John Farnham: Finding the Voice – movie review

I’ll never understand why Australia’s greatest and most talented singer, John Farnham, never really took off in a big way in the US and the UK . He of course filled in as the front man for Little River Band – who did “make it” abroad – after they dumped Glenn Shorrock. This reverential documentary traces the singer’s ups and downs.

Born in London, on 1st July, 1949, he moved to Australia 10 years later. He was an apprentice plumber, when he was discovered and subsequently managed by Darryl Sambell, who saw him signed to EMI Records. In 1967, Sadie (The Cleaning Lady) was Farnham’s first number one hit. Only 17 at the time, his good looks and clean-cut image made him an instant pop star. Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, which also made it to the top of the charts, followed in 1970. Sambell’s partnership with Farnham would last nine years, but the doco shows that the former burnt plenty of bridges along the way.

Sambell also managed The Masters Apprentices that featured bass guitarist Glenn Wheatley, who became Farnham’s best friend and took over his management. Farnham was on the verge of bankruptcy, on the seat of his pants and all but forgotten about in the ‘70s. Wheatley mortgaged his home to relaunch Farnham’s career with Whispering Jack in 1986, when John was 38.  It remains the highest selling Australian album of all time. (Meat Loaf’s 1977 album Bat Out of Hell is the overall best seller.)

The documentary outlines how the final track on that album, the massive hit You’re the Voice, came about. Of course, vision of Farnham and his incredible vocalisation and showmanship are front and centre. We hear bits and pieces from Farnham himself, while Finding the Voice features interviews with other big-name singers, musicians and producers. Close friend Gaynor Wheatley has a prominent role, outlining her observations about his life and times. Her husband and his close mate Glenn, who passed away from COVID-19 complications last year, explains how he never lost faith in Farnham’s ability. That was despite a string of knockbacks from record labels and radio stations.

Jimmy Barnes, Darryl Braithwaite, Richard Marx and LRB founding member Graeham Gobel also have their say about Farhham’s talent and impact. There are further snippets from international headliners Celine Dion and Robbie Williams. Olivia Newton-John describes Farnham as her favourite singer, her thoughts about him prominent. His wife, Jill and sons James and Robert also provide insights, along with band members David Hirschfelder, Tommy Emmanuel and Venetta Fields, among others.

Written by Paul Clarke and Poppy Stockell, and directed by Stockell, the filmmakers have uncovered a treasure trove of home videos to help illustrate Farnham’s journey. I found the authorised documentary John Farnham: Finding the Voice compelling viewing.

Alex First

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