The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps
published: 24 /
Dastardly attends the premiere of a frank but endearing new documentary about New Zealand band The Chills and their frontman Martin Phillipps
Some bands you instinctively want to find out about. Maybe it's just the name that intrigues or a comment someone might have thrown in your direction that you dutifully filed in the 'must investigate' folder. Or maybe you're just picking up on the ripples ahead spilling out in all quantum directions both forward and back.
As I was walking up to the film preview at the London Curzon - late as usual - I remember I was full of anticipation to find out more about New Zealand’s cult band The Chills. At the same time thinking, why has someone made a documentary about them? What was their world breaking hit song? I knew even less about them than I imagined...
Thankfully the film was scheduled to start a few minutes after I arrived so the gods of timekeeping were on my side for once, plus a few familiar faces were there at the bar. The omens were good. The documentary starts innocently enough...we see Chills main man and serial hoarder, Martin Phillipps pottering around his house full of charity shop debris, like a child's bedroom just bigger and with more rooms, more shelves, more plastic storage boxes, holdalls, cardboard boxes and bin bags all full of life's detritus. The undetected washing machine tissue clinging desperately to the black jumper.
Martin, we learn, is clearing out the debris to make a new start and also to select items for an upcoming exhibition of his artworks and Chills paraphernalia in his hometown, Dunedin on New Zealand's south island. As he talks us through his various mementoes he starts to remind me of Murray, the band manager from 'Flight of the Conchords'. "This is my blowfish lamp" I think he said at one point "I didn't actually make it. I just put the shade with it.2 Deadpan. Comical.
Soon however, things get serious. The making of the documentary co-incides with some stark news from the hospital...Martin's liver is shot and without a complete turnaround in his lifestyle he won't make the end of the year or maybe even the end of his own documentary. From then on the film becomes a human story as much as the portrayal of a songwriter.
And what a songwriter. The hushed vibrating chords of 'Pink Frost' fill the screen. "How come I've been unaware of this song for the last thirty-five years?" I think to myself. Oh well, better late than never. The guitar lines seem to capture the essence of the landscape and climate. It feels like a journey into a forest...it feels like getting lost. It's an extraordinary, haunting piece of music. We learn that the drummer from this early version of the band died shortly after the song was released and this strikes a chord for the whole story of the band to come. For every breakthrough another step back...across four decades, through 30+ different band members, numerous record deals, tours around the world, albums made in big studios in America with unsuitable producers, car crashes and drug addiction. Success always one step ahead.
Then 'Heavenly Pop Hit' from 1990’s ‘Submarine Bells’ blasts out the speakers:
"Each evening the sun sets in five billion places,
Seen by ten billion eyes set in five billion faces"
Hold on...I don't think I know this one either. I definitely should know this song.. This song wasn't a hit, you say? Are you sure?? I mean it's literally overflowing with Brian Wilson...It's euphoria bottled. Now I know why I'm here tonight.
Back at Martin’s house he’s outside the back door with a spray can and some mummified cats nailed to wooden boards working on another artwork for the exhibition. Today is a special day we learn – he’s finally sourced a cat that died lying on it’s right side, rather than the usual left, in order to complete a crucifix style artwork he's been working on. He titles it ‘Truth & Claw’. "Umm, okayyy..." the audience collectively says under its breath. Martin is a kind of living talking comic strip and one that further visits to the hospital reveal might not have many issues left.
To report how the documentary ends wouldn’t be fair. The way it's been put together is an artwork in itself and I wouldn't want to spoil any of it's impact. I just know I walked away from the Curzon knowing all about The Chills and their enduring music. I knew why they made the documentary. I knew at least two of their world breaking songs.
Play in YouTube:-
Have a Listen:-