You should see this film. It’s the best music documentary that will ever come out of New Zealand. It has grit and heart and soul – and then there is the manipulation, the rewriting of history, the candidness that becomes a cover for what is tantamount to backstabbing. It’s all here. Shihad is New Zealand’s best live act. And the Wellington-born rock/metal band has been at it for some twenty-five years. That is reason for praise. Reason enough for this documentary.
There is not a lot of music to be seen – or heard – as part of the film Shihad: Beautiful Machine and though that might bug some fans it makes the film all the more appealing as a general documentary; a feature film about the lives of four Kiwis. They just happen to be in a band. Add to the story the death of a manager, a name-change that felt like betrayal, a singer prepared to think about selling out, a drummer who won’t let that happen on his watch, a guitarist who swaps alcohol for yoghurt so that the band can continue and a bass player who was the band’s biggest fan (that’s what got him the gig) and ends up being the most scathing about Jon Toogood’s botched joke-attempt on stage in America; the buzz-kill that contributed to Shihad-as-Pacifier’s failure stateside.
All of this is beautifully framed with the families of the band members providing touching moments of sincerity.
And the musicians know their roles off-stage.
Jon Toogood (vocals) plays the poet-fool; Tom Larkin (drums) is the defacto-manager and driving force; Karl Kippenberger (bass) is the fan-boy turned band-member, it went from being surreal to a little too real for him; Phil Knight (guitar) is the film’s reluctant star, daunted, drained, hen-pecked even, but proudly still there to serve the music.
For all the attempts to swerve the narrative towards Toogood’s lyrics, loved-up doggerel that doesn’t have the prescience that he and the film’s makers would have you believe, even when Jonny-Boy is happily hamming up a faux-troubadour gimmick, performing the songs to camera in solo acoustic renditions, it’s Knight that burns into the soul. Staring out with an intense introversion from the front lawn with his partner who he is sure would never have given him the time of day if he was still drinking. It’s Kippenberger helping his mum in the garden, still amazed he’s part of the band he used to go and see. And it’s Larkin at home with his partner and child, the band’s goalkeeper, always aware of the score.
Three musicians that are somehow just right for each other and their frontman – the best in the country by some distance. And this is everything that has happened around keeping them together. Shihad: Beautiful Machine is about so much more than just the music. And just as well.
I had an advance copy of this film – a screener-disc. I watched it three times in the first week, before the film was released. I loved the way this film was made, the story it told. I like a lot of Shihad’s music – but there’s plenty I don’t like and a fair bit I’ve never (really) heard. Maybe I’ve skimmed and scanned it, heard it once, moved on. Maybe it could reveal more with more time attached to it. But none of that matters here – this is an equal-opportunity film, you’ve as much chance enjoying this, I believe, if you’re a fan of the band or if you’ve never even heard their music. Because it manages to be the story of four people. Four mates. And then there’s a whole lot of other stuff to deal with on top of that – levels of fame, the hunger for (more) fame, tragedy and the usual insecurities around making music and being in a band – that marriage of convenience that often becomes (just a tad inconvenient).
I’ve gone back to this film recently – watched it again. And again. I keep coming away from it with the same feeling – the guys in the band were brave. They might have even been stupid. But they put themselves out there with this. And it succeeds because the filmmaker found a way to tell the story of the people as much as it was ever about the music.