These young punks knew how to cook

The Go-Betweens: Right Here
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(M) 99 minutes

The muso-bio-doco is having a renaissance in Australia, at least if you loved punk.

We've had Autoluminescent (2011) about the late Rowland S Howard and the rise of punk in Melbourne; the wonderful Cosmic Psychos (2013) about country punks who drank a lot of beer just north of Melbourne; 20,000 Days (2014) about Nick Cave, the punk who came from Melbourne and this year, Descent into the Maelstrom, about the great Radio Birdman, who were sort of punks (but not really) from Sydney. What? How did that one get through?

And now, we have a film about a definitive Brisbane band that did not sound like punks but wanted to, at least in the beginning.

No, not The Saints, The Go-Betweens, originally an acoustic guitar duo that began when Robert Forster, an intense, introspective dandy, met Grant McLennan, an intense, poetic loner, at the University of Queensland.

They became best friends at a time when Joh Bjelke-Petersen's police were busy cracking the heads of long-hairs and street protesters.

Forster was a veteran of two bands. He tells a funny story about asking McLennan at the end of 1977 to join him in a new band. McLennan gave him a flat no - probably because he had no musical training. Forster persuaded him to learn the bass guitar while Forster wrote songs.

They wanted a female drummer - which is also funny, because there were probably about five in the country at the time and Forster was sleeping with one of them. Lindy Morrison, a little older than Forster, eventually got the invite and the rest is history. Well, not quite.

The Go-Betweens have many fans, but only one or two hit records out of almost 30 years of toil (Streets of Your Town, Was There Anything I Could Do?). They made a slew of well-loved albums and virtually no money, even when signed to one major UK label after another.

In fact, they were so unlucky through the 1980s, their first heyday, that they could have changed their name to The Jinxed.

Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) grew up in Brisbane and loved the band from that time. He puts together a thoughtful, engaging, enigmatic movie that does not try to do too much.

Or rather, he tries to penetrate the reasons they made some great music, rather than just the reasons they fell apart. He brings some nice touches, like separating the sound of a person's voice from the face in repose, so we "hear" their thoughts, and interviewing each member separately on the verandah of a large Queenslander house on a hill somewhere, to suggest that geography is important and some things last.

The interview with Lindy Morrison, in particular, brings an emotional directness and honesty that is both funny and painful. In fact, the pain is one of the film's best features, because it's so obvious - and not simply because Grant McLennan died of a heart attack at the age of 48.

Amanda Brown joined the band in 1986 and immediately fell for McLennan. Three years later, when the two originals told both women they wanted to go back to being a duo, the sense of betrayal is palpable.

Why did they do that? That's mysterious. The chemistry between McLennan and Forster was deep and powerful, and both became good song-writers, but you only have to listen to Streets of Your Town to hear how well that band cooked.

Perhaps it became a question of who was doing the cooking. Very few bands last as long as they did or produce as many good albums. Almost none had a mix of men and women, and made it work for a good while.

The film, and most of the others I mentioned, ought to be compulsory viewing for young bands - how not to screw the pooch - but maybe not. Everyone has to make their own mistakes.

This story These young punks knew how to cook first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.