Go Betweens - five piece credit Peter Anderson
The new documentary about The Go-Betweens, by Kriv Stenders, Right Here, opens in a week. One of the most important, if forever under-sold, Australian bands of all time, deserve it.
Last week Stenders explained the drive to tell the band’s story, and finding a way through the myths and legends. Now, what about the people?
Kriv Stenders wanted to make a “meta story” about creativity. But the sometimes-brutal truth of the Go-Betweens is that personality – the mix of them, the faults in them, the spark from them, and the recovery from them – is as much a part of this story as the creativity.
There was no better example of this than the start and end of the first incarnation of the band: from Robert Forster and Grant McClennan effectively falling in love with the idea of being artists at the same time as they fell for each other as creative partners – and how that coloured their relationship with future partners (on and off stage) Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown - to the clumsy, devastating way they ended the band and those relationships
How conscious was he of finding a balance between these twin poles, especially given the way Morrison in particular was often painted out of the story of “the boys” as she both lovingly and caustically refers to them?
“I wouldn’t have made the film if the girls weren’t going to be in it,” says Stenders. “There was a very precarious point at the beginning of the production where I took them out to dinner, wined and dined them [he laughs] and it wasn’t going well. They were very suspicious of me, of the film, of my agenda, of Robert’s involvement. They were very cautious because at that point Robert’s book [Grant And I] had just come out and Amanda had read it and was very down on the book and Lindy hadn’t, and to this day I think still refuses to read it, and they thought that Grant And I was an absurd title and that I was going to call the film that.”
Stenders had by this point already been told by Forster that “I’ve told my story from my perspective, you tell yours” and felt free to have everyone tell their version of this story. In fact, that became an imperative, to capture the contradiction and conflicts and contrasts.
“I said that to the girls, I want you to tell your side of the story as well, which they said had never really been told, and that was how I was able to get them across the line,” he says. “Once Lindy was on board she was extraordinary, fantastic. She was so candid.”
Lindy Morrison does not know any other way.
“No,” he laughs. “And I was overwhelmed because there was a lot of beauty and a lot of love in what she said, which was really quite unexpected, and I think the film is all the richer for it.”
Stenders is right, one of the striking aspects of the film, given a couple of decades of often bitter exchanges on the sidelines, is the sense of love Morrison still has.
“That was really one of the reasons I wanted to make the film, to access that melancholia, that bittersweetness of life lived and there is still remnants, traces elements of that love. Maybe I’m just a romantic but I found that beautiful and moving.”
Speaking of romantics, for many fans there was a genuine pain that the first phase of the band ended the way it did, that the boys treated the girls so badly that they carried that hurt for years.
It felt the wrong way to end for a band that had offered so much positivity in its recognition of the value of different sexes and different personalities in a band.
Which is, of course, all about us and our projections more than the band - an aspect of The Go-Betweens and our relationship with them that seems unlikely to change.
“In that sense, it’s a cautionary tale: be careful achieving anything because there are huge ramifications that can last for decades.”
Emotion is an interesting presence, and sometimes absence, in the film. Forster is less emotionally bared than he in his book for example, while Lindy is more openly so than ever seen. And then there’s John Willsteed, their third and final bass player.
His reputation – from every other member of the band, his friends and his own mouth – is of studied indifference to, almost to the edge of contempt for the band he served in briefly in their last days. Yet there he is becoming surprisingly moved to tears by the experience two decades on.
“I think he surprised himself: he was ‘ooh, I don’t know where that came from’ on the day,” says Stenders. “The beautiful thing about those people and the lives they’ve led is they’ve been changed and that was one of the reasons I wanted to make the film because everyone is at that stage in life where they can look back at the story not with objectivity but from a point of view of wisdom. John especially I think looks back at that and the mistakes he made.
“By contrast there is Robert. Robert is an enigma, there are two Roberts. There is Robert the rock star, and it’s a role he plays, a mask he wears very, very consciously and very deliberately.”
Stenders confesses that for quite some time in the making of the film he was “freaking out” because he didn’t feel as though he could penetrate this mask, or remove it altogether. How could he tell a true story if there was what appeared to be this distancing barrier?
“And then when I interviewed Lindy I suddenly went, oh my God, okay I don’t have to take off that mask because that mask by its very nature when it contrasted against someone like Lindy and someone like John, that dynamic is the contrast, the contradiction I was looking for,” says Stenders.
“But underneath that mask though, is Robert the real person and he is a lovely, lovely guy. Very gentle, sweet, very funny, very caring and very tender human being. But I think that mask is very much a shield: partly protective but a great part of it is showmanship. He wanted to present himself in that way.”
One of the more contentious elements of the documentary, at least for me who has a visceral reaction to them normally, is the use of re-enactments. Not dialogue-filled but more of a feel for Brisbane and the early university days in particular for a young Forster and McClennan and then the meeting with Morrison.
Stenders initially bristles at my resistance to recreations, arguing “I’m a filmmaker, I deal with images, that’s my currency”. But their use is about something other than filling in the narrative space, tied in this case to his own history.
He was 17 in 1981 and his daily walk home from school talking by a little arcade in which there was a record store whose owner, Damien Nelson, loved cinema and music. Stenders was already making films then and Nelson introduced him to “Grant” behind the counter who had written a script as well as playing in this band.
The short film introduced Stenders to a circle of creative types who “were doing great things in this country town that was Brisbane back then. And that’s where my adventure began. It was literally life changing”.
Though there were several film stops along the way, there was probably an inevitability about the filmmaker who jokes that “that I was like the kid out of Almost Famous, but instead of the pen I had a camera” would find a reason and a way to tell this story.
“For a number of years, I thought about telling a fictional story about a band like The Go-Betweens that was set in Brisbane in the late ‘70s, because there was a visual panorama that I wanted to capture,” he says. ”Also I grew up with the mythology of the band, two boys and a Queenslander house strumming acoustic guitars and listening to Monkees records, and I pored over those photographs an album covers. And remember I was there, I was a teenage boy when I met them so there was something very personal about that imagery as well
“So those images piled up and I think re-enactments done well can enhance the experience of a film there’s something about that imagery that is kind of essential to my love of the band and I wanted to imbue the film with that visual texture.”
It works in the film because it is tonal rather than dramatic, an evocation as Stenders puts it, that gives you “a sensual element rather than a literal one”.
And a sense of time memorialised.
“I remember one evening when The Go-Betweens came back in 1983, from London, they were like heroes coming back. We were all in a squat somewhere in Darlinghurst and there was Lindy on the bed holding court, and I thought, wow, this is history, I’m inside a moment of history right now. It was great.”
Right Here will air on Tuesday, November 21 at 9.30pm on ABC, and ABC iview