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Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line – movie review

Fans of Midnight Oil – one of Australia’s hardest rocking and most political bands who refused to compromise – will want to check out this informative and revealing documentary. They may not learn anything particularly new here, but they will certainly enjoy the music and the memories from their four-decade career.

The Oils were formed in Sydney in 1972 when they were originally called Farm. They changed their name in 1976, and the awkward manic dance style and immense presence of outspoken frontman Peter Garret brought an energy to their live performances. They released their eponymous debut album in 1978. They gained a cult following here in Australia but failed to make inroads internationally. Mainstream radio ignored the band here in Australia. Famously they refused to appear on Countdown.

It wasn’t until the release of their 1987 album Diesel and Dust that the band found international success. In their career the band released thirteen studio albums, two EPs, forty-three singles, seven live albums, and six compilation albums. Their music and political activism were inextricably linked. The band has sold over 20 million records. The band toured extensively but the film also looks at the toll that this took on the band.

Drawing on a wealth of archival footage, interviews with band members and other notable music industry identities, and plenty of previously unseen footage capturing the band live, veteran Logie nominated documentary filmmaker Paul Clarke (Mother of Rock Lilian Roxon) traces the band’s journey from their early beginnings to their success in the US and their eventual split when frontman Peter Garrett left to pursue his political career. Clarke spent seven years working on the film and following the band.

The film explores their mid-80s collaborations with indigenous musicians, which heightened their cultural awareness of Australia’s troubled history with its aboriginal population. Highlights of their career include the time they shut down midtown Manhattan to protest against the Exxon Valdez oil spill that caused enormous environmental damage. The band staged a protest concert outside the New York headquarters of the giant oil company; they were only supposed to play one concert but they played for 45 minutes before a lunchtime crowd.

There is also footage of their iconic performance of Beds Are Burning during the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics when they sported T-shirts with the word “Sorry” clearly displayed, which incensed John Howard the staunchly conservative Prime Minister who has steadfastly refused to apologise for the treatment of the stolen generations. Clarke also covers Garrett’s political career when he left the band in 2002 to pursue his passion for environmental causes and indigenous issues. He became a member of Kevin Rudd’s first cabinet in 2007.

For fans of the band there’s plenty of music. The Hardest Line, which opened the Sydney Film Festival in June, captures the power and the passion of Midnight Oil and their impact on the local music scene. The title for this documentary comes from the lyrics of their hit Forgotten Years, which plays over the final credits.

Greg King

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