12 Jul 2018

NZ International Film Festival - six of the best music films

From RNZ Music, 12:38 pm on 12 July 2018

There’s a great selection of music films in the NZ International Film Festival, from documentaries to biopics to classic concert films. Tony Stamp and Kirsten Johnstone look at six of the best. 


MIA Photo: Graham Boonzaaier

I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

A while ago, One Direction member Harry Styles defended the passion of his young female fans, saying, "Who's to say that young girls who like popular music have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? They're our future - our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents. Teenage-girl fans - they don't lie. If they like you, they're there. They don't act 'too cool'. They like you, and they tell you.”

Jessica Leski’s documentary I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story seems to be operating in that same spirit, setting out not to judge its subjects devotion to their particular faves (which include original boyband The Beatles, as well as Take That, and yes, One Direction), but rather celebrate it, and hopefully empathise with it.

You might not be a fan of the music, but the filmmakers ask that you cast your mind back to your own adolescence, and please, refrain from sneering.


M.I.A. (Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) is a controversial character who’s never far from a headline. She’s had videos banned by MTV, been sued by the NFL for flipping the bird during her Superbowl performance with Madonna, and accused of supporting terrorists.

The Sri Lankan rapper and musician is the daughter of one of the leaders of the Tamil Tigers  - either prototype terrorists or fighters for the human rights of the Tamil people, depending on whose point of view you read.  M.I.A. has built her music career playing on that background - lyrically and visually, though from age 11 she lived in London’s council estates.  

This documentary, made by her old art school friend Steve Loveridge over 7 years draws on the many hours of tape that Maya herself shot growing up as an aspiring documentary maker, including a trip back to Sri Lanka before she started making music.  It’s a very sympathetic portrait of her, with her protests and outbursts being portrayed as nothing but noble by the director.

In a time of refugees being turned away from borders, here’s a voice that we need; a very driven, outspoken, politically minded, successful woman from a war-torn country who was given a shot at a different kind of life.   

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

A treat for long-time fans of the Japanese master and an introduction for the unfamiliar, this doco promises, in the words of RNZ’s Nick Bollinger, “a study of the composer at work”. He’s possibly best known in this part of the world for his soundtrack work on Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Revenant, among others, but his career spans multiple genres and decades, starting with his pioneering electronic work in the late ‘70s, which helped shape techno, hip hop and other contemporary genres.

‘Coda’ seems like a slightly ominous addition to the film’s title (Sakamoto is only 66, and recovered from throat cancer last year), but it seems to refer to his reflections on aging and mortality rather than implying his best work is over.

Audiophiles will be rapt as he makes music from the sound of melting snow and a contaminated nuclear plant, but music fans of all kinds should find something to enjoy.

Related: Dan Slevin previews his picks of the NZ International Film Festival 


Described by Rolling Stone Magazine as "Australia's most important voice" the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was also an unlikely star. Notoriously media-shy, this blind Yolŋu man from the Northern Territory let his music do the talking. And people all around the world responded to it with near spiritual fervour.  

Gurrumul’s producer Michael Hohnen also became his spokesperson, physical guide and family, and we see the love, but also tension of that relationship in the documentary. Gurrumul stands in two worlds - his community and traditional music, and this Western white audience and the white industry surrounding him.

Related: Michael Hohnen remembers his friend Gurrumul 

Related: Bringing Aboriginal voices to the world, with choirmaster Morris Stuart


Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov has been under house arrest since late 2017, ostensibly for embezzling funds from the theatre company he directs- a charge he has called ridiculous. According to dissidents, it’s more likely a result of the Kremlin flexing its muscle in response to Serebrennikov’s criticism of the annexation of Crimea and his support of Russia’s LGBT community.

All this adds a frisson of anticipation to his new film Leto, which chronicles Leningrad’s 1980s rock scene. The film is sure to be rich in political subtext (how could it not be), but it also represents one of the huge pleasures of the film festival- the chance to glimpse a time and place you might not have otherwise considered.

Songs of the era are featured throughout as the characters break into song, musical-style, so expect to hear Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ and Talking Heads ‘Psycho Killer’ given a Russian twist. Leto promises a cheerful exercise in nostalgia, but also a look at music as an act of rebellion in the face of oppression.

Nico, 1988

Nico, the German singer, songwriter, model, and actress, muse to Andy Warhol and Jim Morrison, and annoyance to Lou Reed is often dismissed with disdain - the woman who had it all and gave it up to become a tragic, overweight, obstinate junkie.

This biopic, featuring Danish actor Trine Dyrholm, focuses in on her last two years, as she kicks her heroin habit,  tries to get out from the shadow of her days with The Velvet Underground, and makes amends with the son she couldn’t bring up.   

Nico 1988 shows Christa, as she’d prefer people call her, as damaged, fierce and uncompromising, but also a remarkable and singular artist struggling with traumatic events like war and rape in her childhood. It tries to make sense of why she gave up the blessed life of pop hits and good looks.

Check out more of the music and dance films on offer at the NZ International Film Festival 

Auckland / Wellington / Christchurch / Dunedin  

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