The sounds of Aotearoa – a New Zealand Music Month playlist

Aldous Harding, Neil Finn, Reb Fountain

It’s the final few days of New Zealand Music Month, an annual celebration of all that makes Aotearoa music great. 

I’ve lived here more than 15 years now, and I’m still amazed by the depth of NZ music, from the melancholy beauty of Crowded House to the hugely influential post-punk sound of Flying Nun’s The Chills and The Clean to the rousing waiata of Māori anthems to the Kiwi-fried country of artists like Tami Neilson and Delaney Davidson. There’s the inescapable strength of amazing New Zealand women like Aldous Harding, Reb Fountain and Lorde or the madcap adventurousness of folks like Troy Kingi and SJD. 

Troy Kingi.

In this pandemic world, borders have been pretty well closed to international music, so the few concerts I have seen lately have been homegrown – a wonderful Crowded House show between Covid surges, Reb Fountain and Marlon Williams tearing up the stage, a celebration of Flying Nun Records’ 40th anniversary. 

Every country has its own sounds, and there’s something wonderful about becoming an immigrant to another land and learning about its own unique sounds. New Zealand is a melting pot of Māoritanga, British influences, Pacific emotions, the echo of the vast seas and the echoes of a few dozen other cultures who’ve also ended up calling these lands home. 

The first New Zealand music I ever heard was more than 30 years ago, a fuzzy dubbed cassette of Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men given to me by a long-vanished girlfriend. The music sunk deep into my genes, although I had no idea then I’d ever end up living in the place that band came from. 

I can’t make a definitive list of the “best” New Zealand songs, but these are 30 that make me happy every time I hear them, and represent a pretty broad cross-section of Aotearoa sounds, tilted toward my own listening preferences, of course.

Some are old, some are new, some of them are bloody obvious choices that are embedded deep into the kiwi brain, others are a bit more obscure but just say something essential about this strange little oasis at the bottom of the world where I’ve somehow ended up living a big chunk of my life. Another 30 songs could easily have been added, but let’s save some for another year!

Have a listen to my eccentric playlist Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2022, and celebrate the sounds of Kiwiana!

Movies I Have Never Seen #17: Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

What is it: Today, of all days, you know who this guy is. He’s the hockey mask-wearing serial killer who starred in about a jillion gory movies between 1980 and 2003 or so (to be precise, 10 Friday the 13th movies, one reboot, and one “team-up” with Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger). The sixth instalment, Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, is the charmingly low-key story of a boy with a dream … a dream which involves killing lots of teenagers. 

Why I never saw it: To be blunt, Jason scared me. I was an ‘80s horror movie buff – I loved Nightmare On Elm Street, even the awful ones, and it’s not unfair to say that David Cronenberg’s The Fly changed my life. I grooved on The Lost Boys and The Thing. Yet, for years, I was repelled and a little freaked out by the Jason movies, which were culturally everywhere in the ‘80s – parodied in Mad magazine, homaged by other movies, et cetera. Jason was of course a bit of a rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween and its own stalking silent killer Michael Myers, but there was something even more bleak and disturbing about his hockey-masked visage – a blank white canvas with staring eye-holes where a soul might be. He lacked the elegance of a Dracula or the pathos of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. All he did was kill. I even remember seeing the paperback adaptation of Jason Lives sitting on the racks in our local Kmart as a kid, where I’d flip through the pages each time I saw it – figuring it was less horrifying than seeing the movies themselves. These movies seemed more terror than horror to me – I like my horror movies with a dollop of wit in there, and sight unseen, the reputation of the Jason movies is that they were brutal, nihilistic gore-fests without the cheesy parody that made Freddy Krueger or Evil Dead II a bit more, well, loveable.

