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Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line – Sydney Film Festival review

Paul Clarke's documentary walks down memory lane, tracing the glory days of the iconic Australian band, and contemplating the legacy they leave.
Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line. Image: Village Roadshoww/SFF

How do you measure the success of a band like Midnight Oil? Is it that they self-carved a successful touring career while still being pretty punk in their early days, refusing to play along with what they saw as Countdown’s confected pop candy image? That the gig took them all over the world? That, at the height of their powers, they used that platform to champion eco-activism and amplify the voices of First Nations people, as spearheaded by towering frontman Peter Garrett?

Was it that Midnight Oil provoked a quite hilarious rictus grin from then-Prime Minister John Howard when they agreed, against their gut, to play at the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony? Then punked the powers that be by wearing ‘sorry’ jumpsuits – bearing the one word Howard notoriously refused to offer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

Perhaps that they could sell out the Hordern Pavilion shortly after lockdowns for the most recent of their ‘final’ gigs in 2022? Or is it the chant of ‘Oiiiiiiills’ echoing around the gilt-lined auditorium of the packed-out State Theatre when a particularly egregious run of late-running speeches on the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival meant that the audience was still waiting for the first scene of opening night documentary Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line to unspool, more than 90 minutes after being seated?

Read: Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line to open Sydney Film Festival 2024

The trailer for Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line

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Midnight Oil: going nuclear

Poor writer-director Paul Clarke (Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon and Blood and Thunder: The Sound of Alberts – the man loves a colon) could barely get his last-words speech out after spending years pulling together this long-gestating film.

When the doco did get cracking, it was clear that the vocal fans present were sold on ‘The Power and the Passion’ of this blast through the ‘Beds are Burning’ band’s most significant moments, even if they probably knew all of this stuff already.

Does that really matter when the archival footage is this glorious? Particularly from those early days, then-called Farm, when the sound was a good deal rawer. Changing their name in 1976, the now-Oils were primarily championed by Tripel J predecessor Double Jay, while commercial stations turned a deaf ear.

While the documentary makes a strong case that Midnight Oil’s dedicated fan base stuck with them and grew exponentially from the off, it’s clear that they cut through big time when taking their chance in London, moulded electronically by emerging English producer Nick Launay on the album 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

The Hardest Line is sonically driven by gig footage, with overlaid commentary – both archival and new – predominantly coming from unseen members of the bands’ shifting line-up: drummer Rob Hirst, guitarist Martin Rotsey, Jim Moginie on keys and guitar, and bassists Andrew James, the late Bones Hillman and Peter Gifford. There are no to-camera talking heads, but you get a good sense of the guys’ own understanding of their legacy.

Read: MIFF 2024 first glance: Memoirs of a Snail, Audrey, I Saw the TV Glow, and more

What’s a little less clear is who they were before the Oils. There are brief hints of a surfie lifestyle on Sydney’s northern beaches, and a brief but not fully teased-out sense of a class divide between the original members and Giffo, and that he struggled a bit with life on the road, but there isn’t much more on their personal lives beyond Kiwi musician Hillman bringing a less serious, greatly restorative tone.

As might be expected, The Hardest Line gravitates around Peter Garrett. It’s to Clarke’s great credit that he doesn’t resile from prodding the apparent contradiction inherent in the man who most rang the band’s activist clarion, and once ran for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, later joining the Labor party that worked so hard to ensure, via preferences, that he didn’t make it to Parliament under that much freer banner.

It’s a shame that current Labor government Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s thoughts on this difficult-to-pull-off career transition – echoing, perhaps, her feelings on her own poisoned chalice – appear to be ripped from a poor-quality radio grab.

There’s great stuff on the band’s naivety on first playing a gig to not entirely convinced First Nations communities, opening their eyes to what was really going on, and their collaboration with the mighty Warumpi Band on the Blackfella Whitefella tour.

It’s really in this sense of enduring hope for truth-telling and treaty – far too long ago promised by Prime Minister Bob Hawke – that the real legacy of the Oils burns. It’s what lights up Clarke’s film.

Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line is currently playing at the Sydney Film Festival. It will have a general cinema release from 4 July 2024.

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3.5 out of 5 stars

Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line

Actors:

Peter Garrett, Martin Rotsey, Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie

Director:

Paul Clarke

Format: Movie

Country: Australia

Release: 04 July 2024