Paul Kelly: Stories of Me
Details: (M), 95 mins, In Cinemas 18 October 2012, Australia, English
Synopsis: In a career spanning more than thirty years, Paul Kelly has documented the history of our country, described its landscapes and cities, and captured the lives and loves of its citizens. Kelly has written over 350 songs, penned lyrics for many other singers, co-authored songs and written for film. But like all great artists, Kelly is both candid and reserved. He has lived in the public eye but has remained an enigma.
Hagiography of a troubadour does its subject a disservice.
It’s almost reassuring to know Kelly’s partial to at least one of the more common human weaknesses.
This documentary comes with an in-built disadvantage that it never really comes to terms with. A well mannered look at a genuine nice guy will never be as compelling as a film about a mysterious, troublingly complicated or forbidding musical figure – take your pick from Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Scott Walker, Joe Strummer and others whose fascinatingly perplexing lives have been explored successfully on film.
Nothing in director Ian Darling’s dutifully plodding 95 minute documentary on the respected Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly interferes with the common perception that he’s a very likable bloke with his head screwed firmly onto his shoulders. While this may sit well with his followers, it makes the film a less appealing prospect for those not yet part of the club.
I’ve long thought Kelly’s reasonableness, his strikingly relaxed demeanour and apparent modesty, were keys to his deep-seated appeal in Australia, while also explaining why he’d failed to make anything like a comparable impact overseas. Where Australians, with our tall poppy-lopping gestures towards egalitarianism, see a man of the people who wisely hasn’t risen above his station, audiences elsewhere are unlikely to feel quite the same. A decent performer and sometimes great songwriter he may be, but few would accuse him of excessive charisma.
Already I realise this is a little unfair; Kelly does have an irresistible smile, which here he gets to flash repeatedly – you can’t help but warm to the guy. But how much more enjoyable the film would have been if – and I am only being partly facetious – he’d scowled defensively or told blatant lies or wriggled uncomfortably at some penetrating questioning or even better, thrown an ashtray at the interviewer, as Jeff Duff once did to the NME’s Tony Parsons.
Singer Renee Geyer, one of a conga line of artists, writers, friends and family members queuing up to touch the hem of Kelly’s garment, observes that he’s “an honourable person” before hurriedly pointing out she doesn’t want to make him appear saint-like. Darling seems to at least recognise this danger, acknowledging Kelly’s heroin period in Melbourne’s post-punk scene of the early 1980s while not digging too deeply (pun unintended). Did he sink into the mire of addiction or was he just a casual user? We’re left none the wiser.
Later two ex-wives comment on the sexual promiscuity of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, which Kelly allegedly justified to one of them in terms of needing to soak up experiences to feed his artistry and songwriting. This kind of bull is nothing too unusual to hear from famous males with women queuing up to share their beds. It’s almost reassuring to know Kelly’s partial to at least one of the more common human weaknesses, but even here the subject is skated around a bit too quickly – a sordid five-in-a-bed anecdote could have done wonders to rehabilitate the image.
Of the many expert witnesses showering red rose petals on their subject, former Go-Between Robert Forster is one of the more insightful, suggesting that Kelly benefited from a move from the music town of Melbourne to Sydney, a city obsessed with what’s new and commercial. His songs around this time, particularly on the Gossip album, gained in lift and accessibility.
Journalist David Leser (listed on the credits as an executive producer) comments that while Bob Dylan doesn’t speak to Americans about American-ness, nor Leonard Cohen to Canadians about their national characteristics, Kelly does speak to Australian listeners “about our Australian-ness". It’s an arguable thought (Dylan’s a deeply American songwriter), but one worth discussing; an idea likely to resonate after the stories about Kelly’s Italian grandparents touring opera to the outback, or the unstartling observations of his literary approach to lyric writing, have been forgotten.
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