“Working Class Boy” (2018)

Documentary

Running Time: 104 minutes

Directed by: Mark Joffe

Featuring: Jimmy Barnes, Diesel, Ian Moss, Mahalia Barnes and David Campbell

Jimmy Barnes:“I was born James Dixon Swan. This is the story of how I became Jimmy Barnes.”

This week marks the release of the Jimmy Barnes documentary “Working Class Boy” (2018) based on his own autobiography as well as a successful stage show which is exactly what this movie feels like, interspersed with musical performances by Jimmy Barnes as well as his talented daughter, Mahalia and son David Campbell.

This really is a mixed bag at best with a strung together narrative that more or less tells a seemingly truncated story of how the young boy grew up to become who he did. However who that person was is really only hinted at by Barnes and a few others, never really getting to the bottom of either Barnes persona.

The best aspects of this documentary are the return to Barnes’ Scottish roots, his arrival in Adelaide and all that entailed as well as the music itself which is carried out only adequately. Taking all this into account it seems like we only lightly touch on his life which has been covered in a rather shallow haphazard way by director Mark Joffe. Documentaries work best, in particular documentaries about famous people, in this case a singer when we learn new important aspects of their lives, which we do, when it is carried out in an original way, as well as being shown to an audience in an in depth way, I felt like there was too much being thrown onscreen at once, never really going in depth on any one part, this was a huge missed opportunity. 

After viewing “Working Class Boy” I had to ask myself the question, did I enjoy what I just watched, did I care about it and where does Barnes fit into how I feel about music as well as his place in my listening habits. I have seen Barnes live in the not to distant past when he supported Bruce Springsteen on his last tour to New Zealand, and did not really enjoy his set, partly because of the type of venue but also it seemed like he had aged and his voice was not great. After watching this movie though I realised how good his voice still is, not only that but I would probably pay to see him by himself in a smaller venue. The other issue is that Jimmy Barnes in my mind is not the most eloquent of speakers so this was a hurdle in the movie as well; he seems to have to force openness in front of the camera, more so than his wife or others in his life. The other aspect is that Barnes, or for that matter his band ‘Cold Chisel’ were not only never that important to me but in the scheme of Australian music have not in my mind aged that well, are not as relevant as other acts from that time period, were always working class, never really appealing to a larger audience which helps explain their eventual break up as well as Barnes own declining career at the end of the 1990s. 

Producing a documentary about one person can be difficult especially when that person has control over what is covered, as well as what is put onscreen. If one wondered how much control the director, Mark Joffe had over the movie, then you need only look at one of the extra features on the DVD/Blu-ray, a Q & A session at the movies premiere. Simply put without the cooperation of Jimmy Barnes this movie would not exist, so as a director you really need to get what you can, then see if a narrative can be put together that makes sense. In this case it is obvious that Barnes would open up to a point, but then go no further, so while we get tantalising glimpses into elements of his early life there remains a large amount of unanswered questions as well as holes that are never completely filled. Likewise the almost complete absence of Barnes’ musical career seems unforgiveable as does the explanation to any real extent of his stage persona, the issues he had in his band as well as in his solo career not to mention any real mention of his lack of song writing in his biggest hits. 

I did enjoy this documentary but I really cannot help but think there is a larger story here, maybe not miniseries with a narrative but a definite six episodes that could have commenced at birth and moved right through to Barnes publishing his biography. There is so much story and some of the best documentaries about musical artists are on television, the two that immediately come to mind is the absolutely great Peter Bogdanovich directed “Runnin’ Down A Dream” (2007) which lasts four hours and the Martin Scorsese directed “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” (2005) which lasts six hours. This documentary does not last much longer than an hour and a half which for an artist that looms so large in Australia’s music history is a crime no doubt about it. 

Not that I want to compare appples to oranges but picking a narrative strand would have been a bit clearer as well, either have the entire piece as a performance of Barnes in front of an audience performing his one man show, with musical interludes. If not that then a proper following Barnes with more footage from him growing up, a lot more interviews with many more people from his life, especially his family as well as the musical performances. 

I can recommend this documentary but mainly due to the music which is very good as well as the bright spot behind this mixed up movie.

Working Class Boy is a 2018 Australian documentary film about the life of Jimmy Barnes, based on the 2016 memoir of the same name. The film looks on one of Australia’s most legendary and iconic artists; his traumatic childhood, fuelled with domestic violence, poverty and alcoholism and his evolution from James Dixon Swan to Jimmy Barnes.

Special Features:

– Never before seen footage (6 videos)
– International Melbourne Film Festival Q&A with Jimmy Barnes and Mark Joffe
– Directors commentary by Mark Joffe with story producer Francine Finnanne

Soundtrack:

Around the World

The Lion Sleeps Tonight (featuring Mahalia Barnes) 

Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father (featuring Australian Chamber Orchestra)

Dark End of the Street

A Fool in Love (featuring Mahalia Barnes) 

The Upper Room

When the War Is Over

Still Got a Long Way to Go (featuring Diesel) 


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