The Melbourne International Film Festival has long offered a treasure trove of documentaries, and this year provides no exception. Last night, the city rocked to a sold-out screening of Paul Kelly: Stories of Me, Ian Darling's engaging and affecting amble across the life of Australia's foremost singer-songwriter. Made for a relative pittance - $1.2 million - it's an extremely slick and accomplished package.
Perhaps inspired by Kelly's idiosyncratic memoir, How to make gravy, published a couple of years ago, and certainly serving as an invaluable companion piece to it, Stories of Me deftly mixes some wonderful footage of him in concert and at work in the studio with interviews that provide glimpses of the man behind the music and stress the autobiographical aspects of his songs.
Musician Declan Kelly, for example, his son with first wife Hilary, reflects movingly on how the emotional resonances of When I First Met Your Ma have deepened for him over the years as he's come to more fully grasp how directly his father's lyrics speak to him.
The film takes us through Kelly's Catholic upbringing, his father's sudden death when he was only 10, and his subsequent successes at school in Adelaide, fleshing out the story with the help of a seemingly endless roster of Kelly siblings and relatives. ''He's a determined motherf---er,'' musician, collaborator and cousin Dan Kelly says, affectionately.
It also traces his membership of various bands, his two marriages, the heroin years - ''25, on or off'', the singer acknowledges - his ongoing interest in literature and the arts, his support of indigenous causes, and the changing hairstyles he wears on the journey from being a bit of a wild young bloke on stage to becoming the man Archie Roach describes as ''our Bard''.
But shadowing the story Darling has to tell is the suggestion that the key to reaching some understanding of Kelly the man is learning about Kelly the boy. In an especially moving passage, his second wife, actor Kaarin Fairfax, draws a compelling link between his mother's stoicism in the face of the death of his father and Kelly's ''just get on with it'' approach to life in general.
Although the probing of Kelly's personal life is probably best described as gentle, Darling manages to slip past his subject's seemingly impenetrable defences to build a persuasive case that one can also learn much about Kelly through his work.
The film gathers together a veritable who's who of Australian music to sing his praises: Martin Armiger (guitarist in his first band, the High Rise Bombers), Archie Roach, Megan Washington, Deborah Conway, Kutcha Edwards, bandmates and many more. Novelist cousin Fiona McGregor talks about him as a brilliant writer of fiction, able to do in 150 words what she struggles to do in 150,000.
Robert Forster, former singer-songwriter with the Go-Betweens and now the irreplaceable music columnist for The Monthly, is insightful and impressively attentive to detail. Drawing out the Dylan connection, and wryly excavating Kelly's preoccupation with sex and death, he observes, ''He comes on like Michael Hutchence'', before hammering home the point, ''You'd think he was Mick Jagger.''
Kelly himself doesn't give too much away about anything other than his work, but talks illuminatingly about his writing methods - ''Singing from the point of view of a character: that's my way into a song'' - and the biblical thrust of many of his references.
If you weren't one of the lucky few to see Stories of Me at the Forum last night, its only MIFF screening, there will be other chances, although not for a while. The planned release schedule for the film appears to have been modelled along the lines of a concert tour, travelling the country with Kelly and Darling along for the ride and ending up at Hamer Hall in Melbourne for a one-night stand (at this stage) on November 3.
In the meantime, a host of other terrific documentaries are on offer at MIFF during the next fortnight. They include:
Crazy Horse (France/USA). Culled from about 150 hours of material shot over 10 weeks, veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman's portrait of the (apparently) famous nude cabaret saloon on Avenue George V in Paris is a companion piece to his earlier La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009). Including extensive footage of the stage shows - some visually playful, even pleasingly artful in their lighting and design - and behind-the-scenes activities, Wiseman's film makes it clear that this is, first and foremost, a business operation designed very much with its audience in mind. Tuesday at 4pm (ACMI 2), Saturday at 11am (Forum).
Petition - The Court of the Complainants (France/China): Shot over 12 years, Zhao Liang's extraordinary, deeply unsettling film follows the stories of ordinary citizens who've been turned into victims by a corrupt Chinese bureaucracy. It might be set in China, but it's a universal story about individuals struggling with a seemingly soulless system. Today at 9pm (ACMI 1).
Searching for Sugar Man (Sweden/Britain): Malik Bendjelloul, who spent several years making music documentaries for Swedish TV, looks back at the life and times of Detroit-based singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. Remaining unknown in the US, he became famous in South Africa as a voice of the anti-apartheid movement without being aware of it. He sounds a bit like Jim Croce, his story is stranger than fiction, and this film could be the sleeper hit of the festival. Tomorrow at 6.30pm (ACMI 2).
In the Company of Eric Rohmer (France): Roughly shot, actor Marie Riviere's portrait of the late Eric Rohmer, with whom she worked in films such as The Aviator's Wife and An Autumn Tale, might look a little like a home movie. Which I suppose it is. But it's also an irresistibly tender celebration of an artist and his work, the interviewees including the wonderful Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and, at length, Rohmer. Tomorrow at 1.30pm (ACMI 2), Friday, August 17 at 6.30pm (Greater Union Cinemas 4).
Also deserving of your attention are Bully, Into the Abyss and this year's Oscar winner, Undefeated (US), The Law in These Parts (Israel), Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (Sweden) and When a City Falls (NZ).
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