With Gurrumul, director Paul Damien Williams has created a striking and emotive portrait of one of Australia’s greatest musical talents – Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. But more than that, Gurrumul also affords us all a glimpse into the cultural life and traditions of the Yolngu people in North Eastern Arnhem Land, in what are some of the most visually striking moments of the film.
With the release of his self-titled album in 2008, Gurrumul, formerly of Yothu Yindi and The Saltwater Band, found a mass audience not just here in Australia but also eventually around the world. The film covers this success, following his career right through to his passing in 2017, the film was completed and the final cut given the go-ahead by Gurrumul just days before his death. We’re also afforded glimpses into the singer’s childhood and his stints with Yothu Yindi and The Saltwater Band, though images, family footage, and interviews with the singer’s parents and relatives.
I am familiar with Gurrumul’s work to a certain degree, I’d seen him live a couple of years ago, I’d met him and Hohnen very briefly at a signing, and have obviously listened to his work, but I was never completely aware of the significance of the lyrics, or the traditions that underpinned them. So one of the main takeaways of the film for me was getting to learn a little bit more about the significance or Yolngu culture and tradition to his work. For example, it was interesting to see the clash of cultures at play, or at least the clash in priorities, with some of Gurrumul’s choices described as “antithetical to success” – the dislike of interviews and desire to only do publicity exercises if they have some meaning to him.
It seemed clear that there wasn’t a desire for fame, but rather that he had a responsibility to sing, and to preserve these ancient songs. This is a point that is reinforced at the end of the film, with a narrator noting that some of these songs are 10- 20,000 years old, and everyday a song is lost. The irony of course is that Gurrumul’s enigmatic nature only seemed to enunciate his appeal. But with Gurrumul audiences get a glimpse at the real character behind the beautiful voice, and get to witness the singer’s great & cheeky sense of humour.
Another interesting aspect of the film is watching the working relationship and friendship of Gurrumul and his longtime producer Michael Hohnen develop and evolve. The film doesn’t hide the fact that there were bumps in the road, an aborted tour to the United States as one example, but you get the sense throughout that their friendship and relationship is wholly genuine, there are some wonderful shots of Gurrumul playing with Hohnen’s children, as well as poignant moments filmed during Gurrumul’s father’s funeral celebrations. There are no doubt some who will be suspicious of their friendship, and Hohnen himself voices some of his concerns during the film, but it’s hard not to see the closeness of the friendship.
Gurrumul is a striking, moving and entertaining portrait of one of Australia’s greatest performers. It offers a behind the scenes look at one this country’s more enigmatic musical performers, whilst also shining a light on the culture and traditions of this nation’s first peoples. Gurrumul is not only a wonderful reminder of a great talent, but it’s beautiful shot, well paced, and well worth your time.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Gurrumul screens at cinemas around Australia from the 26th of April. This review was originally published as part of the Perth Festival.
Header Image: Adrian Cook