I was the magician’s apprentice … I was his psychotic sidekick, the boy wonder to murder’s masked man.

This may read like a lurid Nick Cave fairytale, but it is in fact an extract from Etceteracide, an unpublished novel by his former collaborator Rowland S. Howard. Filmmakers Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein seem to agree with Rowland (and posterity) that Howard never succeeded in emerging from Cave’s all-consuming shadow. Autoluminescent devotes over half its running time to the five or so years Howard spent with Cave – as guitarist and increasingly marginalised songwriter, first in The Boys Next Door and then The Birthday Party – and their falling out. This is by far the most satisfying part of the film, with the relationship giving the varied materials a context and throughline. The remaining part of the film is a scrappy stumble through a quarter-century of modest, arguably unfulfilled achievement, and drug-fuelled decline. A sustained focus on two artworks proves the point, devastatingly.

After a fractious residency in London, Melbourne shock-rock group The Birthday Party relocated to Berlin in 1983, where they soon split up. Whether Howard jumped or was pushed is unclear from the conflicting accounts given here by the guitarist himself, with his recessive modesty; Mick Harvey, with the noncommittal impartiality of a corporate spokesman; and Cave, with his mischievous bad faith. By 1986, Wim Wenders – interviewed in Autoluminescent – had returned from a near-decade-long sabbatical in the US, and was developing Wings of Desire, his fantasy-documentary on West Berlin, in what few then knew were the dying days of the Cold War. The film is balanced by footage of Howard’s and Cave’s new outfits: Crime & the City Solution, performing “Six Bells Chime”, are shot in black-and-white, the non-colour of the heaven that entraps Bruno Ganz’s angel; while Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are mostly filmed in colour. Wenders – generously and understandably, in the light of the documentary subject’s recent death – claims that Howard’s guitar-slinging stagger was the fulcrum of his conception, but this is nonsense. Cave, if not the film’s hero, is its unwitting spiritual pathfinder: it is his record that is played as succour by the deflated acrobat, and it is his poster that leads, like a clue in a metaphysical treasure hunt, to the gig that will bring the predestined lovers together. The facts that the Bad Seeds footage is largely shot in colour, the image of life and love, and that we even get angelic access to Cave’s thoughts demonstrate his formal, thematic and iconic centrality to Wings of Desire. By contrast, only a few hipsters among the large international audience that took the film to its collective heart would have known who Crime & the City Solution were, never mind who their gaunt guitarist was. Once again, Cave’s mere presence marginalises Howard.

This interpersonal and creative pattern began with the fate of “Shivers”, Howard’s best-loved song, written as a schoolboy. In an extraordinary montage in Autoluminescent, we see the ballad go through various iterations, several sung by Howard himself before he joined The Boys Next Door and Cave (according to producer-engineer Tony Cohen) hijacked it for the song’s definitive recording. You can see the song’s – and by extension Howard’s own – fate still rankles 30 years later in the interview he gave the filmmakers just before his death, initially for Lowenstein and Milburn’s earlier history of the St Kilda New Wave scene, We’re Livin’ on Dog Food (Lowenstein, 2009). This montage is lifted almost intact from that film, with one telling omission: Autoluminescent leaves out Howard’s bitter accusation that Cave’s performance of the song is “hammy.”

Whether or not this omission was made to appease Cave, who did not contribute to Dog Food, the sequence as a whole is revealing. Cave’s backhanded compliments imply that the childlike vision that was key to Howard’s personality became stunted; for Cave, the main reason they parted ways was his former bandmate’s failure to mature and develop as a songwriter. Howard certainly had difficulty collaborating with others (as his own brother Harry ruefully admits), and is referred to by one colleague as being “precious” about his songs. Even sympathisers more sincere than Cave make the same point. Henry Rollins calls Howard a “spectral man suffering from malaria – Rimbaud, pulled from Africa and given a guitar.” Rollins is probably referring to the 19th-century-dandy look Rowland affected, his ‘4 real’ physique and haunted eyes; but Rimbaud, of course, shot his creative load by the age of 17 and abandoned poetry. The subtext seems to be that Howard wrote his masterpiece at 16, after which there was nowhere left to go creatively or personally but downhill. It is a decent and romantic impulse to cheer the underdog, but it has to be confessed that nothing Howard wrote or played after “Shivers” has a fraction of the power of Cave at his most inspired.

It is remarkable how many documentaries about the avant-garde are so formulaic. The Birthday Party, surely the most invigoratingly visceral act of all time, were fired by a youthful enthusiasm for Dada and the Theatre of Cruelty – they were as much performance-art provocateurs as a post-punk band, as the astonishing video for “Nick the Stripper” reminds us. These left-field inclinations do not inspire the filmmakers of Autoluminescent. Anyone who has attended a documentary film festival or watched public-access TV will know the formula by weary heart: talking head after talking head interspersed with photographs, videos, bootlegs, vintage interviews, ‘poetic’ interludes and archival items (in this case, Howard’s notebooks) lingered over with fetishistic reverence. In recent years, figures and movements as artistically revolutionary as Barbara Rubin, Bauhaus, Peggy Guggenheim, Jean-Michel Basquiat and punk rock have been shoehorned into the same format, which has also been used for subject matter as diverse as World War II bombing raids, Margaret Thatcher’s government, physics, cookery and ceramics. In other words, the formula irons out the idiosyncrasies and complexities of a given subject and homogenises it for middlebrow consumption.

There are alternative ways to depict pioneering artistic lives, as demonstrated by Alain Resnais, Marie Menken, Stephen Dwoskin, Gregory Markopoulos or – closer to Howard’s home – Albie Thoms or Paul Cox. Canny Cave presumably saw the trap when rewatching Autoluminiscent and determined that his life-film, 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, 2014) would be innovative in its approach (if predictably bombastic and self-serving). But when half the interviewees of Autoluminescent are also producers and/or consultants, a memorial-by-committee is inevitable. It is like the unveiling of a kitsch statue in an artist’s hometown for invited friends and family only. Considering the artist’s international life and outlook, and his devotion to autobiographical fantasist Jean Cocteau, this approach will simply not do for Rowland S. Howard.

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Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (2011 Australia 110 mins)

Prod. Co: Ghost Pictures Prod: Andrew de Groot, Rowland S. Howard, Richard Lowenstein, Lynn-Maree Milburn Dir: Richard Lowenstein, Lynn-Maree Milburn Scr: Lynn-Maree Milburn Phot: Andrew de Groot Ed: Richard Lowenstein, Lynn-Maree Milburn