Popular music and movies are old friends with much in common. As mass entertainment mediums they present a fluid and immediate public face and use mood, pace and emotion in composition and performance. Style and personality and the utilisation of recognisable environments also play a big part both in their popularity and dissemination.
It’s a cultural proximity highlighted in New Zealand by a resurgence of NZ film and the rock and roll scene in the late 1970s that exploded in the early to mid-1980s. It’s also a time when both mediums became dependent to some extent on a similar entanglement with public funding.
Popular music’s most frequent relationship with film is through commissioned soundtracks, where the movie dictates the creation and use of the music produced. Jan Preston’s contributions to Leon Narby’s Illustrious Energy (1988) or Peter Dasent’s music for Braindead (1992), for example.
Then there are the song-based soundtracks where existing music that’s relevant to the film is used, as in Scarfies (1999) set in student Dunedin in the 1980s or 1990s. In this case, the songs – well known tracks from Flying Nun Record's catalogue from Bike, The Verlaines, Headless Chickens and The Clean amongst others – have a geographic, cultural and historic connection to the era and environment evoked.
Slices of Heaven
Pop hits generated from songs written specifically for movies are comparatively rare in New Zealand. Dave Dobbyn’s whooping summer anthem ‘Slice of Heaven’ is arguably the most known soundtrack song to chart strongly here. Recorded for Footrot Flats: A Dog’s Tail, a cartoon adaptation of Murray Ball’s popular cartoon strip, the Herbs assisted song made No.1 for eight weeks in mid-1986, and spent nearly half a year in the pop charts. Dobbyn followed the massive hit with yet another original from the soundtrack album, ‘You Oughta Be In Love,’ a Top 10 single in December 1986. The platinum-selling soundtrack album hit No.5 the same month. It also featured Herbs’ ‘Nuclear Waste’.
Lee Tamahori’s adaptation of Alan Duff’s big selling novel Once Were Warriors spawned a successful platinum-selling soundtrack album that rose to No.2 in June 1994. Southside of Bombay’s dusted down 1991 single, ‘What’s The Time Mr Wolf?’ climbed to No.1 in 1994 after its inclusion on the soundtrack of Once Were Warriors. In marked contrast, the Duff penned follow-up movie, What Becomes of The Broken Hearted scraped the lower reaches of the album sales chart in June 1999.
Don McGlashan, who’d been matching his music to dramatic and topical performance since his early days, composed and recorded the music for An Angel At My Table. But it was No. 2 (2005) that provided McGlashan with his biggest movie-related hit after Hollie Smith and Mt Raskill Preservation Society took ‘Bathe In The River’ to No.2 on the pop charts in 2006. The gospel-soul number spent 22 weeks in total in the Top 10 and won APRA’s 2006 Silver Scroll.
That's just some of the music that made it from celluloid to vinyl. New Zealand soundtrack albums include Sleeping Dogs (EMI, 1977) featuring contributions from Mark Williams, Josie Rika and Murray Grindlay, Solo (EMI, 1978), which has David Fraser, one of Bruno Lawrence’s jazz buddies onboard with Marion Arts and Robbie Laven contributing.
Goodbye Pork Pie (WEA, 1980) showcased six Street Talk songs while The Swingers capped a cameo appearance in the Australian-made Starstruck (Mushroom, 1982) with three songs on the soundtrack album, including the title song. Schtung, more associated with the 1970s, had the five-track Kingpin EP from the movie of the same name out on Reaction Records in 1985. Sharon O’Neill’s Smash Place soundtrack LP and the single of the same name appeared in 1982.
Less successful were Bridge To Nowhere (1986) which collected up period recordings from Car Crash Set, Ardijah, Marginal Era, Shona Laing and Annie Crummer. The soundtrack album for Queen City Rocker was arguably better than the poorly acted film it accompanied, featuring Tex Pistol’s cover of Daggy and The Dickheads’ ‘Winter’, No Tag’s ‘Mistaken Identity’ and Fetus Productions’ ‘Anthem’ alongside contributions from Graham Brazier and the late Dave McArtney, who was the film’s music director.
