Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

There’s a moment in Paul Kelly: Stories Of Me where young singer-songwriter Megan Washington sums up a familiar experience with Paul Kelly. It’s that moment of recognition, that dawning realisation of just how many Paul Kelly songs you know and that you’ve always known subconsciously. More than any other Australian musician in modern history, his songs have permeated through the musical landscape, infiltrated your brain with a well-worn comfort. They didn’t arrive, they were always just there. 

Of course, brought up on an unhealthy diet of commercial radio, this was as a much reason to reject him in my formative years, to pass it off as sloganistic pub rock. But for younger generations, for Megan Washington, myself and the legions of twentysomethings shown in the documentary (live footage from the 2011 Falls Festival), the principled rejection barely holds up against the sweet chorus of How To Make Gravy. Paul Kelly - and the Messengers, the Coloured Girls, the Dots, the Stormwater Boys and whoever else he feels like playing with at any given moment - isn’t your dad’s music. After four decades, the man is still writing, experimenting, and if his interviews in Stories Of Me are anything to go by, still of the understanding that he’s a relative rookie in the shadows of songwriting heroes Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Niel Young etc. A point-in-time documentary when the subject is still active can be a blessing and a curse. The main players are still around and kicking and available for interviews (always a plus), but the filmmaker must work to avoid eulogising and/or making it sound like the artist’s best years are long gone.
Stories Of Me concludes what Kelly calls his ‘retrospective period’, which includes his autobiographical songbook of a few years back and the accompanying A to Z shows. An oral history as told by Kelly and those near and dear, the documentary takes an intentionally jagged path through a linear story. Instead of a year-by-year account, this is a life’s retelling marked by the different pieces that make up the Kelly jigsaw - his large family and South Australian upbringing, songwriting influences, formative musical years in Melbourne, an ongoing commitment to aboriginal culture and recognition (his one overtly political stance in a career of good old death & desire rock & roll) and his willingness to unceremoniously start up and conclude bands like you or I shuffle through an iTunes playlist.
At 96 minutes running time, you’re bound to skim a few things. Perhaps some people would want to hear more about various attempts to break into American markets, or more recent revelations that Kelly was a semi-pro Heroin user for decades (although this is given a few minutes attention in a ‘it happened, now it doesn’t’ matter-of-fact manner), but any small insight into the casually enigmatic Kelly is a gift. The interviews with bandmates, family, ex-wives and peers are candid and loving, with particularly delightful results every time the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster or Spencer P. Jones is in front of the camera. The documentary will actually form part of the Victorian Secondary School Curriculum, and at times it feels like a course reader in the subject of Australia’s most beloved songwriter (yeah, I said it...prove me wrong). But Director Ian Darling and Editor Sally Fryer straddle that line between fawning fan service and accurately telling a story. If at times you feel like you’re not getting the whole story, it’s probably because the story of Paul Kelly is not yet finished. 

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me is showing at the Palace Cinema Como and Palace Dendy Brighton.