Doc about Australian guitarist hits Market Street Cinema
In 1977 musician Rowland S. Howard was interviewed by the press about the rise of punk-influenced music in Australia. At 17 he had formed the Young Charlatans, a tenacious group rooted in mournful material that would achieve short-lived local fame. When asked by a reporter about what his band represents, Howard – his hair spiked, his smile demure – simply states The Young Charlatans are “much more about ideas” than anything else. It is in this fashion that filmmakers Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn created “Autoluminescent,” a 2010 documentary about Howard that’s hitting Market Street Cinema this month.
Howard is perhaps best known for his collaborations with music icon Nick Cave, and it is safe to assume most Americans wouldn’t bat an eye at the mention of his name. But the late songwriter – who recently had an avenue named after him in his home country of Australia – is revered for his dissonant guitar work and lyrical contributions to the Birthday Party, Crime & the City Solution, and These Immortal Souls, all of which provided influence in the wake of the post-punk, alt-country and apocalyptic folk genres. But like most music documentaries, “Autoluminescent” aims to get beyond the version of Howard seen by many of his casual admirers.
At face value, Howard dons the garb of a morose type. His ashen, feminine face only furthers the sense of brokenness found in a number of his songs, many of which are about unrequited love or dreams gone unrealized. But while the late songwriter seems like a wilting flower in his most sensitive moments, the posthumous tales told by friends and former bandmates paint a picture of a stronger, talented individual – a persona no doubt felt by his fans, especially through last-call interviews and material from “Pop Crimes,” the album Howard completed shortly before his death.
One noted difference between the structure of “Autoluminescent” and other music documentaries is the persistence of narrative. Instead of throwing biography at the viewer for the sake of digestion, Lowenstein relies on first-person accounts and a collection of passages – most of which were written by Howard himself – to piece the film together. There is no attempt to make the songwriter appear messianic or holy, as many anecdotes reveal a sometimes shallow and extremely particular individual. This humanity hardly detracts from his talent; in fact, it makes his presence seem all the more permanent.
“Autoluminescent’s” takeaway is original and rewarding: despite a lower-class life of failed romances, heroin addiction and friendship in turmoil, Howard stands as a tragic but resilient figure in post-punk history. The vices do not make the man; the man only sticks to them for comfort.
“Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard” will be shown Monday, Oct. 21 at Market Street Cinema as part of the GATHR Preview series.
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