Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu had no idea who Sting was when the UK superstar invited him to perform a duet on ‘Every Breath You Take’ on a French pop music program. The idea could have been a car crash. As shown in this documentary about the late Yolngu singer, it almost was. And then, suddenly, that quavering, otherworldly voice cuts through, and the studio audience is on its feet.
This is a music documentary where the usual trajectory of rags to riches does not apply. From the opening footage of a painfully shy Gurrumul failing to answer questions during his first interview in 2008, it’s clear the the singer had a different definition of success to his interpreter/collaborator Michael Hohnen and his manager, Mark Grose. Born blind on Elcho Island of the coast of Arnhem Land in 1971, the one-time Yothu Yindi band member seemed to live his life with one foot in the spirit world of his ancestors; his piercingly beautiful voice resonated around the world precisely because it seemed to be channelling something eternal.
The death of Dr Yunupingu at the age of 46 on the eve of this film’s premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2017 meant that it could only be screened at that event with special permission from elders. Now, permission has been granted to release the documentary commercially, and while images of the deceased may be a taboo for many Indigenous Australians the fact Gurrumul is no longer with us gives the film an added shiver of poignancy. Death, indeed, is the recurring theme of Paul Damien Williams’ documentary: the singer buries both of his parents in the course of the film and seems acutely aware of his own mortality.
If Gurrumul remains a bit of a mystery to outside observers the film is nonetheless fascinating for portraying the way the music business scurried to accommodate a uniquely difficult talent. To watch Grose’s dreams of conquering America evaporate due to his client's truency will strike a dagger in the heart of anyone who has ever staked their career on someone else’s. Ultimately, however, this is a shimmering tribute to an amazing singer, a quiet genius who was never equipped for stardom but whose small recorded output we are enormously lucky to retain.