Fans of the legendary post-punk band the Birthday Party will take to Ian White’s new film like pigs to slop, relishing the debaucherous badassery of its subjects and their drug-addled journey to greatness.
Those who are inexperienced may also enjoy this intense and chaotic documentary, which provides a raw and honest depiction of the band and its members: Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Rowland S Howard, Phill Calvert, and Tracy Pew. These rebellious artists refused to conform, rejected societal norms, and despite their excessive lifestyles, managed to achieve success against all odds.
Harvey remarks, as the film reaches its second hour, that they did not make an effort to be well-liked. This statement certainly appears to be accurate. Coming onto the scene in the late 1970s from the chaotic and gritty “St Kilda scene” in Melbourne, which is described as a perilous and unhinged community of artists operating outside the establishment, Cave and his companions were the wild and unruly individuals your parents warned you about.
The movie begins with a youthful and sweaty Cave on stage, holding a cigarette and making a public service announcement: “The front row is not for the weak.” While he does not explicitly state the reasons, it can be assumed that they include potential damage to hearing and exposure to bodily fluids. The camera moves in slow motion, giving the impression of being slightly intoxicated, while White interjects with sound clips that reflect on the band and their journey. We are informed that the group, with their “innocent adventurousness”, stumbled upon something truly unique that offered glimpses into a different dimension and way of viewing the world.
Individuals who do not align with the unconventional and audacious nature of the Birthday Party may not be convinced by Mutiny in Heaven to believe its grandiose assertions. However, many would argue that with the influence of mind-altering substances, practically any genre of music can serve as a conduit for astral projection through the universe.
The movie partly serves as a gritty time capsule, showcasing the post-punk culture in Melbourne and the UK during the 1970s and 1980s. It starts by highlighting the St Kilda scene and then delves into the band’s move to London, where their drug use escalated and they gained a reputation as hopeless individuals to avoid.
After they accepted their position as outsiders, the band began to hit their stride, producing amazing songs and putting on energetic shows for packed audiences. They creatively found ways to replenish their supplies by asking party-goers to toss their drugs onto the stage.
There are many interesting details, ranging from the wild partying to more substantial themes like Cave’s interest in Christianity and the Bible – a brief detour that could have been explored further. The singer suggests that this was not the typical “born again” phase in a musician’s life, recalling, “God was speaking not only to me but through me, and his breath was unpleasant.”
To add flair and flair, White incorporates dynamic scenes inspired by the art of German artist and graphic novelist Reinhard Kleist. The illustrations are done in a bold and confrontational style that complements the film and its subjects perfectly. The use of these animated elements tackles a common obstacle in documentaries about artists: how to incorporate the subject’s work into the visual aesthetic of the film. This challenge was successfully met in previous films such as Ecco Homo, which focused on post-punk artist Troy Davis, and 2021’s The Witch of Kings Cross, a trippy exploration of the life of artist and tabloid sensation Rosaleen Norton, who identified as a witch.
By combining the structure of the film with the subject matter of the artist, documentaries about renowned creative individuals can reach new heights. In “Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party,” it’s not only the subjects who exude energy, but the entire cinematic package, as White creates a feeling that the film itself is partying hard and will later regret it with a bad hangover.