Rock documentaries aren’t uncommon but really good ones are pretty thin on the ground. Good films about Australian bands, or even the Australian rock scene, are even scarcer. Descent Into the Maelstrom seeks to readdress that balance with a look at one of the country’s most important rock bands.
Radio Birdman was the first band of their kind in Australia, a volatile group of young men playing an incendiary American-influenced rock at a time when the scene was flooded with prog and boogie bands. Jonathan J Sequeira’s film traces the band’s history in the standard rock doco fashion, but does so both incredibly artfully and seamlessly.
The group’s music fills every available minute of run-time. A constant presence, it never needs to be mentioned, speaking for itself throughout, innocuous one moment, dominating the scene the next. The film lives and breathes it as it paints a vivid picture of this dysfunctional group of men somehow standing together against every aspect of the mid-70s music scene – hostile venue owners, a distant media, uninterested studios, even derision and rejection from bands like the Saints and Boys Next Door who should have by rights been kindred spirits – while simmering tensions boil over to end the group so close to what could have been its triumph.
Where footage or photos didn’t exist of key moments, primarily those of Birdman’s early shows in Darlinghurst, Warwick Gilbert’s animated storyboards take their place as amusing cartoons. In place of group interviews, Sequeira spoke to each member separately, thus allowing the narrative to be shaped by distinctively different subjective individual viewpoints. In the end, there are no holds barred, the various personalities united in their love of the band and its songs while at the same time tearing into one another. There are some striking moments: the normally unflappable Deniz Tek almost losing it at the thought of what his band could have been had it survived to do a planned US tour with the Ramones, and Chris Masuak’s understandable bitterness at his severance from their post-2012 activities being just two that stick in the mind, but it isn’t all acrimony and dejection. There is also humour, fun, wisdom and a sense of determination as Radio Birdman took on everything and everyone around them, to be beaten in the end only by the one thing that could stop them: each other.
Descent Into the Maelstrom is a remarkable look at a remarkable band, a deeply researched and engaging film that is an absolute must-see.