Swagger of Thieves – movie review

by Russell Baillie / 19 May, 2018

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Head Like A Hole documentary Swagger of Thieves offers more than noisy nostalgia. 

Rockumentaries face an inevitable comparison with the genre’s parody blueprint, This is Spinal Tap. Swagger of Thieves, a fascinating jumble of a retrospective on Head Like A Hole, the band that erupted out of Wellington in the early 90s alongside Shihad, certainly earns its own.

After all, they’re a band with two Nigels: guitarist Nigel Regan and voluble frontman Nigel “Booga” Beazley. Tap had only one, guitarist Nigel Tufnel. In a famous scene in the 1984 movie he twiddled some knobs. The HLAH doco has Regan whirling his about, flashing the audience from behind his instrument. It was that balls-out live act that got them noticed, at a time when late-80s speed metal and the sludgy punk of grunge inspired a new generation of local guitar bands. HLAH embraced all that. It made for messy early albums but enjoyably bonkers shows.

Ah, the good old days. Many a Kiwi rockumentary has pined for them. Swagger of Thieves, however, is, like the Shihad doco Beautiful Machine, something more than noisy nostalgia.

It tells a compelling tale of a band falling apart, more than once. As well, it’s a confronting study of drug addiction and the self-centredness, self-delusion and fragile egos of musicians.

Director Julian Boshier has filmed the group over the years. His approach largely assumes viewers know of them, too. His relationship meant the Nigels let him film them shooting up on the group’s late-1990s farewell tour. It’s the film’s most disconcerting scene. He also filmed the pair’s arrest on drug matters in Christchurch. Their habits, which developed despite the 1996 overdose death of manager Gerald Dwyer, pull the band apart.

In mitigation, Beazley says the group played some of their best shows when he was “tanked”. Former bandmates, bassist Andrew Durno and guitarist Tom Watson, recount the despair of playing with a pair of junkies who spent thousands of dollars of band money on smack.

More recent scenes have Beazley and Regan discussing life on methadone. Not for this film a happily-ever-after rehab epilogue. There are contemporary scenes of Beazley, tolerant wife Tamzin and their twins at home on the Kapiti Coast. It suggests them as the Otaki Osbournes.

The film’s chief relationship focus, though, is on Regan and Beazley, who were private-school chums before they were bandmates. The pair remain the shaky heart of the HLAH operation.

Early post-reunion scenes find Beazley stuck in hospital suffering from a foot infection due to a “self-inflicted needle wound” then undergoing an angiogram. Cut to a gaunt Regan ruing his mate’s tour-postponing ill-health as part of the curse upon his band.

He opines that HLAH could have gone overseas and sold millions but for a few “poor decisions”. Whether they actually had the songs to do that with – their zany metal beginnings gave way to a more sedate pace over the years – isn’t up for discussion.

The doco does suffer from a haphazard structure, which makes for a confusing chronology. Even with the occasional date-and-place annotations, it requires keeping track of haircuts, beard length, waistlines and cheekbones to guess what year it is or what crummy venue the band are backstage at.

The final scene has them at the 2012 New Zealand Music Awards where their post-reunion comeback effort Blood Will Out was nominated for best rock album. It lost. Beazley, so sure of victory he’s come dressed as a rock Viking, heckles the winners.

It’s a sour ending to an unflattering portrait, though one that stokes the band’s legend as its participants might have hoped. Old fans should lap it up. But even they will find, as it was with Spinal Tap, that rock’n’roll ridiculousness wins over music.

Video: NZ International Film Festival

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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