Starring: Head Like A Hole
The New Zealand International Film Festival is nearly upon us and for many, the real drawing card is the music documentaries that are regularly on offer. This year is no exception with two of them being local productions. One is about Bill Direen, and the other is the story of one of New Zealand’s most infamous bands, Head Like A Hole.
Julian Boshier has been making music videos and working on local TV productions for over twenty years, but Swagger Of Thieves is his first attempt to produce and direct a feature documentary. Even more daunting, he has done it with no outside funding, just his own time and money. It is truly a labour of love, and for that he should be commended.
Boshier has been working with the band on and off since the mid-90s and has been working on this particular film for over a decade. He has spent hours following them around with his camera, making himself virtually invisible and as a result has come up with some emotionally wrenching footage.
The film begins in a hospital ward with lead singer Booga Beazley suffering from a seriously inflamed foot…this, just weeks away from the band’s reunion tour. Booga is not only worried about letting down the band, he’s concerned that he might lose his foot.
Finally the band hits the road and the story starts to unfold. We meet the other major member of the band, guitarist Nigel Regan along with Booga’s wife Tamzin, their kids and various hangers on.
What we don’t get is a lot of exposition, or back story. Yes, there is vintage footage of the band in their early days when they made their reputation by performing naked. Boshier has done a commendable job of unearthing footage of the band from the early to mid-nineties that will have long time fans smiling with recognition.
And this really is a film made for fans of the band.
But chances are, if you’ve never heard of Head Like A Hole, you’ll find yourself wondering what all the fuss was about. Not much is said about the other bandmembers, we don’t really learn about how and why they formed and the music seems to take a back seat to their bad…or stupid behaviour.
And there is plenty of that.
These guys really lived the “rock & roll” lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Mostly, it seems, the drugs part. HLAH was closely associated with Shihad…they shared a record label (Wild Side) and a manager (Gerald Dwyer). Dwyer died of a drug overdose in 1996 during the Big Day Out and his death hit the band hard. This is all revealed quite openly and emotionally in the film. But then, instead of taking a lesson from the death of their friend and manager and steering clear of hard drugs, the principle members of the band became addicts and Boshier has the footage to prove it.
Not that they deny it.
The drugs are what tore the band apart…that and their inability to communicate with each other. Twenty years later, it seems that those problems still exist. We see both Nigel and Booga opening up about how they feel about each other to the camera, but they can’t actually talk to each other.
And so, when the film ends, we are left with two adult men who haven’t really grown up, who seem to desperately need each other and the band, but are ill-equipped to have any kind of mature relationship.
This brings me to the heart of my biggest problem with this film and others that tend to…I won’t say glorify…but focus on, that so-called “rock & roll lifestyle”.
I think it is a dangerous myth to put forward, this idea that you can join a rock & roll band and live like a teenager for your entire adult life and that the massive intake of drugs, alcohol or what have you is just part of rock & roll.
That hasn’t been my experience and I’ve been involved in the music “business” one way or another since the mid-1970s as a DJ, bandmember, label owner, producer, journalist or whatever and I have rarely, if ever come across the kind of behaviour that often gets depicted in music documentaries like this.
I’m not saying it never happens, but what I am saying is that the reality is that most musicians, tour managers, label execs, producers…all of whom I’ve had close relationships with…are generally quite clean, some incredibly so.
I understand that this fact doesn’t make for good on-screen drama, but it is the truth and I would love to see more stories about bands and artists and their actual art rather than how they screwed up their lives.
I’m not suggesting that I, or the people I have met over the years, have never behaved badly, but it has rarely defined their lives. Usually, they grow up, mature and act like responsible adults. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative or that you lose your edge.
These days the music biz is more competitive than ever. I meet artists both young and old all the time and it is clear that they know that they can’t afford to screw up, to act out in public, to live that “rock & roll lifestyle”. With few exceptions, it just doesn’t work. Artists have to come up with the goods night after night, album after album…one bad performance and its all over YouTube. There is no place to hide.
I’m not writing this with the intention of putting down Julian Boshier and his film. He made the film as it presented itself to him and he should be proud of it.
I would just like to see the stories of the many, many artists to don’t ride off the rails, who take their career and their art seriously and put in the hard yards. It may not be such an immediately dramatic story but, In my opinion, it would be a much more realistic one and one that might help up and coming artists understand what it really takes to become a success in this business.