Does it measure up to its rep? Do the Friday the 13th movies have a rep, outside of horror aficionados? It turns out, years later, some of them aren’t really all that bad, although I’ve still only seen a handful of them – and I’m fond of the weirder later entries like the insanely over-the-top Freddy Vs Jason monster mash, or the absurdist “let’s just send the serial killer into space in the future, then” comedy of Jason X. But to see Jason in his pure, summer camp ghoul element, you’ve got to go back a bit. The Friday The 13th series has a weird chronology – Jason himself barely appears in the first one and doesn’t don that iconic hockey mask until Part III. For the next several sequels, the pattern was set – Jason returns, kills a lot, is defeated by some spunky teenager. By the time Part VI rolled around in ’86, the series was evolving from a creepy, somewhat human knife killer and the rather unstoppable demonic figure that Jason became by Jason X. If you’re imagining what a Friday the 13th movie might be like, then starting with Part VI isn’t actually a bad place to go. 

Worth seeing? “Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment,” the town drunk mutters at one point, just before he gets murdered. Jason Lives is the platonic ideal of the ‘80s slasher horror movie in its mainstream moment – lifting from everything from Frankenstein to James Bond to Rambo, with beloved period cliches like the perpetually angry cops, ripped-jean and pastel fashions, synth-driven pop music, the teenagers who run around rutting every chance they get. The movie starts with a thoroughly dead Jason being accidentally resurrected by one of his teenager enemies and given new superhuman endurance, and escalates from there. You can’t expect part six of a series to bring much new to the table, but with Jason Lives the execution is glossily polished to a Tupperware shine. It’s schlock, but in the right mood it’s massively entertaining schlock, really, and less sadistic than one might expect (sure, teens die, but nobody is really tortured here – Jason is quite efficient). There’s a fair bit of humour and in-jokes here, but not enough to push it into Scream meta territory. It’s simply an effective scare-fest which isn’t trying to be clever. Sometimes, on a Friday the 13th, that’s all you really want. “It’s over. It’s finally over,” we’re told at the end. Spoiler warning: It wasn’t over. 

George Pérez and Neal Adams, the men who built the comics blockbuster

In the space of a week, we’ve lost two of the greatest artists the comic book medium ever had. George Pérez and Neal Adams were giants in the worlds of comics, and we are immeasurably poorer for their losses.

Adams died at age 80 last week, while Pérez left us too soon just today at age 67 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. If you have ever watched an MCU movie or Batman growl across the big screen, if you queued up to watch the new Dr. Strange this weekend, you were following in their footsteps. 

I would argue that Adams and Pérez were probably the two most important comics artists since Jack Kirby, although they worked in very different styles. But what both of them did is shake up the artform and bring a lighting bolt of dynamism to the field using mere pens and pencils. 

Enough talk. Let’s just look at their pretty pictures, Neal first:

The first time I saw Neal Adams was probably as a kid in my beloved Batman from the ‘30s to ‘70s collection, and then in a few battered Brave and Bold comics I picked up cheap. When compared to the more stiff Silver Age drawings of Batman by the likes of Bob Kane or his ghost artists, Adams was technicolour.

The man pretty much reinvented Batman with writer Denny O’Neil and created the Dark Knight we all think of today. I can only compare the impact of Adams’ dynamic, hyper-real compositions in comics art to the way it must’ve felt to see the Beatles for the first time. 

Compared to Adams, everything that came before seemed static. Adams’ camera eye was always roaming, looking for stunning perspectives and gripping action. He combined the energy of Jack Kirby with the skill of a portrait artist. 

When I started scribbling my own little comics in the 1990s, Neal Adams was one of the main people I tried to mimic. His work, for lack of a better word, had LIFE. 

And then there’s George Pérez. I never tried to imitate George Pérez. Who in god’s name could?

If Neal Adams brought dynamism to comics, Pérez brought scale. Pérez is best known for his sprawling character-filled team comics like New Teen Titans, Avengers, and Justice League – and of course, the granddaddy of all cosmic crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths and its spiritual successor, Infinity Gauntlet. Pérez took the idea of a bunch of caped weirdos hanging around together and gave it an Olympian grandeur. 

