Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

by deerinthexenonarclights

I have to admit that despite being both a Melbournite and a massive fan of Nick Cave and his consortium of fellow artists I knew next to nothing about Rowland S. Howard going into this documentary. It’s unfortunate then that the film is so abstract in its depiction of the man, because that approach means that I still know almost as little now after it that I did then. It is fitting in a way though that his film should have so little to say about the man, because he was himself a man of not many words, so it only seems fitting that I also keep this review brief.

Of course Howard was only a humble man off-stage, while on it he became something else entirely; it was almost as if he spent his days so deeply reserved within himself as a way of recharging, so that when he finally did release his rage on stage the sound was something akin to Ragnarök. There is no doubt that his stagecraft was something special; the way that he would shred the guitar or sing a song like Shiver is almost supernatural and stays with you, reverbing through your memory long after the song has dissipated. Musically he was a master and his albums, which I have since picked up, are masterpieces; he isn’t, though, that massively interesting a character, or at least this film doesn’t manage to portray him as one.

The opening act of the film, which is organised in chronological order, charts Howard’s time with Cave in both The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party and during this section you would be forgiven for forgetting just who the film was supposed to be focusing on. We follow these bands through their rises and falls and it is fascinating, but in the film like in life Howard is never a major presence. Harvey and Cave both make bigger impressions, in fact Nick’s utter lack of nostalgia for his past behaviour makes me long for his own doco to come along;  so it is somewhat disconcerting when the talking heads all only mention Howard’s talent and revolution when we are actually following the other members much more closely.

From there the film opens into a look at the seventies music scene in Mebourne and eventually the world, with some very interesting and illustrative stories that I for one had never heard anything about. Wim Wenders waxes rhapsodical about the extreme effect that Roland had on German culture during his brief stint there while the exact antithesis occurs in London, a fact that makes the Seeds current residence there seem almost Freudian. The talking heads as a whole are terrific, they are artists all and so they have a way with words, summarising the effect that Howard had on them in a number of varied and very effecting ways, but still we don’t see him. These figures that pass through his life, sometimes briefly, are all more corporeal to us than this terribly enigmatic man.

As he splits from Nick and the band his life literally splinters and the film follows in turn. Each subsequent band, each new splinter, is less fleshed out than the last until eventually they start to flash by almost unrecognizably. Eventually these flashbacks fling us into the current day and we see Roland the family man, Roland the producer, Roland the recovering addict and Roland the success and these vignettes feel almost like they belong to a different film, they have a reality to them that is new, they are I guess the times after he woke up from the dream. Here we finally start to get a sense of S. Howard just as he is ripped away, in one of the subtlest deaths that I’ve ever seen a documentary depict.

So though the film itself is quite nearly as flawed as the man it follows, and from a distance at that, there is still a lot to like about it. Though it only seems to skim over the surface of a lot of these stories they are all so interesting that any glimpse is a good one.  I imagine that those who knew Roland all their lives probably never really knew him, so how can we hold it against the directors for not delivering him whole in under two hours? For all my harping on the matter his off-screen ambiguity really doesn’t mean much because the scenes of him on-stage say so much and these are what stay with you. If the music is good what else really matters?