The power of music in film


Music and cinema go hand-in-hand. Taking place at the Australian Cinémathèque at GOMA (2 September to 2 October 2016) Get What You Want: Music Cinema is a carefully curated selection of documentary and fiction films concerned with different genres. It will display the importance and impact of music in cinema, and attempt to communicate the power it has to deeply affect the listener and musician alike.

QAGOMA curator Peter McKay put the program together, and answered some questions for scenestr about what to expect at ‘Get What You Want: Music Cinema’.

BLOG_Amy Winehouse
Amy 2015 MA15+

Amy is a detailed and sympathetic study of the charisma, controversy and talent that drove the late superstar Amy Winehouse. Filled with archival footage that reveals the brutal scrutiny that celebrities are subject to nowadays, the film is layered with Winehouse’s own feelings on her success and struggles.

Scenestr | What is the purpose of an event like ‘Get What You Want: Music Cinema’?

Peter McKay | What I wanted to do with this program was to give an opportunity for audiences to introduce themselves to different kinds of music, and also their contextual cultures, looking to cinema to provide de facto ‘scene’ studies.

I’m interested in the way music lowers inhibitions and I think that makes for compelling viewing. But I am also interested in that contradiction in that music draws crowds together to share an aesthetic experience, but often the crowds that go to different concerts are divided along lines of genre or culture.

As a group I think these films draw a good outline of the way the artists, audiences, labels, media and retailers all coexist and demonstrate some of the history, commonality and contrast across the art form – and hopefully for the brave it breaks down some of the barriers that exist between musical styles.

Scenestr | There are films from the ’80s to this year… how important was it to show a wide range of examples?

Peter McKay | Yes very important. I remember when Ice-T released the first Body Count album that was controversial for so many reasons. What I found memorable about the event was that a lot of people criticised him for doing this thrash hardcore punk thing after he had become a rap icon. He said so calmly and simply that he felt sorry for people that only listen to one kind of music. While I have my areas of interest I have to agree with Ice-T; why would you impose limits on yourself in this way?

But I guess I am also conscious of the industry tendencies to direct audiences into ‘consuming’ certain albums or ‘products’. As record stores have closed down and radio stations have been mainstreamed it seems like you really have to work harder to expand your musical horizons. Even the web, as great a resource as it is, it is easy to become bubbled in your searches and only find the same kind of stuff unless you actively search for different sounds.

Scenestr | As the curator for this program, what was the most difficult part of the selection?

Peter McKay | I like to cast a really wide net when I start a project, even if that research isn’t directly present in the final program or exhibition I think it often informs my choices. So the process was to spend a lot of time clicking through IMDB and other specific cinema databases and then watch as many films as I could over 4-5 months. I am pretty sure I gained a couple of kilos. Looking at all these films took me to some really unusual and experimental practices which aren’t necessarily in ‘Get What You Want: Music Cinema’, but hopefully some of that knowledge will come out in future programming. Cutting it down to 28 films was hard, but it has kept the group tight. Basically I looked for a balance of musical genres, styles of filmmaking, breadth of experiences being represented, current releases and classics.

Maestro 2003 M

Maestro describes the authentic and generous club scene of 1970s New York that was the precursor to today’s thriving international dance music culture. Crafted from lo-fi archival material and new interviews, this insightful documentary honours the work of the most innovative DJs of the era and their remarkably community oriented clubs.

Scenestr | What was the easiest?

Peter McKay | Including Maestro. It’s a really low budget film with sketchy handicam footage that I had been intending to watch for years. When I finally watched it for this program I was blown away by the innovation and generosity that was integral to the 1970s club scene. The disco and house music that emerged particularly from New York and Chicago at that time has left a huge legacy to hip hop and EDM which is under-acknowledged, and the utopian sensibility the club owners, DJs and revellers had looks very special to my eyes today.

Scenestr | What is your favourite film from the selection, and why?

