* * * 1/2
I didn’t know much about Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the astonishingly successful, blind, indigenous musician who died, age 46, in July of last year, before seeing Gurrumul, but I do remember being fascinated by his success. I was intensely curious as to just how a blind indigenous singer from a remote community (Elcho Island) could achieve worldwide acclaim, record sales and tour bookings. The feature length documentary absolutely answers many of my questions, and more besides, while finding it almost impossible to get inside the mind of the man himself.
The very elements that make Gurrumul an elusive subject are the elements that made me so fascinated by his success. As Michael Hohnen, his career-long producer, collaborator, handler, manager and best friend, says in the film (I have to paraphrase here), “If you imagine becoming a successful musician, Gurrumul has all the absolute opposite qualities: he is intensely shy, rarely speaks, doesn’t do promotion, and doesn’t particularly want to tour.” And, of course, he’s from a remote community, and blind.
Besides seeing the fascinating way in which Gurrumul’s collaboration with Hohnen led to his worldwide success, we’re also gifted with an almost unprecedented look at the life of any deceased Australian indigenous artist. This is because indigenous Australians have a cultural tradition of “avoidance” that restricts mentioning the name, or distributing the image, of deceased persons. For this film even to exist, filmmaker Paul Williams had to receive special permissions from Gurrumul’s family and community. Seeing Gurrumul on screen, you cannot help but think of all the amazing indigenous lives that do not exist as posthumous documentaries, lives that need to be recognised as they are, literally, being lived.
There are also extremely revelatory scenes of the creation of Gurrumul and Hohnen’s fourth and final studio album, Djarimirri, which was a truly unique, bold and risky venture. It is pure musical art, a collaboration born of real challenge, and, as such, truly inspiring. This section of the film is a genuine artifact of artistic creation.
Gurrumul as a subject is oblique, mainly because of that intense shyness, which at least appears to border on pathological. He is not interviewed directly for the film and you certainly don’t get the sense it would even be worth asking him. We see him through his work, his art, and the words and recollections of others. It is a portrait of the man not dissimilar to the famous Archibald-winning painting: a version, a vision, but not really the man himself.
Interestingly, the film we see was approved by Gurrumul three days before his sudden (if not entirely unexpected) death, and is unchanged since then. Therefore, it is actually constructed as a portrait of an artist that is still living rather than as a memorial to a dead one; it is told in the present, of one that has past.