Director Bruce Morrison saw music as a vital part of Queen City Rocker. He told Chris Bourke in RipItUp in January 1987 that the variety of music – which extends from Fetus Productions to Wentworth Brewster – was a reflection of the sounds of contemporary Auckland. “Urban Auckland is a bizarre place,” Morrison said. “There are buildings being pulled down and put up, there’s an intensive gang situation, people look strange, there’s a mix of races and styles borrowed from England, Harlem, Trinidad, everywhere. It seemed like a colourful area in which to make a movie. “A lot of the clan definitions were musical tastes, the livery people put on was the band they followed. Ardijah claimed a place in the film immediately – Trevor Reekie sent me to see them at the New York club in South Auckland, and they had an amazing scene there, wherever they went. Whereas Ska (the main character) had a semi-punk outlook, anti-society basically, nihilistic – so at home he’s listening to No Tag.”
You’ll also find a surprising number of New Zealand musicians behind and in front of the camera or doing post-production work. Two of our most accomplished actors – Russell Crowe and the late Bruno Lawrence – have strong musical roots. Bruno Lawrence’s creative life in particular reflects the commingling of the two groups in the formative late 1970s, 1980s and beyond. [See the Bruno Lawrence Collection at NZ On Screen here]
David “Bruno” Lawrence was a musician first – a drummer who acted – that’s how he described himself. But he was no purist. He was a renegade talent who assailed real and imagined boundaries. Nor was he the brooding loner he often portrayed. Just as notable and central to his story was a strong sense of community and family on which he drew readily for support, collaborators and the skills to realise his and the community’s creative vision.
The would-be teen jazz drummer first encountered future film director Geoff Murphy (trumpet) and his brother Roy (trombone) in Wellington in the mid-1950s. Together they assembled a trad jazz group with future beat poet and art historian Mark Young (double bass) and John Charles (piano) for a church hall residency at St Anselm’s in Karori West in 1956. All except Young would become central figures in Lawrence’s emergence as a film actor.
After stints in jazz combos and gigging with Wellington’s The Measles, Bruno kept time for Max Merritt and The Meteors and Ricky May in Sydney. He was tempted back to Wellington on hearing Geoff Murphy was experimenting with film. Murphy and Lawrence had married sisters Pat and Veronica Robins while John Charles partnered with a third sister, Judy and the extended family unit they formed would be at the core of the activity that followed.
While Bruno’s main gig was with Wellington’s Quincy Conserve, he quickly became enmeshed in Murphy's filmmaking. “We looked at movies and said, ‘yeah, we can do that,’ and we did,” Lawrence was reported as saying.
The fearless, taboo-breaking Lawrence had already been seen as the mad professor Doctor Brunowski in a black and white short Hurry Hurry Faster Faster (1965), originally shown with a live soundtrack. His first speaking part came in Tankbusters in 1969. “You’re all mad and I’m off,” he said. It would become a running punch line in years to come.
In the early 1970s, Bruno Lawrence balanced music, his main source of income with acting parts in TV dramas including a bikie in Pukemanu. In ‘Time Out’, a dramatised documentary that was part of the Survey series in 1970 for WNTV1, he was at a band practice when the police burst into Wellington Musicians Club looking for runaway prisoner. That spot won him a Feltex Television Award for best actor in 1970.
“He was a bit a renegade; a musician who dressed in funny clothes. There was in fact nothing about him that was readily recognisable as fitting the conventional acting community,” director and actor John Reid said in Bruno: The Bruno Lawrence Story, Roger Booth’s comprehensive 1999 biography.
Heading north to Auckland to join Fresh Air for a mid-1971 residency at The Tabla, Lawrence was soon back home in Wellington hatching his most ambitious idea yet – BLERTA, The Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition.
