As evolutions go, it’s been nothing short of a fascinating one—that driven home brilliantly by Ian White’s posthumous love letter Mutiny in Heaven.
Considering this an early warning that, while the Australian director goes above and beyond to tell the stories of all players involved in defunct postpunk pioneers the Birthday Party, there’s by default a focal point.
In the main spotlight: Nick Cave.
Today we know the Aussie-born icon as a singer, film composer, poet, author, screenwriter, visual artist, spoken-word performer, and all-around insanely accomplished Renaissance man with a taste for carefully tailored suits. In Mutiny in Heaven, White takes us back to his origins as a performer, with a fresh-faced young Cave front and centre in the film right from the start.
Those looking for a complete picture of how the famously captivating frontman got from the grimy punk clubs of Melbourne to the Sydney Opera House stage won’t find it here. And that’s perfectly okay, because White is singularly focussed on the story of the band that first made him infamous. Through a mix of old and new interviews, archival live footage, era-specific photos, lyric-scibbled notebooks, and frantic black-and-white animation (inspired by Reinhard Kleist), the director traces the rise, countless missteps, weird triumphs, and final last gasp of the band that helped birth postpunk.
The film rewinds to the beginning; it's at the private, all-boys Melbourne’s Caulfield Grammar School that a long-haired Cave first bonds with fellow students Mick Harvey and Phil Calvert over a fascination with Lou Reed, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Roxy Music—leading to a cover band called The Boys Next Door.
Flash forward a couple of years, and punk changes everything.
After enlisting shit-disturbing bassist Tracy Pew and second guitarist Rowland S. Howard, the newly-minuted five-piece begins building a following in Australia’s grimy clubs and subterranean art spaces, attracting weirdo fans and record-industry suits who have zero idea how to package the music. Live shows are unfiltered raw chaos—as cathartic as they are unpredictable and violent, a nightmare-coiffed Cave looking like something dreamed up by William Faulkner via Tim Burton for DC Comics. Genres—swampy blues, moonshine county, hotwire jazz, doomsday industrial, black-leather punk—are mixed and matched to a bludgeoning mix best filed under “unholy.”
Then drugs take things into a landscape-shifting new direction, the quintet suddenly sounding like no one else on the planet. And by drugs, we’re talking, well, everything in addition to the big ones; things going screamingly off the rails when The Boys Next Door decide to relocate to London and change their name to the Birthday Party.
You want dingy, depraved, and desperate? Buckle up, because it gets, as Cave notes about the band and its history, “fucking crazy.”
The greatness of Mutiny in Heaven is that White understands the importance of gory details. Instead of sanitizing things to protect the innocent, the film embraces the darkness and danger that defined the Birthday Party from its beginnings to its eventual soft implosion.
Cave is framed as the band’s wild and often out-of-control heart, literally assaulting his future band members (and various bathroom sinks) at early punk parties, embracing the idea that the best music draws from all kinds of art (poetry, fiction, The Bible), and leading the charge whenever there are substances to be ingested. But Mutiny in Heaven also makes it clear that the Birthday Party was above all a band of equals—this despite the various power struggles every group goes through.
After joining Harvey as a second guitarist, Howard takes the band someplace special, adding a twisted left-field brain artistry to the apocalypse-now brutality. Harvey—despite the occasional blackout-drunk episode—comes off as the anchor in a sea of chaos.
As for Pew, Mutiny in Heaven suggests that if there was one truly scary person in the Birthday Party, it was the cowboy-hat wearing bassist, who was as mesmerizingly imposing onstage as he was unhinged off it. Given the Birthday Party was prone to having panicked promoters pull the plug just minutes into their sets as their reputation grew, read into that what you will.
At the end of Mutiny in Heaven we’re left with an entertainingly exhaustive recount of a band that Cave disciples would give their signed original 180-gram vinyl copy of Your Funeral... My Trial to have seen in action.
Even when it’s bleak—the Birthday Party living in squalor in rainy London, drugged out, flat broke, hungry, unable to afford heat, and embraced by not a single person in the city—the film never comes across as anything other than a loving tribute. And, more importantly, inspirational for anyone in love with the idea of making outsider art, whether it’s with a guitar, camera, sketchpad, or old-fashioned Underwood typewriter.
Mutiny In Heaven’s underlying message, then, is that anyone can get to a place of doing something beautiful even if they start out wallowing in a world that’s brutally ugly. Need proof? Look at where Cave came from, and where he finds himself today.
Where: Viff Film Centre
When: Until September 23