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When people reflect on a particular time and place important to their lives, they often discuss how it affected their senses – recalling smells, textures, the weather. In the director Martin Scorsese’s excellent 2005 Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, the musician recalls his youth in the bitterly cold American midwest, connecting chilly temperatures with a greater drive towards creative activities.
In Working Class Boy the subject – 62-year-old Scottish-Australian singer-songwriter Jimmy Barnes – remembers the smell of mud and smoke and the texture of soot-coloured buildings in Glasgow, where he spent his earliest years. Returning to woebegone neighbourhoods, the veteran rocker speaks of the unique properties of this city, “one of the only places in the world where you can get your jaw broken and your heart broken at the same time”.
Barnes recalls feeling cold, hungry and afraid. His mother had five children by the time she was 21 and their family lived in a rough-as-guts community ravaged by poverty and alcoholism. Born James Dixon Swan, the subject pledges that the film that follows will be “the story of how I became Jimmy Barnes”.
Adapted from the bestselling memoir and stage show of the same name, the director Mark Joffe is more interested in Barnes’ past than the person he became. Nobody says it directly, but there is a powerful insinuation throughout the film (which opens this week on the largest number of screens of any Australian documentary in history) that the rocker’s difficult life has profoundly infused his music, including that distinctive wall-rattling voice.
Cold Chisel fans may see Working Class Boy as a mixed blessing: lots about the man; little about the band. Joffe (a veteran film-maker who recently directed episodes of Jack Irish season two and has helmed several narrative features including 1996’s Cosi and 2001’s The Man Who Sued God) touches on the pub rock group more than an hour into the running time. There are brief interviews with band members Don Walker and Ian Moss, but you can sense the film-maker’s heart isn’t in it.
Given Working Class Boy is an authorised documentary, perhaps Joffe had limited options, the pre-existing book and stage show providing a clear narrative trajectory. Nevertheless the structure of Working Class Boy reiterates a humanistic message: that bands and other creative projects are part of a person’s life, rather than the other way around.
Barnes belts out several tunes (solo and in duets with daughter Mahalia Barnes and son David Campbell) beginning with The Dark End of the Street – which feels more literal than ever, placed after the subject’s recollections of Glasgow. There are exquisite renditions of Flame Trees and When the War is Over, performed with the singer’s trademark combination of vein-bulging grunt and pathos at Sydney’s State Theatre.
Working Class Boy seems like easy work for Joffe, who could hardly do more to allow his chatty and candid subject to speak for himself. In addition to accompanying Barnes to places significant in his life (including one of the homes he grew up in and the football oval where he lost his virginity) the director captures many situations where the subject is not far from a microphone – singing on stage, talking to the audience, or sitting down for relaxed interviews.
Joffe’s approach isn’t remotely cinematic. The recent and superior documentary Gurrumul, about the life and career of the late Indigenous musician, is visually and atmospherically a much more ambitious and interesting work. Nor is Joffe interested in examining the meaning of Barnes’ songs and the significance of the movement(s) they belong to, unlike another doco out this year exploring high profile Australian musicians: Midnight Oil 1984.
In its own slight way, however, Working Class Boy has something they don’t: a heartfelt message – simple but profound – that people begin their lives in one place and end up in another. The director understands he doesn’t have to do much to evoke sentiment and doesn’t over-egg the story. Implicit throughout the film is an understanding that we are watching and listening to a man who has risen up from the ashes of his past. Barnes’ story is nothing if not inspiring.
• Working Class Boy opens in cinemas around Australia on Thursday 23 August
Source: The Guardian
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