BLERTA brought together all his creative strands in a constantly evolving colourful counter-cultural roil of music, skits and drama, both planned and spontaneous, with Geoff Murphy’s films weaved in.
Travelling the country in a psychedelic bus with car convoy tail, BLERTA spent the first half of the 1970s in motion. After several colourful event-filled NZ tours, BLERTA had an extended Australian stay between June 1973 and November 1974 and a successful New Zealand television series in 1976.
Wild Man, a segment of the BLERTA TV series, was expanded into a full-length 1977 Geoff Murphy movie featuring Bruno as the Wild Man. Wellington folk and blues mainstay Val Murphy filled a more customary musical role as lounge bar singer in the flick.
BLERTA also found time in 1976 to make the music for Big Brother, Little Sister, a short film based on Witi Ihimaera’s short story that was part of the powerful Winners and Losers series in 1976. The Avengers’ Clive Cockburn sound-tracked A Great Day, another short film in the series, based on a Frank Sargeson short story. David Calder of Hamilton County Bluegrass Band provided additional music for the series.
And if you look closely, you’ll see pop and jazz singer Tommy Adderley in front of the camera as a harmonica-blowing swagman in another Winners and Losers short based on John A Lee’s Shining With The Shiner.
Goodbye Pork Pie
Bruno Lawrence was back as the mysterious Mulvaney, a shadowy back street con who stripped cars and lead actor Shirl (Clare Oberman) and moved pot from a storied Wellington garage in one of New Zealand’s most popular feature films, Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie, released in late 1980. Lawrence also drummed on the John Charles section of the soundtrack of the successful road movie.
BLERTA regular Tony Barry joined him as a central character in the film, while fellow alumnus Ian Watkin drove a second yellow Mini in the movie; a straight world parallel to the main trio’s skate through New Zealand.
Clyde Scott, who was responsible for the rock and roll era oddity, ‘Gravedigger’s Rock’ with The Zanyopolis, had a brief part as a traffic cop, a role pre-dated by his appearance in Sleeping Dogs in 1977 and followed by a bit part in Beyond Reasonable Doubt in 1982.
Auckland blues rockers Street Talk supplemented John Charles’ more traditional Goodbye Pork Pie soundtrack with six songs, including four that were unreleased elsewhere. You can hear their music first as the renegade Mini heads over Auckland Harbour Bridge into the inner city.
There’s more of their upbeat blues backing a druggy party at Mulvaney’s, but as the trio head through the South Island the sound changes, first to folky pop with ‘I Believe’ before gaining a country-ish tinge for the final showdown in Invercargill.
There’s a remarkably similar dynamic in lead actor Kelly Johnston’s previous film, the Martin Blythe directed and Stewart Main written and produced short, Queen Street. Echoing his portrayal of the punk-ish Jerry Austin in GPP, Johnston hits Auckland’s inner city at night in a souped-up car with a male and female offsider.
On the main drag, and the streets surrounding it, the trio tangle with corrupt tow truck drivers, tough boys in hot cars and their own immediate past as Citizen Band bangs out ‘Rust In My Car’ and their take on the Larry’s Rebels version of ‘I Feel Good’.
One of those blighters
South Taranaki writer, jazz bassist and music teacher Ronald Hugh Morrieson has the rare distinction of having all his books made into movies. The hard living small town writer died well before that happened, but his work and life had real resonance with the music community.
Not too surprisingly, Bruno Lawrence made a fine Ronald Hugh Morrieson in Lynton Butler’s One of Those Blighters (1982), which found three of his old town mates drunkenly reminiscing on Morrieson’s demise amid fine flashbacks based on his books. Bruno would later play a jazz band member in Butler’s filming of Pallet On The Floor (1984), which was set around another Morrieson work. The film’s strong jazz soundtrack came from Lawrence, Jonathan Crayford, Geoff Murphy and Billy Kristian.
