A list of must-watch films documenting Australia's rich musical history.
Australia’s film industry mightn’t be blessed with the kind of budgets to let us churn out flicks like Bohemian Rhapsody or Some Kind Of Monster, but there’s certainly no shortage of killer Aussie music films out there.
From broader historical lessons recounting the formative stages of Australia’s musical identity to contemporary documentaries that aim to shine light on those lesser heard voices in the industry, we’re taking a look at some of the very best documentaries that explore the figures, festivals, venues and labels that made the Australian music industry what it is today.
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The inaugural Sunbury Music Festival was a massive cultural awakening for many young Australians, and it’s undeniable that the music festival was pivotal in the shaping of our own musical identity over the course of the next decade.
This documentary, produced and directed by John Dixon, captures all the blood, sweat and beers of the historic 1972 event, including footage of Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, Chain, Phil Manning and plenty of shenanigans from the notoriously ‘yobbo’ crowd.
A captivating document of one of Australia’s most revered underground artists, Autoluminescent follows the life of Rowland S. Howard, the formidable guitarist of Melbourne’s post-punk scene who shot to fame during his tenure with The Birthday Party in the early ‘80s.
Co-Directed by In Bob We Trust and John Safran’s Music Jamboree director Lynn-Maree Milburn and Dogs In Space and He Died With A Felafel In His Hand mastermind Richard Lowenstein, Autoluminescent features interviews with many of Howard’s close friends and collaborators about his musical achievements, influence, family life and struggles with addiction, painting a compelling and honest portrayal of a true cult Australian guitar hero.
Mystify: Michael Hutchence
Also directed by Richard Lowenstein, Mystify eschews the underground to analyse the life of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, providing a much more intimate account of the iconic singer than that of the tabloid tales that muddied his public image during his lifetime.
Pieced together with rare archival footage, private home video and outtakes from footage produced during his time with INXS, Mystify also features interviews with several of Hutchence’s bandmates, collaborators, friends and family to create a unique portrayal of the enigmatic frontman.
Lowenstein previously worked with Hutchence on Dogs In Space and a number of INXS videos, and when watching Mystify, it’s hard to not consider the film as his own personal ode to a departed friend and contemporary. Intriguing to the end.
Long Way To The Top
Aired in 2001 as part of a six-part docu-series from the ABC, Long Way To The Top traces the tale of six distinctive eras from Australia’s musical past from 1956 to 2000, acting as a comprehensive guide of the industry’s evolution in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Featuring all the usual suspects (AC/DC, Cold Chisel, Divinyls, INXS) as well as the stories of a few under-appreciated names like Dave Graney, Models and Russell Morris, consider Long Way To The Top as the Encyclopedia Brittanica of Aussie music history.
In 2002, the ABC even managed to organise a show-stopping tour featuring many of the original artists featured in the documentary, which really is quite an amazing feat.
Working Class Boy
Based on his memoir of the same name, Working Class Boy is a wonderfully written and produced ode to the most beloved frontman in Australian musical history: Cold Chisel’s Jimmy Barnes.
This eye-opening documentary shines a new light on Jimmy Barnes’ tumultuous childhood, revealing the extent of the financial struggles and domestic violence that plagued his upbringing and his subsequent struggles with alcoholism later in life as a young man.
Interlaced with live performances with many of Barnes’ family members, Working Class Boy is essential viewing for any staunch fan of this Aussie rock champion.
Her Sound, Her Story
Emerging in 2018 after the Australian music industry was faced with the grim reality that it is indeed a major sausage fest, Her Sound, Her Story spotlights the experiences of over 40 women working in Australia’s music industry, simultaneously celebrating their successes and revealing the extent of the sexism faced over their careers.
Spearheaded by Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore and Michelle Grace Hunder, Her Sound, Her Story features stories from a myriad of female artists from different backgrounds, who come together to put a mirror to the gatekeepers of the industry (mainly, white dudes) and show that it’s not too late to change things to make for a much more inclusive, diverse and positive local scene.
Now Sound: Melbourne’s Listening
A recent production from independent production company KEWL, Now Sound: Melbourne’s Listening takes a look at Melbourne’s diverse musical scenes and how they intersect, exploring what it is that makes the Victorian capital such a unique force for Australian music.
Featuring the likes of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Jen Cloher, Kirin J. Callinan, Client Liason, Courtney Barnett and Kllo, Now Sound digs deep into everything from the garage, psych and jangle bands of the Northern suburbs to the queer nightclubs hidden in the heart of the city, offering an all-encompassing snapshot of Melbourne’s contemporary sonic identity.
Recovery: The Music and the Mayhem
Produced by the ABC last year to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary, this quirky feature explores the making of one of the most unlikely music programs to ever be broadcast by Australia’s public broadcaster: Recovery.
Across 55 minutes, former hosts Jane Gazzo and Dylan Lewis reminisce on the show’s production, notable musical guests, the best performances and all the awkward the antics that helped make Recovery such a generational sensation.
This one’s a brilliant nostalgia hit for anyone who spent their years as a young adult waking up or kicking on to catch this undeniably brilliant program, and for first-time viewers, it’s as good a time capsule into late ‘90s Australia as you’ll probably ever get.
30 Years of Central Station: The History of Australian Dance Music
Produced on a shoestring budget back in 2017, 30 Years Of Central Station follows the story of Central Station Records, Australia’s longest running independent dance music label, and how they evolved alongside the emergence of house, techno, trance, hip-hop and beyond.
It’s less sophisticated than many of the other documentaries listed here, but it’s this factor that makes 30 Years Of Central Station such a unique film, skipping out on the glitz and glamor to provide an authentic account of how Central Station rose to prominence and the many DJs, producers, clubs, stores and promoters that assisted it along the way.
A fitting watch for any retired raver looking to relive their glory years, and a fitting education for those young up-and-comers looking for a crash course in the history of Aussie dance music.
This is one of those must-watch Aussie docos that appeals to those who know nothing about Gurrumul’s music, or even Australian music in general – it’s just a timelessly good story that’s presented exquisitely.
Completed prior to his untimely death in 2017, Gurrumul is a comprehensive document of the life of Australia’s most successful Indigenous artist to date, tracing his story from birth to his early career origins with Yothu Yindi and his later success as a solo artist.
Gurrumul is abundant in emotionally potent, touching personal insights and hilariously tongue-in-cheek moments, making for an awe-inspiring and fittingly intriguing tale of one of Australia’s finest musicians to date.
Need some more music films to add to your watch list? Explore some of the picks our writers made when choosing their favourite flicks from back in 2018.