GURRUMUL, Australia, 2017. Directed by Paul Williams. 97 minutes. Rated PG (Infrequent mild coarse language)
In July 2017, the death, at age 46, was announced of Northern Territory musician and singer, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingo. There were tributes from all around Australia as well as from overseas. He had developed an enormous reputation worldwide.
This documentary is a tribute to Gurrumul. It is also something of a portrait, a slight biography of a very private person, an invitation to share his music, his playing, the pleasing sound of his singing voice.
Directors and photographers had filmed extensively from 2008 to the time of his death, scenes from his home island in Arnhem Land, his performances in travel, and his friendship with Michael Hohman, a close ally, a genial man, Gurrumul’s representative, a manager of a promotion company, musician himself, speaking Gurrumul’s local language, able to present him to his audiences.
And, this is most important as we remember that Gurrumul was born blind. At times the screen goes dark, inviting to share Gurrumul’s experience of not seeing but hearing, and the uncertainties of what he is hearing, the vastness of the space outside himself in which he has to move. This is where Michael Hohman is most helpful, physically guiding Gurrumul in the spaces, on stage, an acknowledgement of audiences. And, Gurrumul himself is very private, shy, rather prone to non-speaking.
The film sketches aboriginal life on the island, comments by his sister, showing the pride of his father, the love and care of his mother and his grief at her death. There are plenty of scenes of adult aborigines and their life, children playing, many especially during the final credits until we come again to Gurrumul’s profile.
He was gifted as a child, a love for music, playing the guitar upside down because he was left-handed. He played a number of instruments. And he appeared in bands Yothu Yindi.
But it was his songs and his singing, traditional songs with acknowledgement of the Rainbow Serpent myth, families and their relationship to the land and to nature. His songs were in native languages, flecked with animal sounds and cries. He also sang sometimes in English – with a scene in the film duetting with Sting.
When he went solo, he began a career but was not particularly interested in fame, money. His records were popular, going to the top of charts, even in the US, receiving Aria awards in Australia, walking the red carpet, but neglecting to go on a pre-planned tour of the United States.
The film builds up his musical repertoire, scenes of orchestras including Michael Hohman playing. And the culmination is his orchestral suite, his beautiful singing, all performed in the Sydney Opera House.
A most significant indigenous man. A most significant Australian.
Madman. Released May 3rd
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.