He first blew my mind with Crisis on Infinite Earths #5, the cover of which beckoned at me from a newsstand and said, “Who are all these characters? Is the comics world really this big?” In George’s hands, it was. 

Pérez did big. When it came time to finally team up the Justice League and Avengers in a world-smashingly over-the-top adventure, nobody could draw it but him. But the secret of Pérez is that while he did big, he also did small equally well. Just look at the detail he packed above in a page of his future Hulk adventure with Peter David, a treasure trove of easter eggs. 

And Pérez had a skill that is remarkably rare in comics – drawing truly distinct faces. I’ve been re-reading his JLA/Avengers this week, knowing Pérez’s time was short, and what strikes me even more than the bombast is how he sets off Captain America’s chin from Superman’s, how Thor has a broad, Scandinavian look, how Hawkeye has a thick brawler’s mouth and nose – too often in comics, superhero faces are practically identical except for the hair. Pérez cared about the little things, and the big things.

Neal Adams and George Pérez were both titans in the comics field. They were also reportedly wildly different in temperament – Adams was known for his ego and his intensity, and he was an absolute powerhouse advocate for the concept of creator’s rights and independent comics back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, delivering justice for forgotten creators with the tireless drive of Batman himself. 

Pérez was considered one of the nicest men in comics, and while he did some work in independents he was mostly known for his Marvel and DC work. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, the love that came to him from fandom and his peers was overwhelming and beautiful. In an age where social media is more noxious than kind, Pérez was loved, and I’m so happy he left us knowing exactly how much fans cared for him and his work. We all knew what was coming, but boy, we let George know how we felt about him first. 

Neal Adams and George Pérez were creators, and they were innovators. As we watch superheroes flash by with the energy of Adams and the power of Pérez on screens, never forget that creators like them are the rock that the blockbusters were built on. 

The madcap fun of Legends of Tomorrow, gone but not forgotten

Legends of Tomorrow was the superhero TV show for people who were a bit sick of superhero shows. When it decided to stop being faithful to the comics it was inspired by and just be its own weird thing, that’s when it became kind of great. 

The cancellation announcement after seven seasons wasn’t a surprise, but it’s a bummer. It was pretty much the last “Arrowverse” show I regularly watched (other than the excellent Superman and Lois, which isn’t really Arrowverse at all) and it was the one that did the best job of truly becoming its own unique self. I’m gonna miss it. 

Legends was originally a kind of “all-star squadron” of random characters from other Arrowverse shows, all with various DC comic book ties – Firestorm, Captain Cold, The Atom, White Canary, Rip Hunter, Hawkman – but it abandoned the costumes, evolved into a series of silly time travel adventures and went pretty far from its comic book-roots – which annoyed some fans, but probably gained it some, too. By the end, Caity Lotz’s iron-jawed White Canary was the only Season 1 cast member left, and any real resemblance to existing DC Comics characters was tangential indeed.  

It wasn’t afraid to be blissfully, curiously weird, something a lot of the current superhero movie glut fails to be. Legends had a madcap ‘80s Dr. Who meets silver age DC Comics vibe and leapt through history with merry abandon. No other show on television would have featured a psychic gorilla trying to assassinate young Barack Obama, a “tickle me Elmo” type toy becoming a Viking god of war, or a wrestling match in JFK’s Oval Office over nuclear armageddon. One week might feature David Bowie, the next a robot J. Edgar Hoover.

The show embraced the fact that a story of time-travel could really go anywhere, do anything, within budget, and as a result was far more creative and unpredictable week to week than the likes of Arrow and Flash. It built its own oddball cosmos and became a home for characters marooned from other shows, like Matt Ryan’s pitch-perfect John Constantine, who somehow managed to fit in. 

