Radio Birdman are one of Australia’s truly seminal rock bands, a primal, full-tilt musical force right up there with The Saints and The Birthday Party. Ingeniously art directed and soaring on a militaristic image complete with arm patches and ersatz uniforms, they tagged their tours as blitzkriegs and sent audiences into a frenzy. Like all essential rock bands, they’ve also been through a rolling swathe of personal wars. Battered and bruised, Radio Birdman now still stand with three original members and a roster of long-standing replacement musicians.
But in his stellar documentary, Descent Into The Maelstrom, director, editor, and producer, Jonathan Sequeira bravely refuses to allow the history of this ragged rock’n’roll war to be rewritten by its victors. With sensitivity and respect, he gives just as much time to the players ousted from the band as he does to the men who remain in it. It makes for a wonderfully candid, multi-layered, and morally upstanding documentary that never veers anywhere near hagiography. Sequeira paints the fight from all corners, and provides one of the best pictures you’ll ever see of how a band can go from a tight-knit, all-for-one ethos to one beset by personal battles and internal division.
The story of Radio Birdman – a stand-alone Sydney musical outfit from the 1970s inspired by the likes of The New York Dolls and The Stooges who created an entire social scene in their deliriously propulsive image – is a great one, and that gives Sequeira an instant framework for artistic success. But his stylistic flourishes (not to mention the sizzling archival footage of the band’s anarchic, to-the-edge stage shows) add even more colour, and his lack of compromise is admirable. This is a warts-and-all telling, but the extraordinary charisma of the band members means that this lots-of-ups-but-even-more-downs tale never becomes sordid or too bleak.
The remaining band members – wild frontman, Rob Younger; guitarist and songwriter, Deniz Tek, who also just happens to be a trained ER doctor and ex-navy flight surgeon; and keyboardist, Pip Hoyle, who “sidelines” as a doctor and medical administrator – are keenly intelligent, enjoyably eccentric, and very funny. They’re the best-known players, but their discarded “opposite numbers” – guitarist, Chris Masuak; bassist (and poster and album artist), Warwick Gilbert; and drummer, Ron Keeley – are equally arresting. Their bitterness is evident but actually endearing, and their investment in the mythos of Radio Birdman is palpable.
With Descent Into The Maelstrom, feature film debutante, Jonathan Sequeira, proves himself to be not just a fine cinematic stylist, but also a director with an investigator’s heart. His relentless excavation of the facts is a joy to watch, with the filmmaker drilling down deep and getting way beyond the surface details to tell the vividly full-bodied and deeply moving story of a great Australian band, and the diverse personalities that have contributed to its decades-long wall of sound. Yeah, hup!