This review of New Zealand Music Documentary Shihad: Beautiful Machine has kindly been written by Tom Eastman. Tom has been a Shihad fan since back in the day, and was lucky enough to catch the film at the cinema in New Zealand (Australian will fans need to wait until September 6th). You can follow Tom on Twitter, or stop by his website. Thanks Tom!
I was fifteen years old the first time I went to a Shihad gig at The River Inn in Takaka, Golden Bay. A tiny rural pub with a cramped little garden bar and stage. They were promoting their self-titled album, the one that had the mega-hit opening track “Home Again”, but it was their sleezily-riffed bombastic “Pig Bop”, and the epic “For What You Burn” (still my all-time favourite song after all this time) that have never left the back of my mind since that night sixteen years ago.
Shihad have been pretty much my favourite band for more than half my life.
So when I heard about the upcoming release of Shihad: Beautiful Machine, a documentary chronicling their more than 22 year history directed by Sam Peacocke and produced by Laurence Alexander and Grant Roa, I was excited at the prospect but I admit to also having some pretty strong trepidations about the idea.
One the one hand, seeing the band in detail and on the big screen sounded awesome, but coming on the heels of a greatest hits double-CD, and a country-wide “career retrospective” tour (which was a bloody awesome show, as always) it almost felt like they were giving their swan song.
Whether or not that’s actually the case remains to be seen, but if a band has to call it quits, they certainly could (and usually do) do it in a much less dignified and classy ways.
The documentary opens with an intimate moment with Yvonne Toogood, mother of Shihad front man Jon. The unique flavour of the documentary is immediately apparent with these touching moments with the band members’ parents — something I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen in a documentary about a heavy metal band. They provide a lot of heart to the story as it proceeds.
The story unfolds as the band forms out of high-school friendships in Wellington and gains a powerfully loyal following in home-town Wellington. Highlights include the band laughingly looking back on their powerfully awkward first meeting with deeply introverted lead guitarist Phil Knight, and throwing Karl Kippenberger right into the deep end when the then 17-year-old bass player finds himself on stage opening for AC/DC in front of 35,000 people for his second-ever gig with the band.
The central arc of the documentary follows the band’s ill-fated attempt to break in to the US market in 2001 and 2002, where in a country awash with post-9/11 nationalism and hysteria, they made the controversial decision to change their name. It’s a story about the stars aligning for you, only to fall out of the sky right when everything you wanted was just within your reach. Their return to their home and reconnecting as a band and as a family.
The most compelling parts of the film are the intimate moments between the band members and their partners and families. A touching and personal look at Jon Toogood’s long and deeply volatile relationship with his partner and how it informed the course of the band both musically and professionally, and lead guitarist Phil Knight’s struggle with alcoholism as he deals with the constant limelight.
Actually, some of the funniest moments come from Phil’s quirky and introverted personality, his moments provided some unexpected highlights to the film.
In the end, if there’s one thing that disappointed me, it’s that the documentary spends very little time on the music itself. This might be a matter of personal taste, but speaking as both a musician and a fan of the band, I would have really liked more insight into their musical process itself and its inspiration. Especially for a band that has managed to produce a broader range of music than any I’ve ever heard, from thrash metal to pop to unabashed love songs.
Maybe that’s just me though. By focusing on the people and their stories, their efforts, wins and losses, the creators have produced a film that you don’t need to be a fan to find compelling.
By Tom Eastman.
Director: Sam Peacocke
Starring: Jon Toogood, Karl Kippenberger, Tom Larkin
Runtime: 101 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: September 6 2012; New Zealand: May 17 2012