By Brian Wise.
The Go-Betweens were Australia’s original indie rock trailblazers, leaving behind a sonic legacy that’s influenced everyone from Belle and Sebastian to Sleater-Kinney.
Like many bands that emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s the Go-Betweens – driven by the musical partnership of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster – never got the commercial success their fans thought they deserved. Even though they did get considerable acclaim in the UK, the band – which evolved into a five-piece which included Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown – eventually suffered a traumatic break up when McLennan and Forster decided to pare down the outfit.
This elegantly made documentary was a passion project for Kriv Stenders – whose Red Dog series of feature films are amongst Australia’s most successful of all time. Stenders directed a number of the band’s music videos.
The Go-Betweens: Right Here tells the band’s story in their own words through some remarkably revealing interviews.
I spoke to director Kriv Stenders, whose feature film Australia Day was also showing at the Melbourne International Festival, prior to the first screening of the Go-Betweens doco on the weekend.
You’ve got two films showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival. A documentary, that we’re going to talk about, and a feature. I guess the common thing is that they’re both about storytelling, aren’t they?
Yes, basically. They’re kind of same animals, really. You’re trying to tell a story and also take an audience somewhere and make them think and, hopefully, move them as well in some kind of way.
Well, you certainly do move people with the Go-Betweens documentary. There are some emotional moments. I suppose the fact that you had a long association with the band kind of helped for your choice to make a documentary about them. Is that how it came about?
Well look, I’ve been a huge fan of the band year zero, really. I’ve also, apart from being a fan, I’ve also just been haunted by their story and their music. I’ve always felt there was something inherently cinematic and iconographic about them. You know, they’re part of an era. Their songs are very, very … I find them very visual. They’re very evocative. It’s very evocative music.
Having, I guess, a personal kind of connection to them was……..I guess it was my entry point. Really, what struck me more was wanting to tell a bit more of a universal story rather than a story about the Go-Between per se. I really wanted to make a story about a friendship and about a band, and about what that family of people go through when they embark on the creative adventure that is making music and being in a band together.
Did it help that Robert had already written his book? Was that an assistance or did it make any difference
Yes and no, in that it’s great because he’d written a book, a lot of the history was very recent in his mind, so he was able to access certain episodes and it was very immediate for him.
At the same time, Robert also has a very specific view of events. They’re his. They’re not anyone else’s. Robert was very candid about that when he said, “Look. I’m just going to tell you what I know, how I experienced the story.” For me, that was great, because I knew that the film wouldn’t be just Robert’s voice. It wouldn’t be a film of the book. It couldn’t be a film of the book. It had to include everyone’s voices and everyone’s side of the story.
I realised doing that then with Robert’s story, even if it contradicted and conflicted with other people’s versions of events, then that was great, because then I would have tension and I’d have conflict and I’d have contrast. That’s kind of what happened.
How long did it take you to make? As I said, you’ve got a feature film as well. How did this process all work?
Well, it was sort of 35 years in the making in a way, in that the archival material came from various different eras. Really, the shooting of the film didn’t take very long. I wrote a script over a few months. I wrote a feature script basically outlining how I saw the story.
It was a story in three acts. The first act being ’75 to ’81, which is really the early formative years in Australia. Then ’81 when they were in London through to ’88, or ’89 when the band broke up. The second act being the kind of the climax of the second half getting back the band.
The third act then really being Robert and Grant by themselves and reuniting. There was a very clear structure in mind. We shot the film very quickly. We shot it over about a month late last year.
One of the things that helps, Kriv, is the participants are so forthcoming. We don’t always find that in music documentaries, do we? A lot of them tend to be almost long promotional video clips, aren’t they?
Yes, some of them, they tend to be puff pieces or they tend to just kind of long, I guess, promotions, really. I mean what you had with the Go-Between is inherently a story of conflict and of acrimony and also of love. You know, there’s still a lot of love around that band, even though there’s still a lot of anger.
The thing is that someone like Lindy Morrison, you can’t tell her to censor herself. She’s a force of nature. Same with Amanda. Amanda’s very forthright. Robert [Forster] is also very, very candid in his own way. When you get other people like Clinton Walker in the mix, then my God, it’s just a free for all, which in a way, was great
I mean I love them dearly. Not only are they just great, great people, but there’s a wisdom about them. I think they’ve gone through the gauntlet that is the music industry. They’ve gone through that … They’ve crossed many thresholds of being in a band. They’ve come out wiser and stronger, and in a way, more beautiful, I think. That’s what I was really thrilled about – that I was getting these people talking very candidly and openly about themselves and about their lives and about each other.
