Descent Into The Maelstrom: Brilliant documentary of a time, place and people

rob and denizWho's for popcorn? Rob Younger and Deniz Tek at the World Premiere.   Bruce Tindale photo 

It’s been pissing down in Sydney for morer than 24 hours.  I wait in a corner window at the Imperial Hotel, watching the steady torrent of streaming cars, my eye on the entrance to the Chauvel Cinema, tucked away inside Paddington Town Hall. A homecoming of sorts, 40 years on.

Fortry years. No longer is Radio Birdman a part of the zeitgeist, no longer are they merely an immediately cognisable legend. The weaves of history, misinformation and untruth, as well as the shedding of members and other things, like time moving on … all these things have taken place, as with many bands of yore.

descent july dates

Descent Into the Maellstrom
World Premiere Screening
Chauvel Cinema, Paddington
June 7, 2017
Bruce Tindale photos 

Except ... Birdman were a seriously important part of the Sydney scene, and then the Australian scene. A blinding flash of light, and they, like the Saints before them (the Saints reached the UK first and (whispers) influencing hordes of UK bands), held the inexpressible hopes of the fast expanding Australia underground in their hands… like the Saints before them, Birdman collapsed suddenly, like a balloon blown to bursting point.

And then, fuelled by circumstance, timing, a gleeful rejection and a reassertion of youthful identity into adulthood, came an utter deluge of bands, positions, fresh creative juice and liquors...  Three years later, when the scene was completely unrecognisable, I attended the New Race gig in Adelaide. Members of Birdman, the MC5, the Stooges.

Most of the audience had long hair, wore denim jackets, and head-banged religiously to everything; I remember looking at Paul. We were the only two upright. Everyone else was bent over like muslims in a mosque, staring at their knees, sneakers and the dark floor. Sod that, I was in front of Ron Asheton! 

Forty years ago, then, The Funhouse was a closed, word-of-mouth kinda thing. It was intended to be that way. Sure there were posters. Torn down (like Bruce Stratford’s years later) for souvenirs and the knowledge that this sheet of paper was as significant of a time and place as any poster for the 100 Club, the Fillmore Ballroom, The Cavern … 

Like the squalid areas of New York, the adults had fled, and the kids – well, many were in their early twenties, older kids fleeing responsibility and stifling careers – made it up themselves. 

Inside the Funhouse, the girls were the goddesses. They were the ones down the front.  Impossibly tight jeans, they had to lie on their backs and pulled their zippers up using coat-hangars. There was no ‘mosh pit’, that came in '83 or '84. The boys were up the back, watching the band and the girls. 

Extraordinary, priapic days filled with implication, reality and disturbance. When the Funhouse came to an end and the band moved to the Paddo Town Hall… it was the end of an era, but, one might say, the beginning of a different, more public, broader legend.

So. The Sequeira brothers. Film maker Jonathan and producer Mark. How easy would it have been to stuff this up? To follow one agenda or another.  To fall for the legend, not the facts.  But they don’t do it. They took the view: tell us, we’ll make our own mind up. And people talked… 

All documentaries are false in some way, and those dealing with r’n’r bands will almost certainly contain omissions, mistakes, fibs coming from major players. People are people, and like to be seen for how they perceive themselves … not how they really are. The trick is not to flatly assert the truth, but allow the truth to reveal itself as the story unfolds. 

Which is what happens here.  I cannot praise the Sequeira brothers enough for this. As a documentary alone, it is balanced, revealing, entertaining, colourful.  There will be legions of new fans seeking out the Radio Birdman box set. The price of Birdman vinyl will soar on Discogs. 

The Sequeira’s intelligent utilisation and creative presentation of still images – that dreadful doc-killer – is benchmark stuff. 

The use of cartoon – again, benchmark.

The fan, Alley Brereton, whose love and excitement fills the screen, provides a warm human heart against the backdrop of what used to be the zeitgeist but is now history. She is beautiful, the heart of the film. 

The Sequeira’s seamless use of music to punctuate the narrative of talking heads (talking heads are another doc-killer) is elegant, precise, clever – to the point where you never, not ever, notice the joins between scenes or subjects.

descent premiereReady to descend: The pre-screening crowd.

And here’s the rub. This was invite-only (and I was a second-choice for someone, and I was gobsmacked to be offered this. I mean, me) which meant that not only were the band there (bar Chris Masuak who was in Spain – though his two boys were there; and Ron Keeley, who was in UK) but their partners, the fans who’d helped with the documentary, and other band insiders.

The cinema was not packed. It wasn’t intended to be. Closed shop. Like the Funhouse.

There was laughter as well as clear enjoyment as the film begins, and the trajectory of the band hurtles onwards. The historian might fault it a little. But it’s not important – rather than an unwieldy pompous lecture, this is what the band themselves were: entertaining, unpredictable, and with the edge of circling violence intercut with dance numbers. The possibilities were endless… that was the thing. 

And it all came sliding down, dreadfully, inevitably. Some try to conceal it. But truth – perhaps nothing you could take to a courtroom after 40 years – comes out here. 

"Descent into the Maelstrom" is aptly named, is a brilliant documentary of a time, place and people which has been much written and talked about, but never properly nailed. As far as is ever going to be possible, the Sequeiras have created something we Australians have no right to ever expect: an accurate documentary on the most reclusive, inclusive, deliberately mythonic band in the country. 

See it. Get the Radio Birdman box set as well as the soundtrack CD. Harass the Sequeiras for a DVD with extras release. Harass them for tshirts. Sacrifice fat oxen in their name.

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Tags: radio birdman, documentary, descent into the maelstrom, jonathan sequeira

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  • Guest - Sioux

    brilliant review. can't wait to see it. rob younger quietly strode in many times to the record store i worked in on a Saturday morning (it was the early/mid 80s so shops shut at 12 - remember that?!) .. my heart skipped a beat every time. massive fan girl.

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