Veteran Australian director Mark Joffe (Cosi, The Man Who Sued God) was hand-picked by Jimmy Barnes to direct the documentary Working Class Boy. With the film now smashing the Australian box office, we caught up with the filmmaker to discuss how it all came together.
Cold Chisel are a supporting act in Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy. While the film covers the legendary Scots-Australian singer’s life pre- and post-Chisel and includes interviews with bandmates Ian Moss and Don Walker, Barnsie’s tenure with the notoriously hard-living rock outfit is more or less glossed over. What’s surprising is that’s a good thing – the film has more important things to talk about.
Drawing on Barnes’ autobiography and stage show of the same name – filmed segments of the latter feature heavily – Working Class Boy follows a reflective Barnes as he traces his life from his early years in tough, booze-addled working class Glasgow, to his youth in tough, booze-addled, working class Elizabeth, South Australia, to his early forays into music in tough, booze-addled working class bands, and on to his position as elder statesman of pub rock today.
Along the way, Barnes and director Mark Joffe rip the top off the myth of the hard-boozing Aussie rocker to show the pain and trauma underneath. Raised in poverty and a culture of alcohol and violence, young James Swan (he later took the surname Barnes from his mother’s second husband) was both a product of his environment and desperate to get away from it. Again and again the film returns to the theme of escape, getting away, running to the horizon – one of the most moving passages involves Barnes reflecting on his solo childhood trips to the beach, where he would stare at the horizon until dark, dreaming of getting even further away from his life.
But we can’t ever really escape our past, not in any meaningful way – we can only make peace with it, and at its core Working Class Boy is an act of reconciliation as we follow Barnes’ ongoing attempts to take stock of the arc of his life and arrive at some kind of thesis.
It’s an intimate journey. Ironically, Barnes’ skills as a performer and raconteur sometimes work against this; he’s so busy being entertaining that a certain artifice unavoidably creeps in, most notably in the filmed stage sequences. Counter to that are scenes where he is more candidly captured in the environs of his childhood, reflecting on what happened to him. What rings true here is the flat, unadorned language and tone he employs to talk about genuinely stunning and occasionally horrifying acts of violence and dysfunction; when all the bells and whistles are stripped away and the unvarnished truth remains, that’s when the film soars.
Working Class Boy is ultimately an uplifting experience, and why wouldn’t it be? Right now Barnes, firmly entrenched in the pantheon of Australian rock and surrounded by a loving extended family – David Campbell (son, and there’s a story…), Swanee (brother), Mahalia (daughter), Jane (wife), and Mark “Diesel” Lizotte (brother in law) all make appearances – seems at peace now, with the man himself admitting somewhat sheepishly that he likes who he has become. And while efforts like this cannot help but come with at least the tiniest soupçon of revisionism, that peace seemed genuine and hard earned.
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