Art Essays

Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line

Published June 18, 2024
An announcement from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

When a rock band enjoys a career of 45 years and sells more than 20 million albums, they probably qualify as legends. They may also be overdue for a documentary, an omission that has now been supplied by director, Paul Clarke, who has spent the past seven years making Midnight Oil: the Hardest Line, which opened this year’s Sydney Film Festival. That may sound like a long haul, but another Australian documentary maker, James Bradley, has just unveiled a film on artist, Jiawei Shen, called Welcome to Babel, that took twelve years to complete.

These films were among numerous premieres at this year’s Festival, which winds up this weekend after a highly successful fortnight. There are plenty of occasions over the past few years when I’ve found myself almost alone at a movie screening, but the buzz around the Festival is a sign that the cinema is still alive and well, despite the ongoing depredations of home screening platforms.

My own attendance at the SFF was sporadic at best, although I caught two excellent features in competition for the main prize – Paola Cortellesi’s There’s Always Tomorrow, which has been a smash hit in Italy; and Matthias Glasner’s Dying, a breathtaking, three-hour drama from Germany that looks set for an Australian release.

Opening night at the SFF is always a circus, with endless speeches that test the audience’s patience, and perhaps a local feature of dubious merit that gets applauded loudly, then proceeds to sink without a trace. Not many festival goers will cherish golden memories of The Rover (2014), Ruben Guthrie (2015), or Palm Beach (2019). It was a slightly different crowd for the Midnight Oil doco, with a high percentage of rock fans. They got exactly what they wanted: a long, detailed, relatively fast-moving biography of the band, with a lavish amount of music and concert footage.

I’ll admit right away I was never a Midnight Oil fan. I’d take the Hoodoo Gurus, the Go-Betweens, or any number of other bands from what was a brilliantly creative era in Australian popular music. The Oils, as they are universally known, always seemed too bombastic, too ready to proselytise from stage and record. While the Hoodoo Gurus were asking: “What’s my scene?”, like confused teenagers, Midnight Oil was telling us exactly what our scene should be.

The ”hardest line”, denotes an uncompromising attitude to politics, and to the way the band chose to be presented. This meant a stalwart refusal to appear on the ABC music show, Countdown, on any terms but their own. It seems a bit ridiculous at this distance, like schoolboys arguing about which groups were “non-commercial”, but it was a big deal in the late 1970s. To refuse an invitation to be on Countdown was to miss out on nationwide exposure to hundreds of thousands of potential record-buyers. In those days, the ABC knew how to make a popular program.

Midnight Oil began life as a cult band with a steadily increasing fan base that would follow them from one venue to the next. Clarke takes us back to their origins in 1972, when three boys from the Northern Beaches, Rob Hirst, Andrew James and Jim Moginie, formed a cover band called Farm. One wonders how successful they would have been had they retained this name for the next 30 years. Instead, they found themselves a singer – a rangy, Canberra law student named Peter Garrett, and in 1976 relabelled themselves as Midnight Oil.

It’s worth the price of admssion to see Peter Garrett with a shaggy blonde haircut, which gets gradually mown down to the familiar chrome dome that would become his trademark.

By the early 1980s, the Oils had become hugely popular without the benefit of radio airtime, and would travel to England to record their third album, Place Without a Postcard, with Glyn Johns, the eccentric British producer of the Rolling Stones and The Who. Their hard, jagged sound moved marginally closer to mainstream pop, and they began to climb the charts. Yet the real breakthrough came with the next album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1982), produced by a younger British sound engineer, Nick Launay. Songs such as The Power and the Passion, had an anthemic quality that would grab the attention of a mass audience. That same quality would reappear in 1987, with Beds are Burning, a song about Aboriginal dispossession, which probably remains the group’s iconic number.

While the Oils made gradual progress with their musical career, they were becoming more politicised year by year, led by frontman Garrett, who was heavily involved with the anti-nuclear movement and Greenpeace. They even took the radical step of visiting Aboriginal settlements to see at first-hand the way Indigenous people lived. Judging by the footage of them playing to a group of locals who stand silent and non-plussed, it was a difficult learning experience. The band’s great political moment would arrive in 2000, when they sang Beds are Burning at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, wearing jumpsuits emblazoned with the word, “Sorry” – a jab at Prime Minister, John Howard, who had bluntly refused to apologise to the Stolen Generation.

Following a relentless schedule of international touring, the group broke up in 2002, when Garrett left to concentrate on his political career. Thinking that the only way to instigate real change was to join a major political party, he won the seat of Kingsford-Smith for Labor in the 2004 General Election. He would spend nine years in Parliament, serving as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts (2007-10), and as Minister for Education (2010-13). During that period he led Australia’s push to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, but alienated many of his former colleagues in the environmental movement with other decisions. In the Arts one of his dumbest ideas was to dismantle the scheme that allowed superannuation money to be invested in works of art. It had a devastating effect on an Australian art market, already massively undervalued in comparison with the rest of the world.

After Garrett had finished his dispiriting stint in Parliament, he and the other members of the group got back together. They played, toured and recorded from 2016 to 2022, when they finally announced an end to live performances, although they may continue to record. And that’s the story of Midnight Oil – so far.

Clarke’s documentary is largely a celebration of the Oils. It reveals a few rocky patches, but never ventures a word of criticism. Had it been Alex Gibney helming the film it would have begun in a blaze of glory, then descended into pathos as Garrett’s political career hit the low notes. Instead, we follow the singer’s time in Canberra as if it were a mere distraction from his real vocation. This also seems to be the way many of the group’s fans regarded their hero’s swapping the concert stage for the political stage.

There’s another documentary to be made looking at Garrett’s decade in party politics, and the disappointments it involved. He should have remembered that song, I Don’t Want to be the One. The truth is, Garrett was a more politically effective as a rock star than he was as a Minister. The freedom the Oils demanded to do things their own way, was the antithesis of the dismal conformity that rules every major political party. There may be room for political bombast in rock music, but in politics nobody gets to dance.




Midnight Oil: The Hardest Line

Writen & directed by Paul Clarke

Starring: Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey, Andrew James, Peter Gifford, Bones Hillman

Australia, Unclassified 15+, 105 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 June, 2024