There’s one particularly emotional moment – there’s a lot of emotional parts in the documentary – but one of them in particular, when John Wilstead’s talking about how he was kicked out of the band, and he’s brought to tears about it. It’s really touching to see him display his feelings like that. There was a lot of, as you said, not just conflict, but emotion there, wasn’t there?
Yes, well I think you’re right. It is touching. That’s a moment, I think, that surprised both me and John. I don’t think he was expecting that moment to happen. There was an alchemy, I think, that was going on when we shot the film. Every afternoon, there would be these huge thunderstorms that would roll into this property that we’re shooting on, just incredible, spectacular Queensland thunderstorms. I was convinced it was Grant McLennan visiting us every afternoon, keeping an eye on us. There was something very special about the atmosphere of those interviews.
I also think it was also one of the reasons why I wanted to make the film is that we have a generation now that … Well it’s a film of a generation that have become another generation. I think there’s something wonderful about looking back at your life, and realising that youth and being young isn’t all great. You make mistakes. There’s hubris. There’s tragedy. There’s ego. There’s falling but that’s life. That’s who we are. That’s what makes us human beings. I think John Wilstead has become a stronger person for it. I can’t speak for John but I very much felt that there was a kind of a sense that he was ready now to look back at that part of his life and I think appreciate it for what it was. That sometimes is quite confronting and quite emotional.
Towards the end of the film, I tended to think of Grant and Robert as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Lindy and Amanda as Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman. Emotional attachments amongst band members can be a very dangerous thing, can’t it?
They can, especially in terms of Robert and Grant, because their lives, their careers are book ended by being together. They started together and they ended together. That brotherhood, or that bond that they had, I think, was greater than even, I think, they appreciated or understood. I think when you have that kind of relationship, that kind of bond with another creator, it’s kind of hard to define or hard to describe. There’s a spirituality to it, I think, that is kind of quite powerful.
One can only speculate on what might’ve happened with John Lennon and Paul McCartney if they both got rid of their partners in the same way that Grant and Robert did!
Yes, but I don’t think that would’ve happened.
No, probably not. It’s a tremendous documentary and gives an insight into a band that wrote some fantastic songs. Ironically, as you pointed out, some of their most successful albums were at the end of their partnership.
Yes, that was sort of the tragic irony. Just when they won the ARIA, and just when Grant could afford to buy a guitar and a suit, when he can afford to buy a house, it all ended. It was, again, just a very Go-Betweens story. I think that’s what’s beautiful about them is the fact that they never played or operated by the rules. They always worked outside of the system. That’s why I think their music has lasted so long and will continue to.
I remember seeing them towards the end and before Grant died, obviously. It’s such a tragedy that he passed away, because there was a whole new generation appreciating their music. They were getting all the success. As I said, it’s just a tragedy, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was. As Robert says in his book, and he’s told me a number of times, they very much were in the second act of their careers – they were only just hitting their stride, and that the greatest work was yet to come. When you look at it like that, it is really, really very upsetting, because you realise that these guys had started on a trail of adventure that was still only halfway through.
In his book, Robert talks about the fact that he always thought that he was the smartest person in the room, the smartest person in the class. He was never humble about that, but somehow you managed to get him to be much more reflective and humble and thoughtful. Maybe he likes to pretend.
Well, I’m glad you say that, because some of the people thought the opposite. I’ll tell you one thing. There’s two Robert Forster, okay? That’s what I’ve discovered. There’s Robert Forster, the rock star. He’s a mask. He’s very much a character that Robert wears and puts on whenever he’s in the public eye. He’s deliberately provocative. He’s deliberately artistic. It’s very designed. It’s very specific.
Underneath that, there is the real Robert Forster, which is actually a very, very gentle, very sweet, very loving person, a wonderful father, a wonderful husband, and a really lovely friend. That’s the Robert Forster that I don’t think many people get to see, like apart from those who know him. I think maybe a couple of times the real Robert wanted to peek through, but a lot of the times, I was dealing with Robert Forster, the rock star.
I think that you managed to capture some of that, the real Robert Forster quite a lot in the documentary, but boy, I bet when he looks back at some of those film clips, he wished he could change his hair style and/or his clothing, you know?
I don’t know. With Robert, I don’t think so. I think he kind of wears it as a badge of honour. The way that I look at it now, when you look at it in the context of the 21st Century and whatever prism you want to look it through, whatever post-modern prism you want to look at it through, it’s kind of weirdly contemporary and current.