There were lows – Adam Tsekhman’s Gary Green was an awful scenery-chewing nerd parody before they finally gave him some more depth, and the all-time worst Legends character was the brief addition of Mona Wu, an awkward and annoying stereotype. It was admittedly past its peak – I hated seeing characters go like Brandon Routh’s endearing Ray Palmer, Dominic Purcell’s grouchy Mick Rory and charming Nick Zano as “Steel,” and later seasons introduced some replacement characters who never really clicked for me, like the alien-hunter Spooner. But Lotz’s Sarah Lance provided a kick-ass moral centre for the show as the assassin who matures into a den mother for a team of goofballs and weirdos, and her romance with Ava (Jes Macallan) was both inspirational and darned cute to watch unfold. 

Despite its flaws, Legends was consistently entertaining, week in and week out, even as the budgets shrank and the cast rotated and the show couldn’t match its big ambitions. It had a lot of heart, such as the season 7 episode where the cast successfully integrates World War II factories and wins a cheer from special guest star Eleanor Roosevelt, or the landmark 100th episode which paid tribute to the show’s twisting path and history. It was a show made with obvious love for its characters, a team of misfits inspired by C-list comic superheroes who became something much more along the way. 

Its demise (along with the less long-lived Batwoman) kind of marks the finale of the Arrowverse, although the now decidedly mediocre Flash will stumble along a bit longer and hopefully it might somehow give a bit of closure to the cliffhanger ending for the Legends. 

The Arrowverse was never perfect and many of the series would have benefitted by about half the number of episodes per season, but at its best – such as a far better Crisis on Infinite Earths live adaptation than I imagined possible – the Arrowverse was a lot of giddy fun, and Legends of Tomorrow was always the absurdist jester at the heart of that. Sail on, Wave Rider! 

Everything I need to know about America I learned from ‘Doonesbury’

I’ve written before about how I miss when newspaper comics were a bit more central in pop culture. And few have been more topical and controversial than Garry Trudeau’s venerable daily Doonesbury, still going strong, if less frequently, after 50-plus years. 

For nerdy kids like me who grew up reading the comics pages and scouring thrift shops for old paperbacks, Doonesbury was our political education. The first Doonesbury book I remember picking up was 1981’s “In Search of Reagan’s Brain,”  a pointed if often mystifying to me satire of the then-new US President’s penchant for vagueness and nostalgia. I barely knew who Reagan was at my tender age, but something about the complicated, arcane world of Doonesbury made me want to get the joke. 

Later, I bought classic treasury collections like “The Doonesbury Chronicles,” which awakened me to strange early ‘70s concepts like communes and Walden Pond, or to Nixon and Ford and the Watergate figures. There were the just plain funny strips, but then there were the ones that made me want to learn more to get the references. 

Pre-internet, the past was a rather mysterious country, and to be honest, my history classes that I recall of primary and high school education always seemed to focus on the really distant past, on Founding Fathers and constitutional principles and occasionally something as fresh as World War II.

Little was taught about injustice, or racism, or the many wrongs and missteps in America’s long, tangled history. Doonesbury had Black, Asian and gay characters long before it was common. Through Doonesbury, I learned that America was always many things at the same time, and the obscure political and cultural figures of 1975 and 1984 it stuck in my head made me want to learn more about it all in my own time. 

But Doonesbury would never have lasted if it was just a blithe satire of the news of the day, and it was the characters who kept me coming back for more – everyman Mike Doonesbury’s journey from idealistic student to ‘80s ad man to ‘00s digital hipster to today’s almost senior citizen, football player turned wounded veteran B.D., eternal hippie Zonker, Hunter Thompson stand-in Duke (who became rather tiresome through overuse), or fiery campus protester Mark’s long journey to coming out.

Doonesbury always felt kind of like the story of a family as it journeyed through five decades of America, and that human touch is what made me want to learn more about the years it spanned. 

