Thursday, January 26, 2012

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard documentary

I often get ridiculed when I tell people that my favourite film is Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders' meditation on Berlin and love from the late '80's. It probably hasn't aged that well and it is seriously slow moving, its plot unfolds at a glacial pace and if you're not fully sold, it has a sleep inducing affect on many a viewer. However, I still remember the first time I struck it by how intensity of the the guitar player from Crime and the City Solution. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also features in the film but the visage of the towering Rowland S. Howard stalking the stage and playing the skeletal ghost-surf riff of Six Bells Chime stuck with me long after I saw it. I came to the Birthday Party late through listening to the Bad Seeds but until I watched the documentary Autoluminescent last night, I don't think I really understood how great Howard was.

To be honest, I've been wanting to see this documentary for some time, partly because of rave reviews from friends and partly because I felt a big hole in my musical knowledge about Howard's life and work. What came through was the portrait of a delicate and gifted artist whose animalistic guitar sound betrayed the deeper turmoil of someone born with talents and sensitivities most of us could never understand. That he wrote the Boys Next Door's seminal Shivers at the age of 16 is almost unbelievable and that his sound and influence was solely responsible for the end of that band and the birth of The Birthday Party is even more fascinating. As someone says in the documentary, his guitar sounds like he looks - tall, junkie thin with a face so angular, angry and distinctive, watching these videos it's impossible to take your eyes off him. I've read a number of accounts about the Birthday Party's move to the UK but the deprivation and desperation is writ large here and the performances and music was an apt reflection of the violence, drugs and squalor offstage. The documentary follows Rowland's sense of betrayal at the dissolution of the Birthday Party and his work with Crime, These Immortal Souls and his solo work up until his death in 2009 from liver cancer.

What is extraordinary about this documentary is how candid, honest and personal it is, most of all from Howard himself who was interviewed not long before he died. Anyone who has been part of a band scene will recognise the egos, partner swapping and politics described in the early years of the Boys Next Door but as fame comes and goes in a haze of heroin, relationship highs and lows and some amazing music, there is a sense of Howard as an artist of purity and deep emotion. While there are a few celebrity interviews, most of the talking is undertaken by people from the scene, girlfriends, family and bandmates and this gives a context and sense of the man outside his stage image. On this level, it is a fantastic documentary and as the film builds towards its conclusion, it has a real emotional punch for the viewer as you become attached to Howard and the weight of his loss becomes apparent.

I found myself online buying his solo albums within seconds of the documentary finishing which I think is a testament to the film's power. This is a great music documentary and worth tracking down.


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