All of the Morrieson derived movies have musicians in prominent parts. Māori show band performer and comic great Billy T. James turns in a brilliant comedic performance as the Tainuia Kid in Came A Hot Friday (1984).
Split Enz’s Tim Finn gets Predicament’s befuddled and tower obsessed father down pat, with a wild haired grey stubbled performance that may well be one of the best acting performances by a NZ musician. Wellington’s Plan 9 – Janet Roddick, Steve Roche and David Donaldson – provided the soundtrack music for the 2010 film, and former musician Simon Raby was the cinematographer.
Well before his early death from cancer in 1996, Bruno Lawrence was articulating the movie he’d like to direct. It was a musical, although he had other ideas as well. “I don’t mean a fantasy musical,” Lawrence explained. “In my story idea, the lead players are musicians. It’s a love story and that becomes the catalyst for a whole wide range of music.”
The initial plot involved two 1950s jazz musicians from “different sides of the tracks,” who, “music has blown apart then brought back together.” There was some initial interest from an American producer so the New Zealand Film Commission awarded the project a development grant. Arthur Baysting, who’d written the words for Bruno’s late 1970s pop act The Crocodiles’ Top 20 hit ‘Tears’, came onboard as collaborator.
It was a slow process, Baysting remembered, hobbled by differences in artistic temperament. Lawrence kept adding sections and artists, and the development money ran out before the script was completed. A scriptwriter was depped to finish it.
The plot as revealed in Roger Booth’s Bruno was pure Lawrence. Titled Blowing It, the central character, Hina Waimarama O’Neil is a successful violinist freshly returned to New Zealand, where she falls for Luke Lomax, third emergency clarinettist for an unspecified symphony orchestra.
“There is the orchestra with Hina as soloist and pieces by Brahms, Alban Berg and Bruno’s brother-in-law John Charles. There were three or four piece jazz groups featuring Luke on horn, with drums, drums, and, in the four-piece, piano. There is the Junkyard, a nightclub with jazz/punk and Luke on alto sax; there are Luke and Hina on violin and clarinet; an aunt on cello; a pop concert; a piano; a guitar singalong,” Booth reported.
The film’s wider plot involved Māori family life, prestigious tours, the underworld, and plenty of touring featuring New Zealand’s natural beauty and landscape as a backdrop.
Lawrence pressed American film producer Ed Pressman for finance and he agreed to put in half the money needed if a name American actor was employed. That meant some loss of control. The project was still in the air when Bruno Lawrence died.
Don’t Let It Get You
Students of New Zealand film will notice the similarity between Blowing It and the two pop culture related films made in New Zealand in the mid-1960s – John O’Shea’s Runaway (1964) and Don’t Let It Get You (1966).
It was a time where fledgling respected English directors such as John Boorman and Richard Lester were making critically acclaimed pop movies featuring stars of the beat era.
With future Radio Hauraki DJ Colin Broadley in the lead, Runaway is a dark-ish pursuit thriller featuring opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa and Ray Columbus as a bandleader. The pop vibe continues on Don’t Let It Get You (1966), a music centred romp, involving Māori performers Howard Morrison, Rim D. Paul, Gerry Merito and waspish opera singer Te Kanawa. Herma and Eliza Keil, Lew Pryme, Eddie Low, Paul Walden, Gwynn Owen and Australian pop star Normie Rowe.
O’Shea had Lew Pryme performing ‘C’mon’ at a Caltex service station. Featuring a bluesy gait and nice guitar break, it’s one of Pryme’s best tracks. Then there’s Howard Morrison with a horn section in front of a screaming Rotorua crowd and full stage set with mod backdrop and go go dancers doing the frug. Both songs feature on the HMV Records soundtrack album and were composed by Patrick Flynn who wrote all the music with the exception of Robin Maconie’s ‘Come Into The Sun.’
