The Australian pub rock scene in the 1980′s still had a purity about it as it wasn’t tarnished by the feeling that it was just a stepping stone to something bigger, like an artistic version of reserve grade. It was the something bigger. Bands like Cold Chisel, the Angels, the Hunners, Oz Crawl owned the pub scene and that was enough. And, in that world, the Sunnyboys were definitely up there.
Their music surged along on a classic four-piece garage sound, evoking 60′s surf music and soaked in the sweaty, sticky-floored pub scene into which it fit snugly. All jangly and frenetic, pogo-dance friendly and littered with Jeremy Oxley’s teen angst shadowed lyrics, the Sunnyboys wrote the sound track for many a uni toga party and for countless late nights lost in the thrum of a Marshall stack pounding the walls of any one of a million boozy, Winfield-smoky, toilet-sized pubs in the ‘burbs.
Days they were. But they are no more and the Sunnyboys, like many a legend from those days, never made it out of the maze of Euro-pop synth that sprung up around them. So be it. But, as we’ve seen too with The Angels’ Doc Neeson, rock star burn-out is real, and there’s a compelling personal story, a struggle with oneself and the wider world to be told.
The band’s singer and lead songwriter Jeremy Oxley is the subject of The Sunnyboy and in that, it is a study into what is branded as mental illness, Oxley’s that is. It is well documented that Oxley has wrestled with the demons of insanity for some decades and perhaps with the fading of his rock star livery. It emerges he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that this manifests into delusions and hearing voices. He also has diabetes and an irregular heart-beat. The film’s title becomes ironic.
Clearly an authorised version of his story, Oxley’s voice is present throughout. At times, that voice is narky, annoying, sweet, confused and poetically lucid. Most of all, it’s defiant. This is a guy who shot bullet holes his gold record, then framed it. There’s a lot of wheels turning in that bull head.
But Oxley’s unwillingness to be boxed by diagnosis becomes a kind of question mark dangling like a hook in the film; is it denial or is he not really mad at all?
If Jeremy Oxley didn’t want his art to be industrialised, became disillusioned and bored and moved on into middle age, drinking and falling apart, is that mental illness? Can a diagnosis inform behaviour, can it become self-fulfilling? Is his a good fight, or is it just making the job of those around him to get him to find the core of himself again much harder? Is he a dickhead or a genius? Is he sick or just confused?
Such a tension, planned or not, adds to The Sunnyboy’s power. This is a study of a man who found success in his field perhaps too young and who was, it seems, ill-equipped to face its consequences. Like Icarus, he got burned for his efforts. Or he burned himself, drenched in alcohol and rough living.
As an artist it seems he was shocked at how the industry worked and he cadged against his creations being sullied by the business monster they spawned. But, as a person, something deeper seems to exist. A brilliant grommet surfer, winner of a national schoolboy title, success seemed to come easy to Jeremy Oxley. Maybe too easy. He seemed to question its providence, its intentions, not to trust it. It’s a common enough view for those of us from modest backgrounds: why me?
Shimmering just behind the light of The Sunnyboy are the deeper implications of Jeremy’s relationship with his brother Peter – the band’s bass player. These are hugely complex and multi-layered. There’s some kind of love/hate thing going there between them, and for Jeremy, Peter comes across as both his nemesis and his best friend. They are, in effect, like two parts of the one mind, struggling to find a path through the labyrinths of their shared genes.
Director Kaye Harrison seems willing to allow the bigger questions of Jeremy’s and Peter’s relationship to remain implied, and it’s a little disappointing it isn’t further explored. It is as if the darker, more jagged truths that lie on the path between Jeremy and Peter are folded into an explain-all term like “mental illness”, to be solved with needles in the butt every two weeks and a label around Jeremy Oxley’s neck. It seems like there must have been something, somewhere that may give a clue to just what is going on between Jeremy and Peter beyond Jeremy’s own journey. Perhaps it was found, but it was too painful or personal to include. Either way, a mystery remains at the heart of The Sunnyboy.
There’s a lot to like in The Sunnyboy. The producers have clearly approached this project with sensitivity and delicacy. Oxley is given room to create himself in the eyes of the viewers and he seems to relish the opportunity to both antagonise and charm us. Those around him speak openly, honestly and emotionally about being in his turbulent orbit. This is a troubling story of a man suffering, a story made more poignant against the measurement of just how far he has fallen. It’s also the story of mental illness, the cruelty of its punishing arc, and its many shades of black.
Title – The Sunnyboy
Makers – Treehouse Productions and Jotz Productions
How to Catch it – MIFF 2013, August 9 and 11. Further distribution TBA
Couch Time – 90 Mins.
High Point – A complex character study of a compelling subject
Low Point – Perhaps misses an opportunity to dig deeper