Turei’s (Stan Walker) family are hard-working potato farm workers in rural New Zealand. A talented musician, Turei dreams of his band being the support act for Bob Marley’s 1979 tour. But it’s a dream that challenges the traditions and values of his upbringing and will set him at odds with his family – particularly his father (Temuera Morrison), a true man of the land.
There is an old showbiz story that goes something like this: a kid, usually, but not always a bloke, has a talent, y’know, singin’, dancin’ or playin’ the guitar. Whatever it is he’s got going for him it amounts to star quality. But realising his dream of the Big Time and the big bucks is going to be heavygoing since he has to battle obstacles like say class, race and a family that values tradition and community above all. In this kind of story, showbiz and its world of 'ego strokes’ has a tendency to betray such things.
There are no Marley songs on the soundtrack; I suspect their inclusion would have sent Mt. Zion’s budget into orbit.
Mt. Zion, a likeable drama from writer director Tearepa Kahi, cleaves closely to this ancient coming-of-age parable about how the quest for showbiz success can corrupt the innocent. Still, Kahi offers some interesting quirks on this dramatic template, not the least of which is a rather ironic (some might say sour) attitude directed at the hero’s quest for personal best. Or to put it another way, this movie puts love of family before the love of the Dream.
It’s set deep inside a Maori community of Pukekohe near Auckland in early 1979. Under the lens of cinematographer Fred Renata it’s a beautiful place of rolling green hills, sunsets and feathery light. But life here looks tough. This is potato country. The money is short and the work is hard. The folks who labour in the fields day and night live with extended family in tiny but cosy homes where the good life seems a long way off.
The story has Turei (Stan Walker) trying to find a way out of all this through music. With his older brother Hone (Troy Kingi) and two pals Reggie (David Wikaira) and Pou (Darcy-Ray Flavell-Hudson), Turei leads a band called Small Axe, whose music is a soulful fusion of reggae and pop/ska.
Turei’s God, musically and spiritually, appears to be Bob Marley. Between harvesting spuds, family obligations and working on the band’s tunes, Turei spends time carving a giant wooden relief of Marley as tribute. When Marley’s ’79 NZ tour is announced Turei is properly ecstatic.
When he finds out that the promoters are staging a 'battle of the bands’ for new un-discovered local acts to fill Marley’s support slot Turei has to convince his band bros that winning the prize is no mission impossible.
Once Kahi establishes the mood, atmosphere and character set-ups in the film’s first 15 minutes – including Turei’s tough-love relationship with his dad, played by a hulking Temuera Morrison – the film’s action dovetails into a simple but effective variation of the old Hollywood musical 'putting on a show’ plot – will Turei and his bros get it together enough to make the auditions? What kind of compromises, personally, ethically, morally, is Turei prepared to make to crack the big time?
But what gives Kahi’s script its pulse is his attention to the story specifics and not the generic. The musical subplot is played mostly for laughs and farce; Kahi adopts a tone of genuine respect toward the film’s many scenes of ritual. Whether it’s a band confab or a meeting called to debate the fate of a recalcitrant son and daughter of the community, Kahi pushes the line that survival for these folks is not a matter of individual achievement but collective action.
Intriguingly, Kahi lets his hero get his hands dirty. In the course of the action Turei lies, cheats and steals in an effort to get what he wants. Yet Kahi’s attitude doesn’t come off as pious or bleak. Indeed, Mt. Zion has a number of subplots intended, I reckon, to make Turei’s yearnings to escape his birthright and break out on his own as the stuff of growing pains (as opposed to say, the pressure of the modern world).
I’ve read that the roots of the film lie in Kahi’s own personal struggles with ambition and family as well as Marley’s actual ’79 NZ visit which had a huge influence on the country’s own version of reggae. Kahi even manages to ingeniously incorporate actual footage of Marley at a traditional welcome ceremony. There are no Marley songs on the soundtrack; I suspect their inclusion would have sent Mt. Zion’s budget into orbit. Incidentally the title seems to be a nod to a Marley song 'Iron Lion Zion’ from the mid '70s (though was left unreleased until the '90s). Part of the lyrics go, "I'm gonna be iron like a lion in Zion."
Kahi isn’t a stylist. He seems to have concentrated on getting the period details correct and the music to feel right; he contributed, with guitarist and composer Shane McLean a bunch of original numbers. Most of the performances are fine. Australian Idol winner Walker is, of course, well cast as a charismatic singer with a great set of pipes. In the dramatic scenes he’s awkward and limited; yet, halfway through I began to accept that as Turei’s own hard-to-shake personality flaw and not a new actor’s tenuous grip on technique.
The look and feel of Mt. Zion is about the level of an okay telemovie and most of the film’s modest pleasures derive from small vignettes that lovingly record the day-to-day experience of the characters’ lives. There is a particularly nice recurring visual beat where Turei’s bros cool down in a farm water tank after a day’s labour. It’s a sweetly ironic twist on the 'hot tub’ luxury moment from a zillion other movies where the heroes take the time to dream out loud about better things.