‘Talking truth through the Power and the Passion of music’
Large-scale change doesn’t occur suddenly, it’s almost always as a result of the collective efforts of an engaged working class.
Many have expressed this sentiment before, but in the case of the new documentary Midnight Oil: 1984, the way in which a group of young Australians combined music and politics played a very real role in affecting minds and creating political action.
Assembled from 28,000 feet of 16mm footage captured by director/cinematographer/editor Ray Argall during the band’s Red Sails in the Sunset period and accompanied by contemporary talking heads from the key players involved, Midnight Oil: 1984 is a loving look back on a period of time that saw one of Australia’s most important bands become more than the sum of their parts.
For the uninitiated in the history of Midnight Oil, the alternative rock collective originated in 1970s Sydney with politically charged lyrics and frenetic live performances garnering a following largely separate from mainstream support. Gaining increasing success with a line up of drummer Rob Hirst, bassist Peter Gifford (later replaced by Bones Hillman) and guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey, the energetic musical stylings were made incendiary by frontman Peter Garrett.
In both the mythology of the band and throughout the course of the documentary, Garrett is the enduring image with his striking physique and other-worldly stage presence serving as rock’n’roll evangelism for progressive politics.
Acting as both musical performance and true political story, the documentary sees the band practice the politics they preach following Garrett’s bid to win selection for the Australian Senate as a member of the Nuclear Disarmament Party.
Citing the need to take meaningful action amidst fears of a potential nuclear holocaust brought on by tensions between Reagan’s America and the USSR, Garrett takes additional aim at Australia’s export trade of uranium in his rationale of aspiring for public office. With the minor party gaining increasing momentum, concern from power players within the Australian political establishment develops, along with a newfound interest from the commercial and overseas media
Charting the run up to the election combined with extensive touring, the dramatic tension of Midnight Oil: 1984 is less concerned with Garrett’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign, rather how the disruption created by the nuclear disarmament message manifested into affecting the larger public discourse.
Epitomised by two key moments throughout the 90-minute runtime, the activist spirit Garrett and co. seek to instil through their work results in genuine engagement with and respect for the intelligence of the public.
In a seemingly cynical scene in which the newly nominated Garrett speaks at a public high school, the world of politics is not condescended to the audience. Instead the rock star-turned-politician encourages those too young to cast a vote to take an interest in a domain overwhelmingly populated by the privileged middle-aged. In planting the political seed in the minds of the young, a third act sequence sees re-elected Prime Minister Bob Hawke grilled by children on Australia’s uranium trade and nuclear preparedness. While the documentary avoids the severe overstatement of suggesting an eventual change in Government policy was causally related to Midnight Oil, the growing public interest is presented as a result of the band’s desire to use the platform afforded to say something of substance.
While the political aspect is certainly prominent throughout, the infectious energy in which the live performances and technical craft are pieced together suggests that the music is just as important as what is being said. Inviting the audience into the spectacle of an Oil’s live show, complete with sweat and congestion, an understanding of what it was like to bare witness to the principles the band espoused is conveyed to tremendous effect with the propulsive atmosphere creating a soundtrack as invigorating as the ideas proposed.
Midnight Oil: 1984 is by no means a critique of the band’s music or ideological views – it is highly unlikely that opponents will be swayed by the manner in which Garrett is framed as driven by noble ideals without considering the need for pragmatism faced by major parties in representing more than one issue. The absence of political rivals of the period along with an overly simplified reasoning for Garrett’s resignation from the Nuclear Disarmament Party post-election does ensure some questions remain unanswered. However, in keeping with the film’s interest in how music and politics can inspire change, these criticisms are not at the forefront of the creative vision intended by Ray Argall.
Additionally, the creative choice to resist playing songs in their full duration may draw the ire of some, but in compressing such a large discography, the pace with which the film moves serves as a reminder of why these songs spoke to people at the time and continue to hold relevance decades later.
For as satisfying as the journey through 1984 is, the way the ending is handled does put somewhat of a dampener on an otherwise inspiring experience.
With so much of their later career skimmed over including the Indigenous centred Diesel and Dust and the call for an apology to the Stolen Generation during their 2000 Olympic Games performance, there is a great deal of important information that does not receive the attention required upon being introduced towards the end of the runtime.
The documentary is as stated in being about Midnight Oil in the year 1984, but in failing to account for what the band achieved in the near two decades following and the compromises Garrett had to undertake in order to serve as an Australian Labor Party minister after the group’s disbandment in 2002, there is a sense that the story presented is not fully complete.
This is not to diminish what the film does incredibly well. The passion of Midnight Oil as musicians, performers and political activists permeates throughout. There is an immense sense of joy to be felt for fans of their work and how being driven by principles ultimately benefits society, albeit often lacking the practical measures of getting things done.
In a time where nuclear warfare is becoming a renewed fear following the rhetoric spewed by Donald Trump against North Korea and most seriously in pulling out of the Iran deal, the cause so passionately presented by Midnight Oil in both music and politics is an unwelcome reminder of a volatile period in recent history.
The baton has well and truly been passed on when it comes to political music in the 21st century. Hip Hop has assumed cultural relevance in changing hearts and minds, but with a catalogue of songs that remain just as, if not more relevant decades later, the messages of songs such as Power and the Passion, Read About It and Beds Are Burning have plenty to offer for a generation of young people eager to follow in the footsteps laid out by a group of young men who started out in the Northern Beaches of Sydney.
The legacy of Midnight Oil extends far beyond the time period of 1984, but in capturing a moment in time not immediately associated with the band, there is an understanding of what started humbly grew to represent – change the world with the platform you have available.