Originally, Midnight Oil, the legendarily sweaty Aussie rock band fronted by Peter Garrett, was interested in Ray Argall directing a concert film. But Argall sold them on something more than a gig recording - on what was happening outside of the actual performance - so he tagged along on tour from October to December 1984. When Argall finished following the band around with his camera, he had ended up with more than 28,000 undeveloped feet of film – around 16 hours worth of footage.
But the film project stalled when the band listened to the recordings they’d made of shows at the Hordern Pavilion, judging that the music part of the recording just wasn’t up to their standards. Argall hung onto the footage long enough for digital technology to arrive and get to a level where it allowed improvements to be made to those concert tracks – long enough that Argall employed his now-adult daughter to act as producer on his film.
Although it includes the band’s origins in the 1970s, disbandment in 2002 and eventual reformation in 2017, the new documentary ‘Midnight Oil: 1984’ mainly tracks the period where the band had just released the album ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ and Peter Garrett decided to run for the federal Senate as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP). It features plenty of fan-pleasing live footage, tied in with the tracking of Garrett’s senate tilt.
For those unfamiliar with Midnight Oil, the band's music broached political subjects, including the mistreatment of indigenous Australians and the environmental impact of nuclear power, and they often lent their support to left-wing causes. Their Australian breakthrough and first international recognition came in 1982, with the release of the album ‘10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1’, which included the singles ‘Power and the Passion’ and ‘Read About It’. The album also includes their denunciation of American military interference in foreign affairs in ‘U.S. Forces’ and their critique of imperialist repression in ‘Short Memory’. It retained their live energy but was more adventurous and radical than previous work. Aside from their studio output, the group are celebrated for their energetic live performances, which showcase the frenetic dancing of Garrett.
Argall hung onto the footage long enough for digital technology to arrive and get to a level where it allowed improvements to be made to those concert tracks – long enough that Argall employed his now-adult daughter to act as producer on his film.
There is a vast wealth of material here: from backstage footage, interviews with band members and others, and even archival images featuring a blond, long-haired Garrett fronting the band in the early days when they were known as Farm. The band’s familiarity with Argall (he directed their 1982 concert film ‘Saturday Night at the Capitol’ and videos for ‘Read About It’ and ‘The Power and the Passion’) means viewers get to see all the members at their most relaxed and expansive. Most interesting of all are the reaction shots and interviews with the young fans, exploring their relationship not only with the band’s music but also their political message. Fans of the group were drawn to the band's “us and them” mindset, and fan loyalty to the Oils’ ideas and music was fierce.
‘Midnight Oil: 1984’ isn’t just a definitive look at an iconic band but also a fascinating snapshot of Australian music and politics during the 80s.
Note for fans: at the Q&A screening of ‘Midnight Oil: 1984’ I attended, Ray Argall and drummer Rob Hirst revealed that the band will be releasing another documentary and possibly a live album of the final shows on their Great Circle World Tour later in the year.