A new documentary about Midnight Oil's 1984 tour and Peter Garrett's run for the federal Senate is being released in cinemas next week. Director Ray Argall spoke to GLEN HUMPHRIES.
Director Ray Argall’s latest film has taken more than 30 years to hit the screen.
Called Midnight Oil 1984, it’s a documentary of 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).
The band was interested in him doing a concert film but Argall sold them on something more than a gig recording, so he tagged along on tour from October to December 1984.
“I was really interested in what was happening outside of the actual performance,” Argall says.
“I’d done a documentary with The Models back in ’81. I loved the music part of it but it was what was beyond that story in terms of young people.
“Because it’s all young people in their 20s putting together music, going out there and having a very sustainable career and a relationship with the audience.”
When Argall finished following the band around with his camera he had more than 28,000 undeveloped feet of film – around 16 hours worth of footage – to contend with.
But the film project stalled when the band listened to the recordings they’d made of shows at the Hordern Pavilion – which made up a fair amount of the footage Argall had shot.
“They’ve got very high standards in terms of live recordings," Argall says.
“They really weren’t happy with the standard of the recording. They revisited them over the years, and I think they’ve used one or two tracks on the Scream in Blue live album.
“But they just weren’t up to their standard. So when the music part of it went all of the concert part of it was shelved, but I hung onto it because I knew there was so much other good footage in there.”
Argall hung onto 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 the band had forgotten the footage even existed.
“It was about eight years ago that I started to think it up,” Argall says of the documentary.
“With the digital technology that was able to restore the material, I could actually see what was there.
“So [the band is] coming back in 30-odd years later and looking at this material. Had we made the film back then and finished it all off it would have been a different film.”
The documentary features plenty of live footage – which will surely please Midnight Oil fans – tied in with the tracking of Garrett’s senate tilt.
...if you’re not aware of the people you’re filming and when it’s not cool to roll you really shouldn’t be doing the job.Film-maker Ray Argall
There’s also backstage footage – including scenes of the band having a reckless cup of tea before going on stage – interviews with band members and others and even archival images featuring a long-haired Garrett fronting the band in the early days when they were known as Farm.
The film provides an eye-opener as to the workload Garrett took on – the election campaign clashed with the band’s national tour. So the singer would spend the day campaigning for a seat in the senate, then rush to wherever the gig was that night.
“He was out there spruiking the NDP message,” guitarist Jim Moginie says in the film, “and he’d come in at night and play this cathartic rock show and somehow be the one in the band who did the most work and run around the most.
“He’d be in a catatonic state by the end of the night and then he’d get up and do it all again.”
The 1984 tour wasn’t the first time Argall and Midnight Oil had worked together.
He directed their 1982 concert film Saturday Night at the Capitol and videos for Read About It and The Power and the Passion.
The band is notoriously protective of their image so that familiarity with Argall really helped when he was hanging around with his camera rolling.
“By that stage we had a very good working relationship,” Argall says.
“I’m also very discreet. It was basically me with my camera and a sound recordist. A lot of the people I was using had also worked on the film clips, so they sort of felt familiar with the few people who were hanging around.”
That doesn’t mean Argall’s camera was always rolling, no matter what was going on with the band. He says it wasn’t the band creating areas that were off limits, but rather Argall deciding when to stop filming.
“There was obviously a level of trust,” he says.
“As a film-maker you really have to sense those things. Every film-maker’s different but if you’re not aware of the people you’re filming and when it’s not cool to roll you really shouldn’t be doing the job.”
It would be an easy step to assume Midnight Oil 1984 has been released now to ride on that wave of interest in the band after their reformation and world tour last year.
However Argall says the film was in the pipeline years before the reformation.
“This was originally going to be a ‘then and now’ film when I first went to speak to Rob, Jim and Martin up in Brookvale at Jim’s studio,” Argall says.
“That was around 2011-2012. The thought of Midnight Oil getting back together was not even a speck in the horizon. Pete was a federal government minister and they were all doing their own musical projects.
“Right up until they announced they were getting back together I was working on a film that was going to be going out without any sense of that.
“It was already constructed, it had a different ending.”