The film’s plot has distinct similarities to Lawrence’s: Sydney based drummer Gary Wallace hocks his drums and heads for a Rotorua music festival organised by Howard Morrison. Once there, he falls in love, but is blocked by the Quin Tikis’ drummer played by Harry Lavington.
New Zealand’s 1960s and 1970s era pop stars continued to feature in movies well into the 1980s and 1990s. Grahame McLean’s Should I Be Good or Should I Be Evil? (1985) had three prominent musicians in lead roles.
Hello Sailor and Coup d’Etat’s Harry Lyon makes a capable debut as Nat Goodman, a singer just out of jail, who is trying to extricate his former girlfriend from smack and prostitution in Wellington’s seedy underworld. His two best allies on the outside are nightclub proprietors and musicians Beaver (Beverley Morrison) and Hammond Gamble, who also perform the film’s title song.
Then there’s The Raves and Beam’s Laurie Dee in Sleeping Dogs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt and One of Those Blighters. Reg Ruka as Monkey in Prisoners (1981) and Prince Tui Teka as a saxophonist in Came A Hot Friday (1984). Ray Columbus pops up in Chicken (1996).
Wellington’s Andy Anderson, late of Sydney’s The Missing Links and Melbourne’s Running Jumping Standing Still, was in The Straits and The Shadow Trader before reverting to type in Alex Proyas' Australian rock movie, Garage Days (2002). Anderson’s TV roles make for a much longer list.
This film contains punk cult material
Director David Blyth is specific about punk’s influence on his early films. “We all came from the garage band. I was a garage filmmaker. I used an old red Bolex and like the musicians didn’t have any formal education. They just got instruments and started making noises and I got a camera and started pointing it around the room. I thought ‘why wait to get experience?’
“Everything was fermenting at the same time. The very first punk concert at Auckland University was raising money for Angel Mine. The thing about the film is that it was shot for $13,000 or $14,000, which meant I didn’t have to go to any of the authorities and have my script fettered.”
Pioneer punks Suburban Reptiles have two songs on the soundtrack – ‘Saturday Night (Stay At Home)’ and ‘Razorblade Rosie’. And when Angel Mine had its first showing at the Wintergarden Theatre beneath Auckland’s Civic Theatre on October 19, 1978, two rival line-ups of the group performed, one augmented by members of The Plague, whose Richard Von Sturmer had contributed to the movie’s script.
Taking its title from a fictional commercial wonder drug for people with martial problems, Angel Mine shows “an alienated middle class couple being stalked and eventually murdered by their youthful punk mirror images, played by the same actors.”
The Censor's certificate warned that Angel Mine "contains punk cult material".
Released two years later in 1980, Richard Turner’s Squeeze followed the secret life of a businessman in the gay underworld of Auckland to a soundtrack featuring Toy Love, The Features and The Marching Girls.
David Blyth returned in 1984 with Death Warmed Up, described by Variety as “surreal-art deco punk, with dollops of action and blood.” Bruno Lawrence, long known for sitting in on bands, punk or otherwise, found a small part there. Dave Dobbyn's 'Drive', written for the movie, also featured.
One of punk’s most extreme gestures made it to film in 1985. William Keddell’s The Maintenance of Silence was a short feature based on memories of 22-year old anarchist Neil Roberts’ November 1982 bombing of the Wanganui Computer Centre, one of the government’s repositories of state information. Featuring music by Steve Roach (The Techtones, Squirm and The Stridulators, Bernie Griffin and The Grifters), the lead role of Eric is taken by The Screaming Meemees’ Tony Drumm.
Elsewhere, Danse Macabre and Car Crash Set’s Nigel Russell was a POW extra in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1984) and No Tag’s Andrew Boak plays a clerk and Ardijah are the group onstage in the Staircase nightclub in Queen City Rocker (1986).
