When former Australia’s Got Talent contestant Mitch Tambo stood on a cliff face the cliffs and belted out a Gamilaraay language version of John Farnham classic You’re the Voice, the spine-tingling chills drove home that some songs have incredible power in whatever shape or form.
It’s surprising, then, to hear, in director Poppy Stockell’s barnstorming rock documentary John Farnham: Finding the Voice, that it almost didn’t make the cut on Whispering Jack. This 1986 smash hit relaunched Farnham’s career as a solo rock artist and remains the highest-selling album in Australia by a local artist (Only Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell has shifted more copies).
Wracked with insecurity that his former life as a cheesy ‘60s pop crooner, shackled to interminably naff earworm Sadie (The Cleaning Lady), would forever cripple his chances, Farnham was determined that only the best tracks could make it onto this third chance at securing fame, after a thankless stint as the replacement frontman of Little River Band.
Not yet writing his own stuff, he and producer/manager/best mate the late Glenn Wheatley, had the track list locked down all bar one. Playing heaps of demo tapes, they passed on We Built This City, which would soar straight over to Starship. Then Farnham’s ears pricked up at a proto version of You’re the Voice.
Farnham, with trademark candour, recalls that he was ‘on the bones of his arse’ at this stage without a record contract or even permission to record his version of You’re the Voice. But he did it anyway. And both Wheatley and his switched-on on wife Gaynor, who is the standout talking head here, gave his first take the thumbs down. Farnham was spewing, and some of that righteous anger lives on in the version committed to Whispering Jack (and quite possibly eternity).
Co-written with Paul Clarke (Blood and Thunder: The Sound of Alberts), Stockell’s big-hearted tribute to the man, his unmistakable voice and somewhat tumultuous path towards fame is packed with golden nuggets like this. If you think you know the man, think again. The access to old home videos, TV spots and live performance footage is astonishing, too.
The film is also a beautiful send-off for Wheatley, a man Farnham considered a brother and stood by even when Wheatley went to jail for tax fraud. After all, Gaynor and Glenn re-mortgaged their home to get the funds together for Whispering Jack.
And then there’s the still raw loss of Australia’s sweetheart Olivia Newton-John, another woman who adored performing with Farnham, indeed says he was always her favourite to work with. We only see her in archival footage and photos and hear a hoarse-voiced interview. It’s deeply affecting stuff, and they clearly shared an incredible on-stage chemistry.
Expect plenty of emotional moments and to walk away with the reassuring feeling that Farnham built a logical family around him with these music industry mates who stood by him through thick and thin. And yet somehow all this tragedy is wrapped up in a roller coaster ride of rock ‘n’ roll rags to riches that manages to rise above simple hagiography.
No One Comes Close
If you’re coming in totally blind, you’ll be treated to a rollicking walkthrough of what it took to make Farnham who he is. But Finding the Voice can just as easily be relished as a time capsule of sorts, spanning the kooky ‘60s right up until today, via some seriously BIG ‘80s bouffants. I must have shrieked ‘THE HAIR’ at least three times to my plus one.
Gaynor may be the sassiest straight shooter in the doco, but Stockell also assembles rock royalty. There’s Daryl Braithwaite and Jimmy Barnes, neither of whom has a territorial bone in their body. It’s a mutual fan club. Celine Dion appears besotted, as are Richard Marx and Robbie Williams. Farnham’s sons pop up briefly, too, though intriguingly, they say that they were shielded from some of the worst bumps along the road. But it would have been good to tease out a little more about what their childhoods were like.
If there’s a downside, Farnham’s own health issues prevented the filmmakers from recording a new interview, but there’s a strange sort of beauty in his shadow lingering on through these performers. Sitting there in the near dark at the Astor Theatre reminded me more than most sessions I’ve attended since the end of lockdowns just how palpable a thrill it is to share in the communal adoration for a man many in Australia consider as one of our finest performers.
There was a lot of love in the room, and even if Farnham wasn’t able to be there himself, his presence was surely felt. Thanks to Stockell’s cracking doco, his legacy will sing out loud and proud for years to come. I look forward to seeing who takes on reshaping You’re the Voice next.
John Farnham: Finding the Voice is in cinemas from 18 May.