Directed by Paul Damien Williams
I found myself crying during this documentary about the life of indigenous musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Paul Damien Williams' biopic presents Gurrumul, a man blind from birth, as a human being uncomprehending and/or completely disinterested in external status symbols, who possesses an angelic voice capable of touching hearts and conjuring the eternal beauty of his songlines.
First, I must describe Gurrumul physically although it is possibly incorrect to do so for his dark. glowing skin, voluminous jaw and cheek line and the white pupils of his eyes are transfixing in their sculptural and ancestral qualities.
Early in this documentary, when that wave of critical attention Garrumul is receiving begins to turn into something far greater, an ABC journalist asks Gurrumul questions about his blindness, his music, his heritage. Gurrumul does not answer and you suddenly realise this gifted performer is cripplingly shy. His close friend Michael Hohnen answers for him and at the end of the interview Gurrumul looks up and smiles with childlike innocence on realisation that he is no longer the centre of attention.
Later in the film you see him perform with Sting, who has requested a duet with the rising star Gurrumul on live European TV. Gurrumul doesn’t know who Sting is nor anything about the song Sting wishes to partner in. In rehearsal, Gurrumul sits on stage quietly with Sting, head down and strumming the selected music (Gurrumul can play anything on hearing it once or twice) but he does not speak nor respond to encouragement to sing. Back in the dressing room, family members Skype him from the remote Elcho Island community in far North East Arnhem Land and translate the words of ‘I’ll be Watching You’ so that he can relate the song to his family and his life. After a moment Gurrumal smiles, sings and hums along. For the live show soon after he is perfect; taking part in a breath-taking performance where his spontaneous enhancements to Sting’s original work completely upstage the rock star.
Gurrumul's so unusual lack of concern with fame and fortune is reinforced most pointedly in the documentary when Gurrumul fails to show for an American tour for which most musicians would sell their souls. It eventuates that Gurrumul is still on Elcho Island with family; for him, appearing on the Letterman Show and other ‘you have made it on the world stage’ platforms just can’t compete with this little community full of loved ones.
It is hard to watch this documentary without noting the depth of friendships that surrounded Gurrumul. I specifically point-out the love of Michael Hohnen and Mark T Grose, for to these two ‘white fellas’ who were founders of Skinnyfish Music, the friendship and happiness of Gurrumul was far more important than the money they stood to make from the abandoned tour. As fate would have it, the Rolling Stone covers, international adulation and worshipful fans occurred, regardless of Gurrumul having little desire for them.
The documentary ‘Gurrumul’ brings out the beauty of an individual of unusual purity and extraordinary talent, and also captures the genuine love that those who knew him held for him. Both the story and the voice of this beautiful soul will bring tears to your eyes.
Gurrumul passed away in 2017.
Catch ‘Gurrumul’ at selected cinemas soon.