When your subject is a notoriously camera-shy singer-songwriter, timing is everything.
29 Oct 2012 - 3:25 PM  UPDATED 29 Oct 2012 - 3:25 PM

Four years ago filmmaker Ian Darling and journalist David Leser were on a train trip in Italy. “Each of us had music on headphones,” Darling told SBS. “David told me he was listening to Paul Kelly and funnily enough so was I.”

We had to convince him we were the right people to make the film.

By then Kelly had released over 17 albums and written hundreds of songs. He'd had a career that spanned nearly 40 years and his style embraced bluegrass, rock, pop and folk. The pair started talking about Kelly's 'Top Ten' songs. That started an argument that lasted four hours. By the time they got off the train, Darling says, they decided it was time for a film about Kelly and his music. Leser ultimately ended up as executive producer and Darling, a documentary veteran whose credits include The Oasis and In the Company of Actors, would direct the feature doc called Paul Kelly: Stories of Me.

“The biggest issue he had to face was, did Kelly want to have a film made about him?” says Darling. The notoriously enigmatic Kelly, famous for his habit of 'backing into the limelight' was not especially keen on the idea. “It took him years to decide.” Darling learnt that a number of filmmakers had approached the songwriter over time, but Kelly, an unapologetically serious artist, had refused them all, fearing that any resulting film would ultimately be viewed as a 'vanity' project.

“We had to convince him we were the right people to make the film,” says Darling. “We had a couple of things on our side – he'd just gone through the process of writing his memoir, How to Make Gravy (Penguin, 2010). He was just going through the final draft stage on that and he had to be a bit more introspective and reveal more.” Kelly agreed after Darling prepared an elaborate and detailed pitch that guaranteed that the final film would be released with an outreach and educational component.

Kelly, says Darling, was “generous and co-operative” and approved all access to every area of his life including family and ex-lovers and a pair of ex-wives, Hilary Kelly and Kaarin Fairfax. Still, the film, flattering and even reverent, is emphatically not “an authorised biography,” Darling says.

Indeed, Darling says the film is not quite a biography, but rather a 'mosaic' that attempts to understand Kelly the artist and the man through his songs.

Intimate and personal, Kelly's songs can sound 'confessional', candid, 'true stories' reported from the familiar 'battlegrounds' of heart and mind. But the songwriter has always tried to distance himself from this reading of his work. Kelly, a literate and well-read fellow, resorts to the stance favoured by fiction authors, which is that he cautions listeners in not confusing the singer with the songs. Darling, the film, and many others contradict this view: “I agree with John Kingsmill, who says in the film that Kelly's songs are about Kelly… you can't separate the two.”

In preparing the film Darling watched a library of rockumentaries on famous artists like The Who, The Ramones and Joy Division. Most of the filmmakers here had adopted the crushingly familiar approach of telling a story in a linear way.

For Stories of Me, Darling jettisons this style. The film moves back and forth through time, using Kelly's song lyrics – which often appear on screen in handwritten titles – as cues to explore the events that shaped Kelly's life and art. In effect, the chronology of Kelly's life is shuffled and moved around.

Made over two and a half years on a budget a little north of a million dollars, Darling says he cannot remember how many versions the film went through before final cut: “In September last year Paul was playing in New York and I took what we thought would be the final edit and it was two and half hours long. And after watching it then I realised it was all wrong.”

After that Darling and editor Sally Fryer started from scratch. The final structure was about 'cycling' through the songs and “coming out in different aspects of Kelly's life”… sex, marriage, his dedication to social and humanist issues. “The songs became a useful storytelling device,” says Darling. “Blues for Skip, for instance. The song wasn't that well known and it was one my least favs, but it did offer some insight into Paul's use of heroin [and the culture around it].”

The shooting style, developed with cinematographer Simon Smith, was simple and direct, avoiding the visual clichés of the form. “We used multiple 5D cameras,” Darling says, “and arranged the interviews like we were doing portraits and we had two rules: no flowers or lamps and nothing too obviously metaphorical.”

Dense and ambitious and full of never before seen archival material, the film is a fans' movie; there's no ironic distance, no penetrating study of the purely musical aspects of Kelly's recordings, including its limitations and roots.

It's a criticism that Darling is prepared to bare: “It was a more difficult thing for people to talk about,” he explains. “And the actual discussion on music was far less interesting. We did have a few sections about where the music came out of – The Beatles, Stones, Sinatra. But we had restrictions in that using it would have sent the budget through the roof!”

There's a short clip of Dylan and Cash in the final cut, though, and Darling says it, “cost us a fortune”.

For anyone familiar with Kelly's music, the film is full of moments that may provide sweet chills; we get an understanding of the experiences that fed the songwriter's muse, often in images. Consider these lyrics from Kelly's 'Leaps and Bounds': I'm high on the hill/Looking over the bridge/To the M.C.G./And way up on high/The clock on the silo/Says eleven degrees.

In the film, there's a bit early on that features a twenty-something Kelly and girlfriend Hilary living rough in a terrace house in Melbourne. Darling and co. uncovered this priceless 16mm footage from a tip-off.

“It was gold,” says Darling. “Here's Kelly in the late-'70s, living on $40 a week and playing his first major gig. And there's even a shot of him looking out on to the silo at the MCG where the clock says it's 11 degrees. And that was five or six years before he wrote 'Leaps and Bounds'.

Kelly, says Darling, approves of the film, but is “uncomfortable” watching it.

“Paul has only seen it once, but he says it's like going to his own funeral.”