February 14, 2020
In 1989, director Gary Keady made what is perhaps Australia’s only sci-fi musical with Sons of Steel.

For thirty years, the futuristic Australian heavy metal odyssey Sons Of Steel seemed relegated to the lower circles of cinema’s purgatory. But the defiant story of cocksure heavy metal frontman Black Alice, who is inadvertently sent on a tour-of-duty through time to save Sydney from nuclear holocaust, is finally gaining traction and threatening to become the cult film that it always deserved to be.

And you could hardly accuse writer and director (and one-time music producer) Gary Keady of not paying his dues. “It was like the fickle finger of fate came out of the sky with this film,” he laughs. “At the time, anyway. That has been absolutely reversed now though. People out there are flocking to see it. I’ve digitally ramped it up as well, so I’m pretty happy with that.”

Based on the post-apocalyptic short Knightmare, written by Keady and co-directed with Yahoo Serious in 1984, the inspiration for Sons Of Steel initially received widespread attention, and swiftly found its feet as a short opener for David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi epic Dune. “It really kicked up interest” says Keady. “We ended up in Hollywood with all the major studios talking to us about the prospect of making a feature version.”

Keady soon devised Rocky Horror style belters around hard rock outfit Gypsy, who became the band Black Alice in the movie. “I’d already taken their heavy metal album to England and sold it over there,” Keady explains. “Rob Hartley [who plays Black Alice] was the lead singer. They introduced me to all the imagery connected with the band in the film – all that stuff was part of the iconic side of heavy metal. It was more regal than you could imagine, and we were all believers in that. We also had a terrific bloke called The Screaming Bastard – who was the head of the Goth movement in England – to play the role of Dr. Secta. He was a seven foot tall bloke with proper vampire teeth that he’d had installed. He had a big widow’s peak and hair down to his nuts, and he dressed accordingly. He was brilliant, but Actors Equity wouldn’t allow him in. Then my partner James Vernon brought in this music clip of Jeff Duff, who is the man of a million faces. I changed the character completely and turned him into this sort of… transvestite.”

The locations were also striking (if not impractical) additions. “I went on a tour with the designer Grace Walker through all the labyrinths and tunnels under Sydney where the film is set,” Keady says. “We shot a lot in General MacArthur’s flooded bunker, which is under Sydney’s Parliament House from WW2. There’s also a tunnel that was built during WW1 as a vehicle route, but they had all this mustard gas to dispose of, so they put it inside the tunnel and it’s still there. Not many people know about that!”

Keady’s faith in the project was a lynchpin. A fickle set of circumstances saw investors fall, funds scatter, promises break and screws turn. “I started with $3,000,000 and ended up with just under $900,000 once the wolves got hold,” he says. “I had the best team that I could ask for, but we didn’t have the budget… and that team had to do it bloody tough.”

One sure thing was the music. Recorded in Albert Studios (of AC/DC infamy), the film firmly found its throat. But even then, it struggled to find its footing. “We were convinced that because it was a totally original Australian sci-fi musical that we were going to win our AFI nomination for the best musical, but we lost to 42nd Street. After that, I decided that I’d had enough of the apathy and left Australia.”

While the gloriously chaotic work remains a skewered take on the original vision, time has put it right back in step…but not without a consistency of balls-ups. “There was nearly thirty minutes of extraneous footage that I wanted in the film,” Keady says, “but James Vernon kept it in his garage and it all got wiped out in a flood! Colourfilm had the negative, but because there was money owed, they turfed it. The National Film And Sound Archive have been very helpful though. I got together with Jeff Duff and put some new tracks into it.

“It’s really nice to see people smiling not only in the right places, but in new places. It’s doing its job and it’s gratifying. It makes you feel that all the shit we went through trying to make this thing was worthwhile.”

Sons Of Steel will screen at the Fantastic Film Festival Australia

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