Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow
Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Paul Grabowsky
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… a very simple film in some ways, but with music like this you don’t want to trick it up too much. It speaks for itself.
Philippa Bateman’s poetically titled Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow is billed as a documentary but it could just as easily be classified as a music film, as the emphasis is very much on performances. It is a celebration of both Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter.
The two outstanding Aboriginal musicians were a couple, and the film celebrates that too. We hear how the young Ruby, when first catching sight of Archie playing, turned to her mum and said straight off ‘I am going to marry that man’. Sure enough, they got together and performed together off and on for the next few decades (Ruby passed away in 2010).
The feeling between them is a large part of the emotional pull of the film. Then of course there are the voices, deep and rich with a plangent quality expressing all the pain of loss and the soulfulness of connection to country.
In many ways it’s closer to Blues than Country and Western, at least in the work showcased here. As Archie tells us, he writes to get out there what is trapped deep inside of him and when it is out, he feels, finally, a sense of relief.
In these performances, his is the slightly stronger voice, but both of them are capable of spine-tingling moments. The offstage dynamic is funny. He deflects the senior role and defers to her as the final decision maker. She is a pint-sized matriarch with a floral hat and a cheeky grin.
Artists like this couldn’t have their ability to reach into our hearts unless they have actually lived the life. Both of them, like so many Aboriginal Australians, were profoundly affected by the Stolen Generation policies. In the live concert footage (the film alternates concert footage with studio rehearsals of the same songs), Ruby tearfully acknowledges her foster parents in the audience. Archie talks about the almost accidental origins of his all-time classic ‘They Took the Children Away’. He says that he had no idea that the song would go on to have the independent life that it does have. His live rendition of the song is one of the highlights of the film. He also shows his talent for a loosely-structured song with very few lyrics; riffing on a theme and playing with cadences in the way that the great Van Morrison does.
The film features the artists collaborating with the composer/conductor Paul Grabowsky, whose eccentric and sometimes cacophonous brass-accented orchestrations fill out the songs. At times, you feel that this shouldn’t work but he usually brings it off and the warmth between the singers and him and his players is lovely to behold.
It is a very simple film in some ways, but with music like this you don’t want to trick it up too much. It speaks for itself.