Director: Julian Boshier
Niche Cameras Ltd.
“Head Like A Hole is the sweaty beast of NZ rock’n’roll music…” – that comes from a quote I wrote for a poster of the band; I look at that poster every day, it’s above my desk – it’s there because I had to create the quote first, get it to the band so they could meet the printer’s deadline for a tour poster, I then had to write the rest of the piece that would fit that quote in to run a day or so later.
The music of Head Like A Hole has meant a lot to me over the years – but the music is almost secondary to everything else about the band, a by-product. The energy, the anger, the frustrations, the lunacy, the spark, the raw edges, the madness – Head Like A Hole (or HLAH as they were for a time) is about back-story even though the music is front-loaded with rock’n’roll riffs, with aspects of hard rock, punk, metal and the pre-grunge 90s indie-funk amalgams.
You might arrive at Swagger of Thieves, the feature-length band documentary a part of this year’s Film Festival as a fan of the band. You might arrive at it with no prior knowledge of the band or its music – either option is fine. Filmmaker, Julian Boshier, understands that the least important aspect of a rock-doc is the music; it’s about the personalities, the landscape, the story. The music is there – in and of the soundtrack and it hangs heavy like a drunken hue, but this film is about the story of a band and in particular it becomes the story of the two Nigels – Nigel “Booga” Beazley, the frontman, lyricist and spotlight-hog and Nigel Regan, guitarist/songwriter and foil.
The two Nigels are the Mick and Keef of the band, perhaps more likely they’re the David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel of the film.
Every band member, past and present, is in the film – but this is the story of the band’s implosion and its nearly-subtle reformation. It’s the story of the harrowing drug-ride, but it’s about so much more than just that. It’s about bitterness and frustration and creativity and hope and hype and it’s a startling warts’n’all depiction of a rock’n’roll dream and what it means to the principal players.
There is archival footage of the band in its various former glories but the framework is around the reunion tour – a dud opening night and some soul-destroying moments of low turnout, a postponed tour to begin with, the testiness of the band’s creative duo when it comes to finances – somewhat ironic given the perception is the two of them threw the band’s money up their arms in its first incarnation.
Swagger of Thieves is brutal and beautiful in equal measures. There’s the redemption of a man deemed addict and junkie. When we meet him in the film he’s a window-cleaner in Otaki, he has the love of a good woman, his then-fiancée, now wife Tamzin. She is a driving force in the film too – she has some of the best lines and is mediator, manager and if she wasn’t quite so strong-willed and confident you might see her referred to as long-suffering…Booga and Tamzin have toddler twins as Head Like A Hole sets about to relaunch.
They have a bass player they’ve never been particularly pleased with, musically. A drummer who is quieter than the first one, and keeps his clothes on too. They have a long, jaded history of being shock-rockers and junkies. They have the bitterness of Shihad’s success – their former running mates. They have attitude, still. Cocksure with confidence, at least most of the time. And they have a pair of stunted-growth teenagers bickering about almost anything but bonded by the music they first heard and shared together when they were (actual) teenagers – the first time around. Nigel and Nigel have a love/hate relationship, theirs is the long-suffering marriage that keeps the band together and keeps the chances of a smooth-run at bay.
Reunions become, rather quickly, about diminishing returns, the appeal of the band not waning, rather seeming ‘more selective’ – Swagger is Spinal Tap and these are definitely some kind of monsters, you can think, too, of the great doco, DiG! – where, here, HLAH are the version of BJM and Shihad is just fine and Dandy even though they’re never really in the frame, in the scope of this movie. They have their own excellent film already – but watching this made me realise that in a perfect world you get the band-doco you deserve. This is truly and utterly Head Like A Hole, it’s dirty, and real – full of tensions and delusions but with a strange magic attached. Shihad’s Beautiful Machine is a bit too picture-perfect, like the softening of their edge and their (now) lazy music – even the worst Head Like A Hole songs are still trying hard. Maybe sometimes a bit too hard, but at least they’re trying.
The landscape of New Zealand is – again, as is so often the way with our movies, documentaries and narrative feature films – a bit of a star. And I thought about this movie for days after. How the filmmaker had been the ultimate fly-on-the-wall, allowing us, his audience, in and closer than we ever imagined, and in one or two instances, closer than we probably ever wanted to be. How the band – silly and funny and festering and hopeful – sits there waiting for something, anything more; chasing the dream still even when it’s well off in the wings.
You hardly ever get to see this sort of footage and yet this story is everywhere – those of us trying to be something, to do something. Getting somewhere. And then not. Picking ourselves up and trying again. Why are we scared to present that story? Why does it always need polish and perfume? Not here. You smell the stench of the music and the men behind it. You marvel at the sweetness of the souls – locked in their internal battles, stuck with the external baggage, but hoping always to get on stage and entertain, to sell, to succeed, to find purpose through their art. They are all at once wise and stupid. They are at the very least and at their very best themselves. True. And real.
Swagger of Thieves is a masterpiece in film making – it’s everything you would ever want to know about Head Like A Hole and so much more; appealing to both fan and first-timer. And at the same time it’s about so much more than just a band, it’s about so much more than drugs, it’s about so much more than the hit-and-miss potential, the hit-and-hope hype, it’s about family and redemption, and artistic struggle – it’s about dumb decisions and delusions. It’s life on the big screen. The lives of real people doing things in real time and only as they can.
And there’s something profound hiding in between the lines, in the shadows around this band, in the way they’ve been framed here. Something beautiful, magical – maddening and lovely.
To check out a preview/reaction of the film written by Tamzin Beazley and published earlier on Off The Tracks click here