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Braving The Chills: Film on Dunedin sound pioneer Martin Phillipps packs a punch

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps
directed by Julia Parnell

Rockumentary goes beyond rudimentary as it charts the songwriter’s life and career.

There are moments in this unsettling, brave and absorbing documentary about the long and haphazard life of The Chills that make you think there’s a spinoff lifestyle show in here somewhere. “Tidying Up with Martin Phillipps”, perhaps.

The film spends much of its time in the Dunedin home of the man who’s been head Chill for nearly 40 years, observing his Herculean attempt to declutter the stuff – toys mainly – he has collected over a lifetime. He says it’s all part of a need to put his life in order. There are many things that no longer bring him joy. Some were never meant to. Late in the piece, he digs out the hypodermic kit from his time on a methadone programme that helped him kick the drug habit that put his life at risk. His treatment for hepatitis C, contracted from being pricked by a used needle carelessly discarded by a fellow user, forms a major thread of the doco.

With a camera following him to his clinic appointments and observing him as he gets good and bad news, it gives the movie an emotional punch you wouldn’t normally expect of just another local rockumentary. Director Julia Parnell has done a few of those, and good ones, too, for the small screen. Her feature debut here is even more impressive, with a portrait of Phillipps showing him as vulnerable, haunted, regretful and still clinging to his tattered musical dreams.

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Inevitably, the film addresses the band’s legendary staff turnover, with membership of the ex-Chills club now standing at 25 or so. Understandably, not many of those get a say. But those who do create an unflattering picture of the younger Phillipps as self-centred, unable to share creative control or return the loyalty they showed him as the band attempted again and again to crack it in the Northern Hemisphere.

There’s a captivating mix of insight and still-bruised feelings from musicians such as Terry Moore, Justin Harwood, Caroline Easther and James Stephenson and former UK manager Craig Taylor. You can’t help but feel for Stephenson when he talks emotively about having been recruited as a gifted teenage drummer into the band in the time of their first great album, Submarine Bells, only to get the boot during the troubled recording of its follow-up, Soft Bomb.

Talking of records, if there’s something missing in this music doco it is that, although it offers a solid history of the band and plenty of old live footage, it’s not much interested in examining why The Chills sounded like they did. Yes, they emerged in Dunedin’s vibrant post-punk era, but their first hit was the psychedelic daydream Kaleidoscope World and, ever since, Phillipps’ music has existed in its own pop twilight zone, unaffected by passing fashion. Why that is, you won’t find out here.

Still, it’s intriguing to watch Phillipps go from wide-eyed, moptop teen, to Flying Nun’s great white hope, to his present role as the middle-aged leader of a stable line-up of relative youngsters who, in recent years, have backed him on two of The Chills’ most accomplished albums.

It’s also a disarming study of how life as a rock musician can offer a protracted adolescence and of a man, who describes himself as “a strange kind of grown-up”, doing his best to put away childish things.



Video: Madman Films

Thumbnail photo: Frans Schellekens/Supplied

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.