• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The Herbs doco: Tight sound but a loose history lesson

HERBS: SONGS OF FREEDOM
directed by Tearepa Kahi

A documentary on reggae legends Herbs skirts the band’s history, but the music is still sublime.

The best thing in this documentary feature film about the great Pacific reggae band Herbs is that it throws the marvel of their music back at us, a cinema-trembling reminder of what Herbs added to the great New Zealand soundtrack. It reminds us, too, of what freedom fighters they were in their songs.

Like Bob Marley, who inspired them, Herbs filled their seductive, melodic reggae with the politics of the people and of the times – the 1980s – confronting the French over nuclear testing in the Pacific, calling out our cops on race-based harassment, firing shots at apartheid, singing for the downtrodden.

And, all the while, imbuing their music with a cross-cultural spirit that felt like us and sounded, somehow, like the Pacific. The music, in archive and revived, still pulls that magic in Herbs: Songs of Freedom. But when it comes to telling a coherent story, this film is a patchy and sometimes frustrating experience, though sprinkled with some indelible moments.

At times, the film wants to be the story of the band, and at others it weighs in heavily on the tale of the 80s New Zealand protest movement, with reminders of the Polynesian Panthers and some powerful archive from Bastion Pt and the Springbok tour street battles.

Then, stitched through that, it’s a record of a reunion of some of the key Herbs survivors for a 40th anniversary concert. The parts are linked in historical reality, but not nailed together particularly well for the movie.

It might be that, faced with the challenge of a rock-band tale as populous and complex and conflicted as Fleetwood Mac and The Chills combined, the director decided to leave more out of the Herbs story than he put in. Then there’s the problem of the band members and managers interviewed being strangely uncharismatic witnesses to their own past in the interview pieces.

The story is told of the night the band got the break of their lives when they won over a huge crowd in a rain storm at Auckland’s Western Springs, supporting Stevie Wonder and being the only act to show when the weather made the headliner cancel.

But there’s no mention that, in Herbs’ later days, Joe Walsh of the Eagles joined the band for a period, touring and making an album with them. Or of Herbs playing before 10,000 people in Japan, filling a stadium in Fiji and touring Australia with, of all people, Rick Wakeman. And the infamous Queen St riots. Herbs were there. But nothing of that.

And there’s little made of the band’s ongoing loss of key players, though there’s lovely footage of them reunited. Some of the most affecting of it is the most intimate – an acoustic duet between longtime Herbs leader Dilworth Karaka and one of the band’s great songwriters, Tama Lundon.

And guitarist Tama Renata, asked to play something for the camera, rises from his own physical ruin (he died before the film was completed) to play a spellbinding take on Jimi Hendrix’s Angel, fingers flying, voice intact. But those moments are a little few and far between in a film that feels constructed in the edit suite and has the feel of a television doco rather than a big-screen feature.

It has spirit, but there is a great story trying to get out and it’s a pity it doesn’t quite manage to. Though, as mentioned, it does sound terrific.

A former music journalist, Hogg covered Herbs in the band’s 80s and 90s heyday.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.