The Newmatics’ Mark Clare can be seen portraying a young C.K. Stead (Auckland author and academic) in Jane Campion’s 1990 adaptation of Janet Frame’s An Angel At My Table. Clare later moved centre stage as an investigative journalist on the run in tele-movie Trifecta (1995).
The most successful punk and post-punk era musician in film was The Wallsockets and Naked Spots Dance’s Fran Walsh, one of the scriptwriters and movie producers behind her partner Peter Jackson’s successful movies. It’s her words on ‘In Dreams’, the Academy Award and Golden Globe winning soundtrack song from Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King (2003), co-written with Howard Shore and Annie Lennox.
Well behind the camera you’ll find editor Chris Plummer, formerly of Shoes This High and Fishschool and winner of 2010 Qantas Film and Television Awards for Best Editing on Boy. Plummer also edited I’ll Make You Happy (1988), Crooked Earth (2001), In My Father’s Den (2004), No. 2 (2006), Black Sheep (2007) and Under The Mountain (2009).
His musical contemporary, Chris Burt, followed time in The Techtones and The Stridulators with a long string of sound design credits that include Footrot Flats (1986), The End of the Golden Weather (1991), Trifecta (1995), Scarfies (1999), Whale Rider (2002), In My Father’s Den (2004), Sione’s Wedding (2005) and The Vintner’s Luck (2009).
The music-film crossover continues to the present day. Just as films are sometimes evoked in song, music worlds have been utilised in movies. Scarfies (1999) shows Taika Waititi (as Taika Cohen) spending some of his ill gotten drug money on a Ray Columbus and The Invaders album, referencing record collecting and a NZ music icon with one swift flick of the wrist.
In an early scene, David Kilgour, Tom Bell and Robbie Yeats dink out a lukewarm ‘Tally Ho!’ in the blurry confines of a student bar. The sharp-eyed viewer will also catch sight of the Coronation Street-like two-up terrace houses featured on Sneaky Feelings’ Husband House EP cover.
Alison McLean’s award winning 1992 debut film Crush was sound tracked by JPS Experience.
The late Kevin Smith, who died after falling from a tower in China on February 2, 2006, has a little known previous life as a 1980s indie band member of The Picnic Boys, Say Yes To Apes and The Hypenears. His 1983 solo album, Bad Ass, released under the name Hyphen-Smythe, contains the haunting ballad ‘Freaks’. Smith’s film credits include Desperate Remedies (1993), Channelling Baby (1999) and Jubilee (2000).
Say Yes To Apes drummer Duane Zarakov (Patrick Faigan) made it into movies as well as one of the backing bands, behind his sister Violet and Rock Hardman’s duet of ‘Some Velvet Morning’ in Gillian Ashurst’s Snakeskin (2001).
Milan Borich of 1990s indie rockers Pluto pops up occasionally in movies and TV, notably winning a 1995 NZ Film and Television Award for Best Male Performance in a supporting role in Bonjour Timothy.
Climbing The Mountain
It’s been noticeable of late that New Zealand movies, especially those with strong Māori involvement have increasingly drawn on contemporary encounters with modern sounds as plot devices.
Set in 1979, Tearepa Kahi’s Mt Zion (2013) stars Māori singer and Australian Idol winner Stan Walker as a young musician torn between his family and a desire to support Bob Marley at Auckland’s Western Springs.
Amongst the cast you’ll find Kevin Kaukau, guitarist in 1970s hit act Golden Harvest, playing older musician Booker. A smart pop cultural nod to the mostly Māori group, who actually played the support slot for Bob Marley and The Wailers in 1979. Golden Harvest are there on the soundtrack as well alongside NZ greats Max Merritt and The Meteors, Prince Tui Teka and Herbs.
More recently there’s been The Pā Boys, which follows an East Coast group. And no doubt there’ll be others. Whatever the movie, it’ll be worth scanning the end credits for members of New Zealand’s music community.