In a strictly biographical sense, the film omits a lot from the life of G G Yunupingu. Paul Williams, the director, leaves many stories untold or half told, such as why the singer failed to turn up at Darwin airport on the day he was supposed to depart on his first American tour. Instead, he cuts to the initiation ceremony on Elcho Island of one of the singer's young relatives. Point taken. We don't hear anything about his controversial death, his liver and kidney disease, or the fact that he had Hepatitis B as a kid. Nor that he disliked dialysis treatments so much that he would sometimes hide, rather than go.
I'm guessing this oblique story-telling is an attempt to approximate the Yolgnu way of looking at the world. That's a risky approach for a white film-maker from Melbourne – but Paul Williams has paid his dues. He had spent five years making films in remote Aboriginal communities before starting on this film. He went north to work as clip-maker for SkinnyFish Music, a company set up by Mark Grose to record and promote Aboriginal music.
Grose had become Gurrumul's manager and minder after two decades working in remote communities. Michael Hohnen, a double bass player, became Gurrumul's closest musical collaborator as the singer went solo, after years in Yothu Yindi and the Saltwater Band. The film revolves around the relationship between Grose, Hohnen and Yunupingu – all three of whom are credited as co-producers. That effectively means they were also the gatekeepers, which might also explain some of the omissions.
In a wider sense, those don't really matter. Anyone who wants more facts can do their own reading. What the film does is take us into the other senses, particularly sight and sound. There are a number of blackouts where we are forced to imagine what blindness is like. Those sequences reinforce the need to listen hard, and at the level of sound, the film is beyond rich: not just hearing Gurrumul's voice in its full beauty, but in the score that accompanies the many sequences of singing and dancing on Elcho Island. Hohnen, Gurrumul and composer Errki Veltheim share the score credit.
Without quite saying it, the film makes us feel how strong that culture is on Elcho Island, and how difficult it was for Gurrumul to leave it. We meet his parents and relatives and get some idea of the closeness of bonds within his two different clans. Other films have tried to tell us about such things in Aboriginal culture. This one just tries to show it and that's a kind of breakthrough. I felt the film in my bones, more than my brain.
It's also rare that a film respects the music, as much as the story. The sequences of Gurrumul working in studio with Hohnen and Veltheim, basing songs on traditional themes and totems, are simply sublime. They make the singer's death at 46 seem that much more tragic. One cannot watch this film and not ask the question: what might he have accomplished with better access to health care?