Indigenous artist Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was one of the most distinctive and acclaimed voices ever to come out of Australia. Blind from birth, with milky-white eyes that were both profound and confronting, he was a former member of Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band who truly came into his own after he became a solo act. A multi-instrumentalist, he played drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo, but it was the clarity of his singing voice that attracted rave reviews - he sang stories of his land both in Yolŋu languages such as Gälpu, Gumatj or Djambarrpuynu, and in English.
Director Paul Williams’s documentary, ‘Gurrumul’, traces the artist’s story from the launch of his solo career through to his final tours. Gurrumul's uncle and parents share their observations throughout, glancing back to his childhood, to the realisation that he was born blind, to his discovery of vocal harmonies in Christian church services and to his first guitar. Particularly insightful is Gurrumul's aunt, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, whose intermittent narration provides family background and broader cultural insight.
An intriguing aspect of the documentary is the focus on Gurrumul’s relationship with Michael Hohnen, a music teacher and double bass player, who became the artist's closest musical collaborator as the singer launched his solo career. Hohnen, fresh from the Melbourne music scene, began running a workshop out of Darwin. When he first visited Galiwin'ku, Gurrumul's island hometown, Hohnen was stunned that almost everyone played a musical instrument. Hidden behind the loud and energetic wannabe frontmen was the quiet Gurrumul, who had been a member of breakout aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi but left a couple years earlier.
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As the documentary progresses, we watch as his wapu (brother) not only walks with Gurrumul, hand-in-hand, through various musical performances, but also fronts the media on his behalf as his friend, helper and spokesman. The two collaborated on Gurrumul's 2009 debut album, which was laden with awards and went on to be the number 1 world music album across Europe, with sold-out gigs in London, Cologne, and Paris. Their relationship became so close that they pledged to take care of each other’s children if either man died.
Another thread deals with the fraught relationship between a masterful musician from a remote community and the musical industry of the big cities. A squirm-inducing example occurs at the 2009 ARIA Music Awards (where Gurrumul won best independent release) with “VJ” Ruby Rose lobbing inane fashion-related questions at the artist and his partner on the red carpet. We also see Hohnen attempting to explain to confused foreign radio DJs how Gurrumul’s traditional stories connect him not only to his human ancestors, but also to the saltwater crocodile and rainbow python from which he believes he is descended.
‘Gurrumul’ isn’t an all-encompassing portrait of the man - the documentary still leaves the audience guessing regarding a lot of his life, such as his battles with ill health (having contracted Hepatitis B as a child, leaving him with liver and kidney disease), why the singer failed to turn up at Darwin airport on the day he was supposed to depart on his first American tour, his relationship with his girlfriend, Bronwyn Gurruwiwi, and other personal details (a friend of mine who went to the film’s screening asked me afterwards whether Gurrumul had any children, which the documentary vaguely intimated at). Elcho Island is also presented purely as a picturesque antidote to the busy cities Gurrumul toured with his music (the artist requested that the filmmaker “show his community with dignity”).
All of the performances that showcase his soulful tenor vocals, which blended his traditional cultural heritage and Yolngu language with Western folk, gospel and classical elements, are mesmerising.
It’s easy to see why the documentary avoided shining a spotlight on the notoriously shy artist’s personal life. Director Paul Williams worked as a clip-maker for SkinnyFish Music, a company set up by Gurrumul’s manager Mark T. Grose to record and promote Aboriginal music. Grose, Hohnen and Yunupingu are also credited as co-producers - the singer approved the final version of Williams' film just three days before passing away in 2017 after suffering from liver and kidney diseases. Although Yolngu lore dictates that the name and image of the recently departed be withdrawn from all public use, tribal leaders on both sides of his family agreed to make an exception with this illuminating portrait. In many ways, this documentary, created by his closest friends and associates, is just as tight-lipped as Gurrumul himself was (the film opens with a supremely awkward ABC interview from 2008 that sees the singer stonewalling through a barrage of questions).
However, as a portrait of a musical genius - a sightless man from a remote, disadvantaged Aboriginal community playing on a right-handed acoustic guitar played left-handed and thus strung upside down, the way he taught himself aged six - ‘Gurrumul’ is thoroughly absorbing. All of the performances that showcase his soulful tenor vocals, which blended his traditional cultural heritage and Yolngu language with Western folk, gospel and classical elements, are mesmerising. A highlight is a musical collaboration on French TV, initiated by Sting, in which Gurrumul was persuaded to perform a duet with him on 'Every Breath You Take'. Gurrumul, asked to sing a song he had never heard by a musician unfamiliar to him, whose lyrics weren’t even really translatable into his native Yolngu tongue, eventually turns the duet into a thing of delicate beauty.
During the Q&A session following the film’s screening at the Berlin Film Festival, the director described his motivations for making the documentary: “We really wanted to celebrate his culture, to use him to go through the window and look at everything he values and then maybe look at ourselves and see what we value.”
With ‘Gurrumul’, Paul Williams definitely achieved what he set out to do. This film is both a fitting epitaph for a musical legend as well as timely reminder for Australia that there is still far too great of a gap for Indigenous Australians in the area of health and life expectancy.