“God was talking not just to me, but through me. And his breath stank.” - Nick Cave
So many artists work so damn hard to show you their scars. They obsess over authenticity, they put so much work into showing how real they are, and they “shock” by doing what so many have done before them.
Then there’s the rare artist that comes waltzing in and effortlessly bares their soul, night after night, annihilating themselves in front of whoever will watch. Enter The Birthday Party, the 1980s Australian rock outfit mainly known for bringing the unique genius of Nick Cave to the masses.
In director Ian White’s documentary Mutiny in Heaven, screening at the Harris Theater Fri., Sept. 22-Sun., Sept. 24, The Birthday Party is described as “violent”, “terrifying”, and “raw” by multiple interview subjects. It’s a shame, then, that the film feels as though it’s struggling to match the chaotic energy of its subjects, once described in a 1982 review as a “one band war."
Mutiny often plays like a VH1 Behind the Music episode but throws in enough flourishes for people to know it's #weird. Much of this might not be White’s fault; The Birthday Party was such an underground creation that getting footage of their live shows was difficult enough, let alone off-stage goings-on that these films so often rely on. It brings up an essential question — how do you make a film about a subject that’s absolutely worth covering, but don't have the footage to fill 90 minutes?
The answer, in this case, is a lot of heavily stylized montages, stock footage made grainy and scuzzy; a dizzying series of shots made to replicate the feeling of the hardcore underground scene of the time; and comic-book style animations that replace behind-the-scenes tape. The hyper-edited quality of these sections, where cuts take place seemingly every two seconds, might serve to accurately mirror the band's drug consumption, which is shown in the film.
When the film does have enough material to settle into a rhythm, it's magnetic, as powerful and engaging of a rock-doc as you’ll see all year. The Birthday Party was a good band, great musicians somewhat in their infancy on record, but their live shows made them the stuff of legend. They don’t just try and shock with their aggressiveness, they actually feel as though they’re exorcising something from inside them while on stage, the violence a byproduct of broken young men coming clean in the only way they know how.
The performances showcased in the film are enrapturing; there are louder bands, more “shocking” bands, lyrically, but few match the sense of impending dread that The Birthday Party delivers here, and getting a chance to watch it play out in front of an audience is a treat that makes Mutiny worth seeing.
Cave, who has since become the band's solo stand-out, is one of art’s most interesting subjects: he’s an Australian private school misfit-turned-painter-turned-punk, as obsessed with religion as he is with blasphemy and vileness, effortlessly jumping from soaring, heartrending ballads to nasty gutter jazz. He, and the rest of the wildly unique members of The Birthday Party, have a blistering creativity that bursts out of the seams of what’s popularly accepted. Seeing a film capture this spirit is exhilarating; it’s just unfortunate that outside the powerful, rarely-seen concert footage, Mutiny in Heaven never quite rises to the artistry of its subject. Mutiny in Heaven. Showtimes vary. Fri., Sept. 22-Sun., Sept. 24. Harris Theater. 809 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $11. trustarts.org