Director: Simon Ogston
There are a lot of reasons for a documentary about The Skeptics and director Simon Ogston manages to tick them off in logical, matter of fact fashion. You see The Skeptics came from Palmerston North – that’s interesting. Interesting to know that there was, actually, something interesting connected to Palmerston North. Also The Skeptics were a Flying Nun band. They weren’t really part of the now-considered “typical” Nun sound; that outsider sort of status now makes them ripe for examination, also it makes them a perfect Flying Nun band – since the label was all about celebrating the bands that sat outside of an obvious mould. Members of The Skeptics went on to appear in other bands, to work in other roles within the music industry. And finally, crucial to the band’s lasting appeal, there was the early death of frontman David D’Ath. Very much remembered now as the Ian Curtis figure.
And The Skeptics might even be New Zealand’s Joy Division – in that the idea of influence is as important to their legacy as any actual influence. And, as with Joy Division, that’s not to say they weren’t influential (also New Zealand’s Pin Group, for example, was more overtly influenced by Joy Division) but all of this combines to make them the perfect subject for a documentary. They do, in that sense, deserve having some light shine in their direction. It can’t hurt to have a few more people turned onto the sound of a rather wonderful band.
The documentary is great simply for existing – for getting to the surviving members of the band, many of them seeming a bit reluctant to revisit this part of their life.
The clips of the band’s notorious videos (AFFCO, most obviously) are great to see, many of them available on YouTube, but to have them placed in the body of the band’s story, both soundtrack and part of the story, is a crucial hook. Also for many people turned onto this band from its posthumous EP and working backwards (myself included) it’s great to see evidence of just what a brilliant, enigmatic frontman D’Ath was. He had that something.
I kept coming back to something Jordan Luck told me as I was watching this film. I thought about it when watching the Shihad documentary last year and then again when watching the Exponents doco earlier this year. Jordan Luck told me that he hoped someone was getting our history down; he said he was thankful for anyone who was. He was talking to me for a book I was writing and thanked me for my small contribution to the canon. But he went on to discuss how bands like The Skeptics (the first band he named, second was The Screaming Meemees) were in need of being documented, catalogued, given their proper dues.
So that’s what I took from Ogston’s film. That is the work he’s doing. And Luck is right. We do need to have this recent (important) cultural history presented for new generations, preserved. We should be allowed to celebrate such things, to hear the song of ourselves.
Ogston seems to have fallen into this role of cataloguing outsider bands and scenes within New Zealand music. And is doing a fine job so far.
I loved the footage of Chris Knox. It felt very poignant to me. Knox, living with the effects of a stroke, still partying to the music of The Skeptics; his expressive face saying so much as he sighed, then smiled, the eyes still with that mischievous twinkle. He tried his best to draw the band – working with his other hand now. And then when that doesn’t come out how he imagined it in his head he stands up to get lost in the music. To absorb it through a cut-loose dance that is ugly/beautiful. That was some version of an embodiment of the band’s music.
That seemed to tell the story of The Skeptics right there. And it was lovely. A nice moment of sentimentality, a glowing testimonial.
There are other great moments here of course. Russell Brown (then a music journo) is on point contextualising the group, Nick Roughan is dismissive of the surviving early recordings – laughing off how awful they sound. And John Halverson (also of Gordons, Bailter Space) is a fascinating presence – echoing his strange, powerful sound that he added to the band. There’s a shyness and a deep intensity to this man in conversation as there is in his music.
As a piece of filmmaking Sheen of Gold biggest strength is that it exists. It’s a worthy document of a band that just might be New Zealand’s Velvet Underground, our Joy Division, our great metal/punk/pre-emo/art-rock ensemble. An introspective brood of sound. A part of the great sonic tapestry that is New Zealand music; its own thing entirely. And such a far cry from what the marketers try to throw at you in this (sad) day and age.
For that reason alone anyone with an interest in New Zealand music, in New Zealand art, in New Zealand culture, should see this movie. It’s currently screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
But also we get, very clearly, that The Skeptics were just a bunch of guys, friends excited by the noises they could make. Interested only in making noises they wanted to hear. That too should (always) be inspiring.