glimpses of old Adelaide (they set up for a concert at Memorial Drive and Hirst goes for a jog around the Torrens), this is a wonderfully nostalgic study of one of the greatest Aussie bands ever. One of the sweatiest, too.

And isn’t it nice to no longer live in fear of nuclear war?

Rated M. Midnight Oil: 1984 is in cinemas now.

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