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

by Russell Baillie / 01 May, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - The Chills Martin Phillipps

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.

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.

IN CINEMAS FROM MAY 2

★★★★

Video: Madman Films

Thumbnail photo: Frans Schellekens/Supplied

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

Latest

Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the need for nationhood
105738 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z History

Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the need fo…

by Andrew Anthony

Jared Diamond’s new book about empowering national identity to respond to crises is bound to tip off yet another controversy, but...

Read more
Jared Diamond: Finland shows how nations can survive adversity and thrive
105744 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z History

Jared Diamond: Finland shows how nations can survi…

by Jared Diamond

Today, Finland is one of the world’s richest countries, but it’s had to fight for it, as this edited extract from historian Jared Diamond’s new...

Read more
Musician Warren Maxwell returns to his roots to connect Wairarapa Māori
105544 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Music

Musician Warren Maxwell returns to his roots to co…

by Sarah Catherall

Trinity Roots frontman Warren Maxwell is laying down history, recording 25 waiata composed and sung by Wairarapa Māori.

Read more
George Clooney is the driving force behind a new adaptation of Catch-22
105911 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Television

George Clooney is the driving force behind a new a…

by Fiona Rae

World War II-era Catch-22 swings from drama to comedy as John Yossarian slowly loses his mind.

Read more
How to listen to your body's cues for the optimal time to eat
105454 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to listen to your body's cues for the optimal…

by Jennifer Bowden

Your body tells you when it wants food, so you just need to listen.

Read more
Why Te Papa's latest shake-up is raising alarm among experts
105796 2019-05-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

Why Te Papa's latest shake-up is raising alarm amo…

by Sally Blundell

Te Papa’s new nature zone is just one of the big shake-ups at the national museum. Another involves restructuring that some experts warn will...

Read more
MMA fighter Shane Young is on a mission to fight bullying and toxic masculinity
105994 2019-05-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

MMA fighter Shane Young is on a mission to fight b…

by Noted

Napier-born Shane Young is calling out the idea that sharing your emotions is weak.

Read more
The 'Christchurch Call' is just a start. Now we need to push for systemic change
106007 2019-05-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

The 'Christchurch Call' is just a start. Now we ne…

by Kevin Veale

A great deal of evidence suggests that algorithms designed in pursuit of profit are also fuelling radicalisation towards white supremacy.

Read more