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Many people have tried to make a Radio Birdman documentary. For a variety of reasons, only one has succeeded.

And it would have been so easy for Jonathan Sequeira to fuck it up.

Don’t worry. He hasn’t. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

“Descent Into The Maelstrom” was screened to a select audience of band members, followers, media and other hangers-on in Sydney last night. The venue was the Chauvel Cinema, deep inside – ironically enough – Paddington Town Hall, the scene of the definitive Radio Birdman line-up’s last Australian stand.

fanforce 09 chris masuakNearly 39 years on, it was a much more sedate affair: There were no broken bottles, no trashed cars and no blood on the walls.

Considering the size of one elephant in the room last night, nobody was crushed underfoot either.

Of course, that beast would be the sacking of band members. So let’s herd that one out.

(I’ll declare an interest at this stage and state that I work with departed guitarist Chris Masuak. That doesn’t mean I’ll make a cent from the revenue stream from “Descent”, by the way.)

Masuak’s dumping is dealt with thoughtfully and with no punches pulled. He’s shown, reading his emailed termination notice from his computer screen, with just a dash of bitterness.

fanforce 11 ron keeleyWhat was known only to a handful of people when it occurred in 2004 is that drummer Ron Keeley was also dismissed, after a lacklustre gig at the Azkena Festival in Spain. The precise mechanics of that one are left hanging. The surprise is that Chris’ sacking is the thing that’s pushed Ron into a final estrangement.

The impression is that Ron’s demise was at least partly down to the geography of having a drummer living on one continent and other members spending time on two others, but there’s also a sense of cold blooded pragmatism. Which, to be fair, has always been an element of Radio Birdman’s modus operandi. Except in the ‘70s, of course, when it was tempered by a sense of brotherhood.

How that changed is just one facet of many in “Descent Into The Maelstrom”. It tells all sides of the story very well.

Capturing the energy, passion and sheer bloody mindedness of Australia’s greatest rock and roll band is a massively tall order. Jonathan Sequeira achieves that in spades. Let’s face it: He’s working from a position of strength because his cast are articulate, intelligent people who are allowed to say their piece.

They tell it with loads of humour, too - mainly through current manager John Needham and ex-bassist Warwick Gilbert. Never before has the death of a black-faced sheep in a Welsh paddock (an analogy for the band’s original fracturing in the UK) raised such a laugh in an Australian cinema.

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The visuals are a huge plus. Sequeira is an ex-TV editor whose work in the edit suite is no less than stunning. He’s also turned up a gold mine of previously unseen images. Warwick Gilbert’s artwork was always the defining element of the band’s image. A range of fresh pictures he penned for the documentary is used as a connecting device in places where a dearth of historical footage could have let the film down.

That the soundtrack is perfect is pretty much a no-brainer. It’s not always sequenced chronologically but you’d have to be a dummy to think of that as a detractor.

“Descent Into The Maelstrom” is very much a labour of love - made with a fan’s eye but not to the exclusion of anyone unfamiliar with the story.

Uber fans Alley Brereton, Julienne Mostyn-Gilbert, Tara Anderson and Jules Normington (he was also the band’s support team in the early days) provide the inside perspective. Jules’s story about the band’s commitment in the face of a poorly-attended Corrimal gig is especially telling. Five people in the hall and they still played it like there were 5000.

Paul Gearside (Psychosurgeons) and John Needham put a lid on the biker-led closure of the Funhouse with a sense of finality and real regret.

Carl Rorke (the original bass player who’s passed on) and late manager George Kringas are acknowledged. Eartly champion Anthony O'Grady and label head Michael McMartin, too. So are forerunner bands The Rats and TV Jones. 

As alluded earlier, it’s not just about Radio Birdman in its heyday. The reunion and ongoing travails are given considerable weight – unlike Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges love letter, “Gimme Danger”. I know, nobody’s turned blue in Radio Birdman and most of the wars have been psychological, but I’d argue that “Descent…” tells its tale with more of an edge than that "Danger".

fanforce 10 deniz tekDeniz Tek gets his due for the impact he had on an entire scene. The startling and unique collection of players and personalities that came together around him is the other part of that story. Neither could have prospered without the other. The sum of its whole, and all that. And, collectively, a massive influence on so many bands that followed.

Mind you, self-deprecation king Rob Younger will never agree with that last point.

Nobody has messed with the mystique. That’s arguably fallen away over the years, anyway, with post reformation incarnations of the band reaching far more people than the original could have dreamed of. Festival shows and YouTube will do that to you.

What’s crystal clear from the film, however, and glaringly self-evident to anyone growing up in Sydney at the time, is that Radio Birdman, in its prime, was cool way beyond belief. It was the gang that you wanted to join with a (finite) spirit de corps that was born out of the mainstream thinking they were scum.

It's about time somebody did that justice. 

It will be on DVD but go see it on a big screen. “Descent Into The Maelstrom” is the best rock documentary ever made.


World Premiere with Deniz Tek, Pip Hoyle, Jonathan Sequeira 
and post-film Q&A moderated by Murray Engleheart


Sunday, July 2nd – CINEMA NOVA, CARLTON, VIC
Post-film Q&A with Deniz Tek
Ticket details coming soon

SYDNEY – Event Cinemas, George St
7pm, Thursday July 20
9pm, Friday July 21
Matinees on Saturday and Sunday July 22, 23

BRISBANE- Event Cinemas, Myer Centre
7pm, Thursday July 20
9pm, Friday July 21
Matinees on Saturday and Sunday July 22, 23

July 6 – 19

PERTH – Event Cinemas, Innaloo
7pm, Thursday July 20
9pm, Friday July 21
Matinees on Saturday and Sunday July 22, 23

ADELAIDE – GU Film House
Monster Fest Travelling Sideshow 7pm, Friday July 21 – Jonathan in attendance for post-film Q&A
Matinees on Saturday and Sunday July 22, 23

MELBOURNE – Cinema Nova
From July 20th