Doonesbury is still going 51 years on – longer than Schulz did Peanuts now – although it’s been new strips on Sundays only since 2014 or so which makes it feel like it’s entered a slow final victory lap around the cultural arena. Trudeau’s been viciously funny with the Tr**p years but it’s a lot harder to pay attention in the Age of Outrage. Mike and the gang are still around, and they’ve got children, and their children even have children as Doonesbury turns sweetly generational. 

I guess I know more about how the US and the world works now in my own encroaching middle age, and there’s certainly no shortage of places one can pick up history and knowledge now, but I’ll always kind of long for the days when Trudeau’s characters were my newsprint guides to the follies and foibles of the wider world. 

Everclear: So Much For The Afterglow at 25

In the 1990s, in my twenties, I would get a bit obsessive about music. I’d hit on a band I liked from the current scene – Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Wilco – and I’d listen to their albums over and over, mapping them out to give myself meaning. I’d put their songs on mix tapes, trying hard to create a soundtrack for my imagined life. 

And for a few years between 1996-1999 or so, there were few bands I listened to more obsessively than Everclear, whose great 1997 album So Much For The Afterglow turns 25 this year. I know I shouldn’t obsess too much over the tick-tick-ticking of the clock hands, but the fact it came out a quarter-century ago now kind of melts my delicate mind. 

Sometimes, what music reminds you of feels more important than the music itself. A great album can capture a moment in your life in amber, frozen but alive, so that each chord and chorus can instantly summon up a vanished world. So Much For The Afterglow is one of those albums for me … even if objectively I’ve heard greater albums, better songs, I’ve had few that felt like they meant so much to me in the moment. 

I was 25 the year So Much For The Afterglow came out, torn between staying in my college town and starting all over in another place.

Everclear were a Portland, Oregon band led by Art Alexakis, who turned his troubled broken-home youth and drug addictions into his muse. Their first three albums – World of Noise, 1995’s loud and defiant Sparkle and Fade and its briefly ubiquitous doom anthem “Santa Monica,” and Afterglow – were a kind of trilogy mining Alexakis’ pain into catchy rock songs. They were a very ’90s act, post-peak grunge, but heaps above the standard of bands like Creed or Bush.

There was no shortage of bands, grunge and otherwise, turning personal pathos into pop hits in the 1990s of course, from Nirvana to Alice In Chains to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yet Alexakis married his demons with rock for raw, confessional tunes that somehow felt honest to me, even if they were views from a world I rarely visited. “Normal Like You,” “I Will You Buy You A New Life” and “Father of Mine” all yearned for a world where he didn’t feel like an outcast, where you could try and find a happy ending.

We imagine connections to albums we love. The heroine of “Amphetamine” shared a name with a woman I was madly obsessed with at the time, while the narrator in “White Men In Black Suits” “moved to San Francisco just to see what I could be,” almost perfectly mirroring my own life changes at the time. (OK, I couldn’t afford San Francisco proper, but I did move back to the sultry Central Valley.)

In Everclear’s best songs, everyone is broken, yet hopeful in a battered way. At my worst moments in the chaotic 1990s, just knowing that someone out there felt the same as me mattered. So I bonded with Everclear, hard. 

Unfortunately, it kind of felt like Alexakis said the most important things he had to say with the first few Everclear albums. All the other original band members left, and by the early 2000s, the songs turned from angsty to preachy and the same themes kept being hit over and over. When a band starts unnecessarily re-recording old songs, you know they’ve hit a bit of a wall.

None of that takes away from how much I love Everclear’s 90s work. 

It is rich with the promise and peril of being suspended at a point in life where you could be anything, even if you won’t actually end up being most things – when you are Everything Everywhere All At Once, to quote the amazing new movie I saw the other night.

And now it is 25 years later, and perhaps much of the raw edge I felt at 25 upon listening to Everclear has been burnished off by the weight – and sometimes, the cruelties – of time. But I pop on “Santa Monica” or “I Will Buy You A New Life” and for a moment I am there again, jittery with potential and ready for all the world’s bruises and brief joys to knock me around all over again. 

