In the early eighties, The Sunnyboys were the greatest band on the planet…
– Stuart Coupe, Music Journalist (interviewed in The Sunnyboy)
Kaye Harrison’s new documentary The Sunnyboy (2013) opens with the dappled and multi-coloured flair of neon lights. The focus is soft, and momentarily it seems we have entered the realm of cinematic abstract expressionism. The viewpoint is distanced, as if glimpsed through a fence or grate. This opening builds anticipation and evokes the feeling of waiting for a band to begin. Then the tinkering and abstracted silhouettes of busy roadies are mixed with the diegetic sound of a far off crowd whose anticipation is perceptible. The film’s viewer has to peer “through” these images as if trying to see. There is then a cut to an abstracted pink and purple, spot lit guitar. The sound of an opening riff signifies a beginning – the familiar terrain of the music documentary. But the performance is not revealed. Instead, the scratchy voiceover of the Sunnyboys front man brings us into the film. The viewer is positioned against a biographical narrative, and the audience discovers that the central character is also trying to see: “when I was young, I was trying to find out what the right thing to do was”. This is the central protagonist of the story: Jeremy (“J”) Oxley, a man looking for answers.
‘Were we pop stars?’ Jeremy asks his brother and Sunnyboys band member Peter Oxley: “I don’t know. Probably. We were on Countdown.” Generations of Australians will understand something viewers elsewhere in the world won’t – that on Sunday nights local audiences were glued to ABC television’s national music show for over a decade (1974-1987) – and yes, if you were on Countdown, you probably were pop stars. For those who spent the 1980s dancing to The Sunnyboys at live gigs (1980-1984 ), and know of the vibrancy of the Australian music scene at the time, this film will not disappoint. It captures the mood and memories of that era, featuring the music that made The Sunnyboys a success. Focusing on the story of the band’s charismatic lead vocalist, the film documents his long battle with schizophrenia, and his return to the stage, and to music, after a lengthy absence.
The film signals its observational style with a clichéd music documentary device as it follows the band from the dressing room to the stage. This walk tracks the 2012 Sunnyboys, but as the crowd roars and the music starts, there is a flashback to the band around 1980. For those watching who are fans, this transporting moment is a thrill. Looking back at those performances, Jeremy had a charismatic presence that is like a burst of light.
Harrison builds the impression that we are granted access to the subject through someone who is close to Jeremy. It feels like she is sitting quietly next to him, and that he has let her in. Harrison creates an intimacy with her subjects, and throughout there is a felt sense of the filmmaker presence – indeed, it is her conversation with him that forms the film’s conclusion. As the film progresses, she comes more and more into the film, albeit minimally, in an acknowledgement of the filmmaking process. There is a participatory element that seems to emerge from this collaboration between filmmaker and subject, and a performative quality that emanates from the subjective reflections on memory, and the film’s attempts to recreate what it is like for Jeremy. At one point he asks the filmmaker: “I don’t know what you’re trying to prove by all this. What are you trying to prove?” – Harrison responds off-camera. The director has created an intimacy with her subjects, which in turn carries over to the audience. Oxley, the “movie star son” (his reference to himself as the focus of this film), seems to relish it the attention – even to the extent that he seems to be performing himself (always with those “sparkly eyes”).
Key points of interest in the film are the stills and archival material, including those from the Oxley brothers’ youth. Access to these items demonstrates the trust the filmmaker had from Jeremy, his family, friends and colleagues. The film also contains numerous themes of universal interest: the love between brothers; the estrangement that can occur within families despite the obvious love that is there; and how families (and brothers) want things for each other. Jeremy’s warmth as a person comes through the overarching story of teenaged surfing champions who become pop stars, illustrating that despite the trouble that might occur (in one’s brain) there is always hope in humanity. The film also features a range of brief, interesting interviews with such music people as with Peter Garrett (as a member of Midnight Oil not parliament), Michael Gudinski (Mushroom Records), and also the original Sunnyboys members Richard Burgman (guitar) and Bill Henson (drums).
For MIFF stalwarts, there will be interest in an interview with previous festival director Tait Brady who was a vocalist in a band from the Gold Coast called The Strand (1978-80), and which Jeremy had joined when he was 17 (1979-80). In addition, Tom Zubrycki, whose distinctive films have screened at MIFF for decades, produced The Sunnyboy. The Diplomat, which Zubrycki directed, won Most Popular Documentary at MIFF in 2000 (a portrait of East Timorese leader Jose Ramos Horta).
Schizophrenia is ostensibly a key subject of the film, and even of the music (“a thousand people wonder who you are”), but the film is low on information about the condition. This is because it is about what it feels like to live through it (especially for Jeremy, but also for those around him). There aren’t any doctors or experts, just a family recalling how a bright star nearly fizzled out completely. But it is this very brightness that ultimately led Jeremy to his partner Mary Griffiths, who seems to have saved him – her importance in his recovery is paramount, and ultimately tells a story of how love and patience can put the lights back on for someone with a debilitating illness.
In retrospect, the Sunnyboys lyrics do seem like anthems for mental illness, from someone on “the edge of reality” experiencing “the whole damn thing crashing down”, but this story is one of how humour, love and commitment can lead to recovery. I think Sunnyboys fans might like this film more than cinéphiles, but for all audiences the emotional landscapes depicted creates a potent and evocative story.
In the film Peter muses, “Will The Sunnyboys ever play again? I doubt it.” But in January 2013, I saw them play, triggering many of the memories that this film also reinvigorates. As Archie Law (Huxton Creepers) notes in The Sunnyboy, Jeremy had a connection with his audience, and as a fan, I would add that he still does. But this film has its own contribution to make. It gets to the crux of what Jon Watson (Manager of Silverchair, Missy Higgins, Gotye, Cold Chisel) identifies as “quite bright and bouncy music” and its underlying “dark and solitary sort of lyricism”. Jeremy was out in the wilderness singing “I need a friend”, and he found one in his wonderful partner Mary. Despite some moments of eccentricity, there are also many teeming with joy, hope and humour. Despite the “the eternity of insanity”, Jeremy, at 50, is a happy man.
The Sunnyboy is screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday 9 August and Sunday 11 August. Kaye Harrison and Peter Oxley are guests of the festival.