Tim Minchin is BACK in a big way

Minchin's return to stage after a seven-year hiatus is captured beautifully in BACK, as are all the laughs, gasps and applause you'd expect.

December is shaping up to be a decent old month for Tim Minchin, with the long-awaited season 2 of Upright currently streaming on Binge, the film version of Matilda the Musical (for which he wrote the songs) premiering on Christmas Day on Netflix and, before that, the film of his live stage show, BACK, available to download from 12 December.

As someone who went to see both the stage show of Matilda when it was in Melbourne in 2016 and BACK when it came to Melbourne, following Covid postponements, in 2021, you can just take it as read I’m a fan – which is a shame, because I’d love to be memorialised in song, like poor Phil Daoust (‘occasional Guardian Newspaper journaloust’), for giving him a crappy review.

Filmed live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London in 2021 with an eight-person band, BACK is Minchin’s return to the stage after seven years living in LA, dealing with success and disappointment, returning to Australia, and raising children who don’t – as he points out early on – applaud and cheer the way his fans do when he walks into the room.

While it would be weird – and just wrong – to suggest there wasn’t vast depth and variation to Minchin’s stage shows in the past, there’s a maturity in many of his anecdotes and songwriting now that seems to come from the highs and lows of fame and foiled opportunities as well as the bog-standard buffeting of being alive.  

In his own words:

Though I’m the absolute worst person to judge my stuff, BACK is nothing if not unique! It veers from the silly to the soaring, from patter to polemic, from swing to rock to funk to ballad and back. It is sometimes absurd and sometimes arguably a bit emotional, and there’s even a chance it will make you think. It features seven wonderful, hilarious, talented musicians, and I also put in a showing.

Tim Minchin

BACK opens with Minchin alone at the piano in a white shirt, black suit and tie, performing ‘If This Plane Goes Down’ from his 2020 album ‘Apart Together’. You couldn’t call it laugh-a-minute, but you also couldn’t hear it and not realise immediately it’s a Tim Minchin song, a melding of beautiful chords and exceptional wordplay that, despite the grim subject matter of imagining death by plummeting plane, delights as always. Even with the sound down and a restricted view of your TV screen, you could probably take an educated guess who the bare feet belong to as they press at the piano pedals.

We can expect, we’re told, ‘old songs, new songs and fuck-you songs’, and those expectations are met. There are comedy classics like ‘F Sharp’ and ‘Mitsubishi Colt’, swipes at people who drive SUV Porches in ‘Airport Piano’, and pot shots at himself in songs such as ‘Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long’.

The slickly worked anecdotes between songs are fun, serious, or both simultaneously, a lingering symptom of what Minchin refers to his previous ‘misdiagnosis’ as a comedian. There are sections on how the progressive left likes to eat itself, how (on earth) people born since 2000 can be adults now, vegan restaurants in Los Angeles, and how his wife was smuggled out of Nazi-threatened Poland inside … well, you’ll just have to watch it to see.

The arrival of the full band, when it comes, marks the most dramatic shift in tone, for obvious reasons – the man and his piano are joined by seven other talented musicians, not least Sydney based vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Belkner, whose performance contains multitudes.

The band treatment on the sad but soaring ‘Leaving LA’ and the consistently hilarious ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ – rendered here with an assured Latin feel – call to mind the poignant simplicity of songs like ‘When I Grow Up’ from Matilda and the lyrical virtuosity of (a highlight of this show, and any other, really) ‘Thank You God’.

Looming large

Because the Melbourne show in 2021 was a masked-up affair in an era of justifiable paranoia and the only live performance I went to that year (as with probably the majority of people in Hamer Hall), it had a particularly strong effect on me – there was nothing that could really be described as novel either side of it, other than the novel coronavirus and the novels we were all reading, meaning it loomed even larger than it might have otherwise.

Watching a preview copy of BACK more than a year later I wasn’t surprised by how much of the show I remembered but I was surprised by how deeply and happily it sent me back down a Tim Minchin rabbit hole. There are even some tears (mine, Tim Minchin’s and no doubt plenty of other people watching) at the encore which, again, I’ll not spoil for you here.

Chances are you’ll already have a view on Tim Minchin before watching, or considering watching, BACK so, really, I’m not sure what a preview of this sort is meant to achieve. But if you’ve somehow made it this far without seeing or hearing him and want to change that in the weeks ahead, do yourself a favour and jump right in.  

Tim Minchin: BACK is available for digital download from 12 December, 2022.

Paul Dalgarno is author of the novels A Country of Eternal Light (2023) and Poly (2020); the memoir And You May Find Yourself (2015); and the creative non-fiction book Prudish Nation (2023). He was formerly Deputy Editor of The Conversation and joined ScreenHub as Managing Editor in 2022. X: @pauldalgarno. Insta: @dalgarnowrites