Blind from birth, indigenous artist Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was one of the most important and acclaimed voices to ever come out of Australia. Celebrated both at home and abroad, the artist who went by Gurrumul found purpose and meaning through songs and music inspired by his community and country on Elcho Island in far North East Arnhem Land. Gurrumul lived a traditional Yolngu life, a life often in direct conflict with an increasingly successful music career. He would often shun interviews and publicity, not out of rebelliousness but out of the traditions of his culture. His breakthrough album ‘Gurrumul’ brought him to a crossroads as audiences and artists around the world began to embrace his music.
Screening this week as part of the 2019 ReelAbilities Pittsburgh Film Festival, the award-winning feature doc Gurrumul is a respectful, immersive and entertaining look inside the world of an artist on the brink of global reverence, and the struggles he and those closest to him faced in balancing that which mattered most to him and keeping the show on the road.
Released by Madman Entertainment in Australia, the doc Gurrumul is finally becoming visible here in the United States and the chance to catch the doc at ReelAbilities Pittsburgh is one not to be missed.
Gurrumul was a former member of Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band, though he really came into himself artistically when he finally became a solo act. He was a multi-instrumentalist who played drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo. However, it was his voice for which he attracted the most attention as he sang the stories of his land both in Yolŋu languages such as Gälpu, Gumatj or Djambarrpuynu. Yes, he also sang in English.
Directed by Paul Williams, Gurrumul largely follows the artist from the early days of his solo career through to his final tours. Tragically, it was only three days after signing off on the final print of this film that the artist passed away in 2017 from liver and kidney diseases.
Gurrumul's aunt, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, provides a partial narration for her film yet it's her narration and presence in the film that helps to put into perspective Gurrumul's family background and the cultural insights that radiate throughout the film that periodically looks back into the artist's childhood including the discovery of his blindness, embrace of vocal harmony in Christian churches, and his growing gift for playing instruments.
Williams also captures vividly Gurrumul's relationship with Michael Hohnen, whom one could likely say was Gurrumul's closest collaborator over the years and certainly into his solo career. Having been highly visible on the Melbourne music scene, Hohnen became aware of Gurrumul after he started running a Darwin music shop and visiting Galiwin'ku, Gurrumul's hometown, where it seemed as if everyone was musical and where Gurrumul, even as a former member of the aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi, would often exist quietly in the background surrounded by others who seemed to more crave the spotlight.
While Gurrumul is a supremely satisfying immersion into the world of Gurrumul's music, it's noteworthy that the film largely avoids going in-depth into the artist's personal life. While that could be perceived as a gap in the film's storytelling, it's instead consistent with Williams's immersion into Gurrumul's culture. Long active within the indigenous community, Williams manages to balance the needs of the storytelling with Yolngu tradition that demands that the name and image of the recently departed be withdrawn from all public use. In this case, tribal leaders on both sides of his family agreed to make an exception with this illuminating portrait that it was felt would expand upon respect and appreciation for indigenous cultures.
The perfection of Gurrumul lies in its ability to humanely capture the extraordinary gifts of a man who never compromised his indigenous roots despite the inherent pressures of living in an Australian society where even the government has sought for many years to assimilate its indigenous peoples. Yet, Gurrumul doesn't really romanticize the artist either. He's a flawed human being whose flaws may have been even more vivid as he tried to peacefully co-exist within two very different worlds. Gurrumul captures all of this but, perhaps, more than anything it captures his music and a voice that is simply extraordinary. A highlight for the film has to be a rehearsal that Gurrumul had with Sting where he tackles a song he'd never known before, in this case "Every Breath You Take," and turns it into something you'll simply never forget.
While music docs are a dime a dozen these days, Gurrumul is not. Gurrumul is priceless.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic