I hope there's a Mutiny in Heaven at my Birthday Party
What on earth does that mean? Well, if you're a sucker for gloomy, angry, impulsive high-energy art rock like I am, then that sentence might well parse into something comprehensible. The title here refers to "Mutiny in Heaven," a song by post-punk darlings The Birthday Party, weirdo rock pioneer Nick Cave's first band. Many familiar with Cave's film scores or his later, sweeping melancholic Bad Seeds work might be surprised to see the seminal singer slamming himself onto the floor, tying the microphone cord around an audience member's neck and screaming, occasionally rhythmically, throughout. It might be even more surprising to find the whole experience pleasurable.
The Birthday Party was planted in Melbourne in the late 70s, sprouted up in the harsh English sun in the early 80s and bore highly aberrant Berliner fruit a few years later. If you haven't had the pleasure of hearing these freaks, check out the album Junkyard or spazz out to Prayers on Fire. And afterward, if you found yourself searching for just a little bit more output after burning through their four albums and Nick Cave's 11 studio albums, 6 books, countless documentaries, acting roles, singles and side projects, then this may just be the piece for you.
Ian White's documentary Mutiny in Heaven is a frenetic love letter to one of the zaniest bands of all time. Co-produced by The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds' own Mick Harvey, the film offers an excellent overview of the story of the only Birthday Party that I've ever really wanted to be invited to. From rise to recording to petty grievance to shifting about and cutting out members to ultimate disbandment, Mutiny has it all. This is no five-paragraph essay documentary, though. While it follows a straightforward narrative, White, with varying outcomes, matches the energy of the band in its heyday. Choppy, spazzy, pent-up energy emanates from the screen throughout the film. Yes, like a Nick Cave song, there's a story in there, but the half of it is told in pure style. Jolting edits and gritty overlays try to give the audience the feeling of being in the front row, or peering out over the rim of the squat bathtub. Sometimes, it's just like being there, other times, the effects come off as a little dated, though they are executed well. None of this detracts from the genuinely fun, spastic bolt of adrenaline that Mutiny pours out and chases with a bit of an obituary feeling.
Of course, Nick Cave's presence is a delight. I wonder what Faustian bargain he arranged to move and write like an unholy conduit. Or, as Cave puts it, "God was talking not just to me, but through me. And his breath stank". The rest of the band matches in turn Rowland Howard's glowering and Tracey Pew's gyrating are nice compliments to Cave's bolting across the stage. If mothers in the 50s thought Elvis' pelvis was scandalous, they'd burn their televisions if they saw what John Peel was presenting just a few decades later. The footage, the story, and priceless insights from the band make this film a worthy addition to the cannon of punk rock doc, right down to animation incorporation, following Jim Jarmusch's Gimme Danger and Brett Morgen's Montage of Heck.
Try Mutiny, go directly to heaven, do not pass go.