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By Jake Watt
21st July 2019

Songwriters are being constantly unearthed and reassessed. In all genres from all eras of recorded music, "lost" artists like Rodriguez (once dubbed “the next Bob Dylan” and the focus of the documentary ‘Searching for Sugar Man’) are abound. In fact, there are far more of them than there are success stories. The problem is, in an effort to compensate for these injustices of fate, documentarians run the risk of overcompensating.

While these artists sometimes live tragic lives, their obscurity isn’t a tragedy in and of itself. They’re usually obscure for a reason: they didn’t make music that was palatable to people at the time, or they weren’t able to devote the relentless energy it takes to become famous, or they simply did what millions of musicians do every day: create music for the love of it. By elevating them to the dubious status of noble losers, documentaries can run the risk of perpetuating an empty myth that doesn’t do them justice. Even worse, they can flatten them, forcing the unique art and lives of these musicians into a premade mould - a formula that hits all the requisite notes of innovation, obscurity, tragedy, and redemption. In reality, nothing about the music of guys like Rodriguez was formulaic.

Memphis singer-songwriter Van Duren was once touted as “the next Paul McCartney” following the release of his 1978 debut ‘Are You Serious?’ only for his public story to, seemingly, end there. Despite sellout shows and rave reviews, his dysfunctional record label Big Sound refused to release his followup ‘Idiot Optimism’, which was completed in early 1980.

Forty years later and, by sheer chance, two mates in Sydney stumble across the Memphis artist’s album and set out to discover more about the story of Van Duren.

Try to visualise a typical 30-something dude bro in the Sydney music scene. Are they wearing a wide-necked t-shirt, slim-fit jeans, short-brimmed baseball cap and white trainers? Maybe a leather jacket with “soul surfer” printed on the back? Is there a quote from a Vladimir Nabokov novel tattooed on their arm, like “look at this tangle of thorns”? I was ready to bail on ‘Waiting: The Van Duren Story’ because my immediate impression of the filmmakers, Australian music industry players Greg Carey (manager of The Rubens and Urthboy) and Sydney-based musician Wade Jackson, was that they were a little cliched and groan-worthy. But, despite their love of high-fiving, glasses of wine and name-dropping inner-West small bars, the genuine passion of the two men for music shines through and makes them endearing.


In 2016, Carey and Jackson, both at a low point in their lives (a broken marriage and a shattered leg, respectively), couldn’t believe Memphis native Van Duren wasn’t better known on first hearing his beautiful voice and catchy piano-led hooks. Note: Van Duren isn’t really “unknown”, as fans of Big Star and their Memphis contemporaries know (he was in a post-Big Star band, Baker Street Regulars, with Chris Bell and Jody Stephens), but few people had ever heard of him or his music.

After making a late-night promise over a glass of wine to investigate further, the two began to document their search for the illusive singer-songwriter. Making their way to LA, NYC, Connecticut, Nashville, and finally Memphis, Jackson and Carey discovered a story far deeper than they expected, interviewing over 40 people who played on and were involved in Van's records as well as his friends, family, and more recent collaborators. These include Jody Stephens (Big Star), Mickey Curry (Hall & Oates, Bryan Adams, The Cult), Hilly Michaels (Sparx, Dan Hartman), and Jon Tiven (Wilson Pickett, Don Covay).

As we learn through the film, Van Duren was tipped to be a major star in the late 1970s. Had it not been for a combination of disorganised management, a dud record label, con artists, and a lack of promotional activity, he might well have been. Scientology pops up, with one of Van Duren’s key management team going AWOL with some cash. “He spent a bit of time in Florida. ‘Going Clear’, whatever,” another member of the team shrugs. Van Duren was represented by the former Rolling Stones manager and arch self-mythologiser Andrew Loog-Oldham, who appears in the film to drolly recount all the booze he drank in lieu of bolstering Van Duren's career.

There is also a brief trip to Japan. In 2000, a tiny one-man operation catering to music fans in Tokyo, Air Mail Recordings, finally licensed and released Van Duren’s second album, 20 years after it was completed. Many fans today consider ‘Idiot Optimism’ to be a masterpiece of pop/alternative music.

Another thing that shines through is Van Duren’s essential talent and musical ability, as the documentary boasts a fantastic soundtrack drawing on his rediscovered classic cuts.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the documentary occurs when Carey and Jackson find out that Van Duren no longer owns the rights to his own music. It’s a story as old as the record business: an artist with zero clout signs away ownership of their master recordings to a label for a shot at superstardom. The two men set about finishing the film and returning the legal rights to him, and there is a big emotional pay-off as they carefully transport a crate containing Van Duren’s master recordings across the country to him.

It seems logical that singer-songwriters should have the rights to their life's work, music that they poured their heart and soul into creating. The sad reality is that very few artists actually own their masters. In 2016, Vogue reported that Rihanna was able to acquire the masters of all her previous albums prior to ‘Anti’ from her former label Def Jam. Similarly, Jay-Z negotiated the rights to his catalog when he became the president of Def Jam in 2004, according to Forbes. But these are notable exceptions among major artists. Just look at Taylor Swift’s recent public fight to regain her master recordings from Big Machine Label Group, which shone a spotlight on the complicated intersection between music and copyright. In this regard, the story of ‘Waiting: The Van Duren Story’ is still incredibly relevant, even today.

The only music documentary I've seen in the past few years that was as interesting in terms of style and cinematography as its content was Julien Temple's ‘Oil City Confidential.’ He did a nice job of avoiding the “here's a bunch of old white dudes in a room talking in between still photos and music beds of previously released tracks” trope that seems to define the music documentary of today. Luckily, 'Waiting: The Van Duren Story' also has a refreshing visual sense (including animated interludes by Sydney artist Aidan Roberts) that break up that "white dudes talking" formula.

Another thing that shines through is Van Duren’s essential talent and musical ability, as the documentary boasts a fantastic soundtrack drawing on his rediscovered classic cuts.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between this film and ‘Searching for Sugar Man’, the foremost example of a documentary that detailed a quest to seek out a lesser-known musician. Maybe it’s the scrappiness of Carey and Jackson, the curiosity they exude during the interviews, their rapport with the musicians or their genuine concern for the artist, but ‘Waiting: The Van Duren Story’ is an interesting and unusually heartwarming feature documentary.

RUN TIME: 01h 19m
CAST: Wade Jackson
Greg Carey
Van Duren
Andrew Loog Oldham
Mickey Curry
Jon Tiven
Jody Stephens
Donna Duren Levi
Aven Duren
Greg Morrow
Wade Jackson
WRITERS: Greg Carey
Wade Jackson
Jonathan Sequeira
Wade Jackson
Jonathan Sequeira
Emma Gibbs
SCORE: Van Duren
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