The life of one of Australia's most important voices
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was hailed as one of the greatest voices Australia has ever produced. A blind Yolngu man from Elcho Island in north-east Arnhem Land, he sang songs in Indigenous languages such as Galpu and Gumatj, as well as in English. Gurrumul passed away last year at the age of 46, leaving a rich legacy of hauntingly beautiful music and a wider awareness of the culture from which that music came.
Writer and director Paul Williams' documentary tracks Gurrumul's life from his birthplace on Elcho Island through to his life as a musician. The film opens with Gurrumul giving an interview ahead of a tour. We soon learn of his reluctance to embrace success. He sits, untalkative, even as the interviewer tries her best to get him to open up. And it's here we see inklings of Gurrumul's unease at being in the two worlds of his life.
Left to do the talking is Michael Hohnen, Gurrumul's producer, collaborator and mate. Hohnen, a musician from Melbourne, explains that Gurrumul's musical talent was evident from an early age - he learned many instruments and music became an important way for him to express himself. Achieving some success as a member of Yothu Yindi and the Saltwater Band, it was the 2008 release of Gurrumul's solo record that brought the attention of the world. The record went triple-platinum and won an ARIA.
Further career success beckoned, but Gurrumul wasn't fussed, preferring home life to being in the spotlight of the music world's glare. Hohnen tried positioning Gurrumul on the standard course - concerts, tours, interviews, collaborations with other musicians. But a planned tour of the United States had to be abruptly cancelled at the last minute when Gurrumul failed to show up. In a world obsessed with wealth and fame, where singing contests proliferate on television, Gurrumul's reluctance to embrace fame is amazing to see.
The documentary also includes much from Gurrumul's home, including interviews with his family and explanations of the storylines, songs and culture of his people. The film is strong here and acting with purpose: it heeds that preservation of Indigenous songs, language and culture is an urgent task. That's part of why this film was allowed to be released (Gurrumul approved its distribution just three days prior to his death). Elders also went outside tradition in allowing the use of Gurrumul's name and depictions of him for the film because of the importance of his work and the role it will play in preserving Indigenous culture.
Gurrumul is an important record of a very gifted Yolngu man, his culture, and the place he came from.