(David McComb, photographed by Andrew Catlin)
IT’S NOT LIKE JONATHAN ALLEY went into his first film as director with any illusions, or delusions. A couple of decades in film distribution, broadcasting and music writing dealt with that.
“Like all Australian documentary makers I’ve got a tax shelter in the Maldives and I never have to work ever again,” he says drily. “Making a documentary in Australia is slightly like booking an around the world trip for the free food: you’ve got it wrong if you’re trying to make money.”
Yet he did it anyway, spending 13 years of filming in fits and starts as money became available, of chasing contributors across three continents and more than one desert, of finding hidden gems in family archives and watching key interviewees die in that time.
All this to make Love In Bright Landscapes, a documentary about singer/songwriter/poet David McComb who died, aged 36, with a career spent mostly in the hinterland of popular music – principally with The Triffids, with solo albums and the Blackeyed Susans project – but a legacy that Alley’s film argues runs deeper than any ARIA chart position.
Or indeed, deeper than the nomination, by the songwriters’ association, APRA, of McComb’s Wide Open Road as one of the 30 greatest Australian songs of all time.
“Like me, you hear a lot of music, and some of it sounds great the year it’s made, and you go back to a 10 years later and it sounds like that year. But the stuff that sounds as immediate and is emotionally connecting as the day that it’s made, and continues that way, is pretty rare,” says Alley. “And what is equally rare is that you have a catalogue of recordings where there is no bad record. You can pick out any great catalogues of recorded works and there are 5, 10, 15 fantastic records that everybody should have but there’s always that qualifier of, but maybe don’t get those.
“But with Dave, you don’t get that: there is no bad record in the catalogue, whether it’s the Triffids, the solo work, Blackeyed Susans. That’s pretty rare too.”
If it wasn’t already clear, this film is the work of a fan as much as a filmmaker: the elevation of McComb’s poetry, which was only published after his death; the diary notes and letters (read by Booker Prize-winner and fan, DBC Pierre); the clear respect for what Alley calls “a world class intellect” who had the ability to absorb and transcend landscape or distance, of whom he says now “where he really excels, and where he is really important, is everything he did in songwriting terms is essentially about what is emotionally connecting with him and what is emotionally connecting to the audience”.
But Love In Bright Landscapes is about more than fandom: it is at heart about the romanticism and reality of an artistic drive. Not just the impulse to create but the compulsion to do so, and what that does to the artist and those around him or her, whether it is parents, who in McComb’s case only really understood his passion and his impact in the wake of his death, childhood friends, like Triffids drummer Alsy MacDonald, or partners.
It’s touched on throughout the film: a friend of McComb declaring that “rock ‘n’ roll to him was as important as anything, art was his religion”; another saying that McComb was a writer and that’s all he thought about; and the spectre of ill health, of the impact on that of heavy drinking and drug use, of the possibility that the heart transplant he had three years before his death was a second chance that maybe he felt he didn’t deserve or couldn’t live up to, seen through the prism of art that needed to be made.
Putting everything into the work, sublimating everything else from relationships to health, can be wonderfully romantic to read about in the abstract, inspiring to think about for some, but terrible if not impossible to live with as an artist, or as someone living alongside an artist seemingly near-universally liked by ex-bandmates, ex-lovers.
“It made his life very difficult, and the lives of other people around him very difficult,” concedes Alley. “I think that’s why the death cut so hard, because not only was he not even 40 – he’d done a lot of living, but as we say at the end, it’s still a waste, he could have done so much more – ultimately, while he was alive did not see the recognition that I feel he deserved. And a lot of other people feel he deserved.”
Even so, Alley does not defer to soft-soaping as the film turns from the sometimes haphazard but nonetheless seemingly inexorable rise of The Triffids from nobodies in a state most Australians rarely considered an artistic centre (Western Australia), to part of the vanguard of new, imaginative and globally adventurous Australian music that even the arch classist colonialists of the UK music media couldn’t dismiss.
“The crux of the film, and the real conflict in the film, is a really is the story of someone who was so driven and so obsessive, who at a point begins to get lost and continues to get lost,” the director says.
(The Triffids, photographed in 1987 by Andrew Catlin)
It’s why, Alley says, he made such a point of what might seem fairly common band story, in the dramas and ructions around the recording of The Triffids’ fourth and penultimate album, Calenture, where an outside producer effectively sidelined several of the band, separating McComb from them, creating a record that never quite fit, all while McComb’s health began its slow decline.
“To me that’s the point when thing begins to unravel. That’s where he begins to get lost, and that’s what’s really underpinning the rest of the film, that determination versus the fact that suddenly circumstances are askew and he has to try and deal with that,” says Alley. “And I’m not just talking about his health either: personal relationships, music industry, the state of the band, all those things start to become a problem around that time.”
What becomes clear is the things that had tethered him to earth – the long-time relationships, the musical connections, the sense of a particular purpose – are frayed. In theory with a view to freeing him to soar but in fact beginning a drift.
And yet, the possibilities, emotionally and creatively, remained while ever there was life in someone who you walk away from this film thinking was a good man. Not a perfect man, not a man without complexities, but a good one.
“And that’s what makes the ending of the film so bloody sad to me,” says Alley. “You have that good person in the mess he became. That good person is still there and he knew that, but he was still struggling to be a good friend and do the right thing by people right up until the end of his life, even though his own personal situation had really overtaken things.
“That’s part of the reason why I’m glad the film took so long because I think to get the resources together to achieve what you just described takes a long time.”
Love In Bright Landscapes is screening at selected cinemas from May 5 in Melbourne and from May 12 in Sydney and Canberra. Click here for details.
There are special screenings-with-Q&A sessions with director Jonathan Alley.
Cinema Nova, May 5 (Melbourne premiere)
Classic Cinema, May 7, 4pm
Thornbury Picturehouse, May 7, 8.15pm; May 8, 5.30pm (no Q&A)
Cameo, Belgrave, May 8, 4pm
Astor Cinema, St Kilda, May 15 - with live show, 3.30pm
Lido Cinemas, May 19, 6.30pm
Sun, Yarraville, May 22, 2.30pm
Randwick Ritz, May 6, 7.20pm, with live show (Sydney premiere)
Dendy Newtown, May 12, time TBC
Chauvel Cinema, May 13, time TBC
Randwick Ritz, May 14, 4pm
Chauvel Cinema May 15, 20, 22 (no Q&A), time TBC
Gold Age Cinema, May 22, 3.50pm, June 1, 6pm