Here’s the Thing – the superhero as working-class stiff

Most superheroes are a little bit stiff, to be honest. They tend to be either godlike and unapproachable like Superman and Thor, or insanely focused like Batman or Dr. Strange. Even a guy like Spider-Man, whose whole schtick is being a friendly-neighbourhood sort, is still an insanely smart multi-tasking genius who started out as a shy teenage outcast. 

There’s not a lot of superheroes you’d want to have a beer with. Except for Ben Grimm, The Thing, who might just be the most everyman hero in comics. 

The Thing, one-quarter of the Fantastic Four, went through a curious period of solo stardom in the ‘70s and some of the ‘80s, striking out on his own with the classic team-up title Marvel Two-In-One and later, his own solo book for 36 issues. These days, he’s kind of mid-level superhero famous and a series of inadequate Fantastic Four movies haven’t helped his situation, but for a while there, he was an A-list attraction. 

The Thing didn’t start out as an obvious breakout star – in his first appearance in Fantastic Four #1 he still talks in grandiose Silver Age comics tones: “Bah! Everywhere it is the same! I live in a world too small for me!” For a while, he was just another tortured superhero like The Hulk or Iron Man. 

But after a while, although he’d always be a little bit agonised over his rocky curse and cut off from the human race, Ben Grimm seemed to accept his lot. He loosened up, peppering his language with slangy Brooklyn-ese banter, including that great catchphrase – “It’s clobberin’ time!” He drank beer and hosted superhero poker games. He wasn’t a dummy – he was a rocket pilot, after all, and before the comics aged beyond it being plausible, a World War II hero – but he was also very much an everyman. Over time, it was also revealed he was one of the first Jewish superheroes.

By the 1970s, the Thing was this cigar-smoking, wisecracking street poet of a character, grumbling away like Archie Bunker covered in orange rocks. There really wasn’t another voice quite like his. While they both were street-level superheroes from poor backgrounds, Spider-Man or Daredevil still tended to speak with a hint of stiffness, in that faux hipster I’m-down-with-the-kids lingo Stan Lee’s writers turned out reliably.

The Thing was always at home, which is why teaming him up with pretty much every hero in the Marvel Universe went down so well. Who wouldn’t want to have a beer with Ben Grimm?

He wasn’t a logical choice to lead a marquee team-up title, teaming up with everyone from The Man-Thing to The Living Mummy over 100 issues. The ‘70s were the glory day of team-ups (before pretty much every comic was just a team-up on a regular basis), but the big titles were Marvel Team-Up, starring Spider-Man, Brave and Bold starring Batman, and DC Comics Presents starring Superman himself. The Thing wasn’t quite at the same level of fame as these characters, but maybe that’s why the run of Marvel Two-In-One is still such a joy to read years later. The comics were often great little odd-couple gems of character moments, with cantankerous Ben bouncing off guest stars from Ghost Rider to Moon Knight to Captain America, always taking them down a few pegs. 

Despite being covered in orange rocks, Ben Grimm often felt like the most human of Marvel heroes for big chunks of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In one of the great team-up stories of all time, he even sat down for a few beers with longtime foe the Sandman, and by the end of the tale even convinced the villain to reform, with barely a punch thrown. It’s hard to picture Batman doing that. 

Irreverent wit became more common as comics reached the age of Seinfeldian irony – witness the rise of Deadpool, Harley Quinn, Squirrel Girl or She-Hulk. But The Thing was a bit different – he never broke the fourth wall, or did parody riffs on other heroes – he was just, simply and unchangeable, his own irrascible irreverent self, and at his best, made every other hero look like they were in black-and-white next to his orange bricks. 

How the Return Of The Jedi Storybook ruined my childhood

Spoiler warnings are serious business, even if it’s harder and harder to avoid finding out things in this 24-7 endlessly scrolling world we live in without seriously muting your social media diet. But decades ago, one of the biggest movies of my lifetime got seriously spoiled by… a storybook.