Peter McKay | That’s a tough question because I like them all for very different reasons. Anvil: The Story of Anvil has stayed with me because of the character and commitment of the Anvil band members. You don’t have to like metal to appreciate the belief they have in their music and each other. As a band they had such unforgiving experiences touring and recording – experiences that would have torn apart other bands – but they persevered and prevailed which makes their eventual recognition is so poignant.

BLOG_Anvil The Story of Anvil
Anvil: The Story of Anvil 2008 M

Anvil: The Story of Anvil captures the extraordinary commitment of the Anvil band members to heavy metal and to their enduring friendships — both of which continue many albums, concerts and years after most would give up. An energetic, endearing and emotional insight into an unforgiving industry, this documentary provides phenomenal lesson in perseverance.

Scenestr | Why do you think music can so powerfully communicate so much?

Peter McKay | Well, my own subjective and non-expert opinion would be that combination of rhythm and melody. Beats keep you locked in time, nodding your head in time is a bit like mild hypnosis or meditation perhaps. Then melody brings something intellectual or emotive to relate to in this receptive state. Music can be a powerful and transformative experience that doesn’t require a lot of extra knowledge to appreciate because it is in some part abstract and pattern based. Fast music can be energising, slow music can be calming, but more to the point there is a kind of transmission of energy that occurs between musician and audience, and I guess with a good crowd the reverse too. Who doesn’t want that kind of stimulus? Combine that with good lyrics and you couldn’t ask for much more.

Scenestr | The films underline the idea that music ‘can enrich our identities and transform the listener into somebody they want to be’… How is this idea represented in the program?

Peter McKay | That line speaks to the notion that the music we love can become the soundtrack to certain moments in our lives – and that by listening to certain songs later on we can be transported back to these moments and reminded of who have been at different times. Of course listeners also gravitate to the music that somehow stirs or strengthens their sense of identity – of what they are about as an individual, and as a part of a group too. It’s also a nod to the poem by William Holmes Borders and popularised many musicians from James Brown and the J.B.s to Public Enemy and a host of others. ‘I Am – Somebody’ the poem has been a powerful affirmation of self-worth since the 1970s, a poem that is frequently referenced and remixed but probably under recognised in its origins and significance.

Scenestr | What are you hoping people gain or learn from this program?

Peter McKay | If ‘Get What You Want’ kindles a new interest in music from even just a handful of people I’ll be happy. I might be setting the target low, but at the end of the day cultural appreciation and participation is what all my work is about.


Get What You Want is presented in partnership with Brisbane Festival at the
Australian Cinémathèque, GOMA
2 September to 2 October 2016
Cinema tickets: adults $10.50, concession $8.50 and Gallery members $7.50. 
A five-film discount is available at the Cinémathèque Box Office.

The Decline of Western Civilisation 1981
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains 1982
Purple Rain 1984
The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II: The Metal Years 1988
In Bed with Madonna 1991
Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music 2000
Wave Twisters 2001
Maestro 2003
DIG! 2004
Awesome; I… Shot That! 2006
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing 2006
Rock the Bells 2006
Anvil: The Story of Anvil 2008
The Carter 2009
Nine Muses of Star Empire 2012
Charles Bradley: Soul of America 2012
Death Metal Angola 2012
Marley 2012
All Ears: A Glimpse into the Los Angeles Beat Community 2013
The Punk Singer 2013
Inside Llewyn Davis 2013
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records 2013
20,000 Days on Earth 2014
Shake the Dust 2014
Cobain: Montage of Heck 2015
Amy 2015
Strike a Pose 2016
Miles Ahead 2016

As part of the Brisbane Festival see two fairy tale adaptations of Snow White. Join acclaimed pianist Mauro Colombis as he accompanies the silent film Snow White 1916 followed by the screening of Disney’s iconic feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937.

Australian Cinémathèque
GOMA is the only Australian art gallery with purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image and offers a rare opportunity to see films presented on the big screen as they were intended, and features many 35mm prints sourced from film archives around the world and screened in one of Australia’s last 35mm film venues.