Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy

JIMMY BARNES, WORKING CLASS BOY,  Australia, 2018. Directed by Mark Joffe. 99 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language)

This documentary about singer, Jimmy Barnes, has a lot going for it. And it offers quite a lot as well.

The film is based on interviews with Barnes himself as well as with relations and friends but also on a performance at this State Theatre in Sydney, where he recounted his story as well as offering a selection of his songs. And, there is a great deal of historical footage included in the film which brings alive Jimmy Barnes’ past both in Scotland and in Australia.

Jimmy Barnes (born James Dixon Swan) is well-known to most Australians, one of the most successful singers as well as for his presence in the band, Cold Chisel. This film is about him more than about the band.

While the film does have quite a number of Barnes’ songs, they tend to be longish excerpts rather than whole songs and are all related to particular themes as he recounts his story. He sings with his current musicians, with some members of his family, but especially with his daughter, Mahalia (her name given because of her father’s admiration for Mahalia Jackson), a powerful singer in her own right. For some songs he teams up with Ian Moss and David Walker, who initially auditioned him for their band in 1973 and went on to success together has Called captures all. He also introduces his son, daughter of his girlfriend in the early 70s, who was brought up by his maternal grandmother and only as a young boy discovered that Barnes was his father, singer David Campbell, who also joins his father on stage and sings a duet with him.

The film is very interesting as an autobiography, quite a deal of attention given to Barnes’ origins in Scotland, in very harsh streets and homes in Glasgow, many clips of the city and the environment, comments from some of his relatives. His parents were married very young, had six children, fought continually, his mother a hard woman, his father a champion boxer who never achieved expected fame in Australia, hard drinker who often abandoned his family.

The film is also interesting in its presentation of the migrant scheme from Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, the family coming to Australia, going to Adelaide, being settled in the newly developed town of Elizabeth. Barnes has quite a deal to say about the hard life in the town, his absent father, his mother leaving for several years before she returned with a genial man, Reg Barnes, who married her for the children and served as a father figure. Barnes took his name. He also notes that his own father was his father but Reg Barnes was his dad. There is also testimony from Barnes’ sister, Lisa.

Growing up in Elizabeth was particularly harsh and, eventually, Jimmy started to repeat the patterns of his father, the drinking, chasing the girls, drug experimentation.

It was a music which saved him, although he did have hard years of drinking and drugs during his musical career. After a successful audition, he was accepted into the band which became Cold Chisel – and a hugely successful career.

Barnes’ wife, Jane, also appears, a good wife and mother, a stabilising influence in her husband’s life.

And, at this stage of his life, where he says he is happy, he has come a long way through many difficulties, many of them enough to crush a less strong personality. He is a good raconteur, has an ironic sense of humour, engages with his audience, not only in song, but in conversation.

Directed by Mark Joffe, who directed many feature films as well as episodes of Jack Irish), this is a very well-made documentary, always interesting, always engaging.

Screen Australia                         Released 23rd August


Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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