November 2023

Arts & Letters

The candles flicker and dim: ‘Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party’

By Indigo Bailey

Nick Cave performing with The Birthday Party at The Venue, London, 1981. © David Corio / Redferns / Getty Images

Ian White’s documentary captures the incendiary trajectory of the seminal Melbourne band at the expense of the inertia that fuelled it

“Rock music is the anus of culture,” Tracy Pew once said – an apt claim for the bassist of The Birthday Party, who for three years dedicated themselves to full-bodied, creative expulsion. Filth was an incessant theme for the Melbourne-born band, their lyrics conjuring lice, rats and swamplands as a young Nick Cave’s howl evolved into offbeat, throbbing chants. Raucous and ritualistic, their performances were at once sites of brutality and absolution, the profane and the sacred sharing a single tract.

Is it possible for the rock documentarian to record excess without confining it? It’s easy to imagine a biographer sifting the debris of punk bacchanalia with gloved hands and discerning eyes, suturing together a coherent story of success. Perhaps this explains why the group’s surviving members had always turned down the prospect of a film, until recently, when they were approached by Ian White, the director of Mutiny in Heaven. Produced by Birthday Party guitarist Mick Harvey, the documentary will be released in Australian cinemas in late October. 

Drawing upon extensive archival material (including interviews, photographs, sketchbooks, studio footage and concert reportage), White’s film is, for the most part, a thrillingly jagged portrait. As his subjects move from Melbourne’s underground to a restless, malnourished London household and, finally, are lured to their demise by Berlin’s avant-garde, White not only embraces his archive’s glut but furthers it, notably by adding a series of animated sequences in the style of German artist Reinhard Kleist (based on his graphic-novelisation of Cave’s life, Mercy on Me). With its lurching form, Mutiny in Heaven homes in on disharmony: whether The Birthday Party’s volatile relationship with critics and audiences, their seesawing days of artistic stupor and surging mania amidst poverty and addiction, or the erratic sprawl of the musicians’ influences, from Plato to Nabokov to Iggy Pop.

White wanted to limit his film’s scope to the band’s brief lifespan, beginning with their high school era as the nascent The Boys Next Door and ending with their dissolution. Striving for immediacy – and in keeping with the band’s reluctance to be claimed by any one scene – Mutiny in Heaven portrays The Birthday Party as neither the tail-end of punk’s reign nor as definitive countercultural trailblazers.

White shows restraint, too, when it comes to the spectre of its members’ future successes, especially Cave’s, avoiding the presumption that the band was simply a playground for burgeoning genius. Rather, the documentary emphasises The Birthday Party’s gripping chemistry, bringing sharp focus to the effervescence of its late members: Rowland S. Howard, the prolific guitarist and singer-songwriter who was lost to liver cancer in 2009, and Pew, the troublemaking romantic who died of a seizure at just 28, upon returning to Australia to become a student of English and philosophy.

The exception to that restraint, though, is the inclusion of previously unseen interviews with Howard, Cave, Harvey and drummer Phill Calvert, recorded by music producer Lindsay Gravina shortly before Howard’s death, which are included as anchor points throughout the documentary. The decision to feature these so prominently undercuts not only the group’s penchant for the convulsive and ephemeral, but their distaste for Rock & Roll Hall of Fame respectability. With its first shots, the film immerses the audience in a live show’s gloom, complete with Cave’s acerbic sermonising (“You’ll know next time not to come up to the front when we play, won’t you?”), but this is soon interrupted by the band’s recollections as sober, civil chroniclers of music history. In a heavy-handed attempt to hide their temporal departure from The Birthday Party’s world, these talking heads are treated with sepia and static. Although these interviews are compelling, White’s reliance on them – at the expense of showcasing unedited live footage – neglects the bracing mystique of the music itself, ultimately giving the impression that the project is caught in purgatory: between the hellish ecstasy of the group’s sound and aura, and the desire to exhume a stubborn legacy.

There’s a similar paradox at work in the film’s animated sequences, which are employed to skirt lost or non-existent footage. They depict a series of outrageous incidents from the band’s life: a narcotic-addled Cave curled up on a baggage inspection bench, or his trousers tearing down the crotch before the band is kicked off the stage at a particularly out-of-control New York show. Turning the band into inky, angular figures, these succeed, on the one hand, in illustrating the humour latent in The Birthday Party’s gothic image. On the other, they lend too lucid a shape to what might be better left as rumour and lore. 

At times, White’s insistence on spasmodically burning through the band’s archive becomes frustrating. We are privy, at one point, to rare footage of the recording of the 1982 album Junkyard, but here Cave’s raw snarl in the studio is hastily replaced by the finally produced track. As photos flit by and songs are sliced into snippets, Mutiny in Heaven certainly amounts to a dynamic audiovisual experience, which draws us into the band’s chaotic ambiance. But rarely are we allowed to dwell. The movie’s frenetic motion fails to capture the inertia also so vital to The Birthday Party: the feeling of being locked into a crowd, the seething isolation of its members or the droning, echoic qualities of their music.

Perhaps the film is most rapturous, then, when it permits a little stagnancy. Most potently, White showcases Pew’s transportive presence by lingering on a performance of “Junkyard” aired on Dutch TV. “He would stand in the middle of the stage, legs astride and […] dominate the whole thing while we would skitter around him,” says Cave. A cowboy hat balances on Pew’s head while his spine tilts backwards, as if he’s doing a slow-motion limbo with an invisible pole. Gaze frozen and hips undulating, his bass omits its perpetual, achy boom.

Indigo Bailey

Indigo Bailey is a Hobart-based writer of fiction and nonfiction, whose work has appeared in Island, Kill Your Darlings and Voiceworks. In 2023, she won the Island Nonfiction Prize.


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