Nearly 40 years on, I’m still a little annoyed about how Return Of The Jedi worked out for me.  

The year 1983 was a long time before the idea of “spoiler culture” developed. Culture was typically more rooted in time. You saw a TV show when it aired, or you didn’t. You saw a movie like everyone else did during the few weeks it ran, or you didn’t and waited years for it to air on TV. If someone told you who shot JR, you just nodded. We didn’t really worry about spoilers so much then, or ponder the damage they could do. 

But I’ll never forgive the Return of the Jedi Storybook which, mystifyingly, spoiled George Lucas’ sequel and quite possibly the biggest cliffhanger ending in recorded history for me weeks before the movie came out. 

Let me tell you, there were few bigger dramas in the life of 12-year-old Nik and his friends than imagining for years what might have happened next after the incredibly downbeat, traumatising final scenes of Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Luke’s hand cut off! Vader his father? Han Solo locked in a block of whatever the heck carbonite was, hauled off to Jabba the Hutt? 

Kids today can literally not imagine how stressful this all was. It made Avengers: Endgame seem like a cool sea breeze by comparison. 

I remember watching the first trailer for Return of the Jedi with a fanboy’s anticipation. But when it came time to actually see the movie itself, I already knew what was going to happen. 

I got the storybook as part of one of those nifty “school book clubs” that were all the rage back in the day, and I was kind of astonished to see that this Return of the Jedi Storybook wasn’t some fanboy collection of images and interviews, but the ENTIRE STORY of the movie, weeks before it opened. Why did I get it so early? Why did they reveal the whole story? These days, there would be media blackouts and embargoes galore, but in 1983, I guess a kid’s tie-in book wasn’t seen as a state secret. 

(According to the “Wookiepedia,” which has to be authoritative with a name like that, the Jedi storybook was published May 12, 1983, about two weeks before Jedi hit theatres around May 25. In my hazy pre-teen memories, it felt like it came out months before Jedi.) 

In my memory I flipped through the pages, astonished to see pictures of Luke Skywalker in stark black clothing, Jabba the Hutt, the Emperor, Leia in a fetishy slave outfit that awakened all young Nik’s carnal rumblings, and more, and the plot of the entire movie laid out in simplified easy-reader prose. The storybook was meant as a flimsy souvenir for young padawan like myself, to re-read and savour… after seeing the damned movie! I do remember feeling vaguely let down… was this the story I had hoped for the past three years? Or was I just not really enjoying seeing it in pantomime storybook form? The merits of Jedi have been argued for the past 39 years, but wherever you stand I’d argue it’s best to have actually seen the movie instead of just reading about it first. 

I can’t recall clearly now if I shared the Jedi plot revelations with my friends at the time, but I probably did. I was the kind of kid who ate too much at Halloween, who sometimes snuck looks at Christmas presents. If older me had been there to Marley’s ghost himself, I’d have warned about the perils of giving in to temptation. I should have put the book in a locked safe once I realised what it was. It would’ve been a lot cooler to be surprised by the twists and turns of Return of the Jedi. It would’ve been nice. 

Hell, I wouldn’t have minded being surprised by an Ewok, even. 

Breaking News: My Top 10 Journalism Movies

It’s been a week for movies and the media. I was part of the team live-blogging the Oscars over at RNZ this week which, um, took an interesting turn about 2/3 of the way into the show, you might have heard. 

I love it when one of my favourite things, the movies, intersects with my profession for many years now, journalism. And after the Oscars live-blogging marathon Monday night, I had to unwind with one of my favourite movies about journalism (which one? scroll to the end*, my friend). 

The art and craft of journalism has long fascinated filmmakers and resulted in some terrific movies – including that one many people regard as the best of all time, Citizen Kane. I sat down to write about 10 or so of my favourite journalism movies and ended with a sprawling list. I narrowed it down, and from the start I eliminated any documentaries (which are a form of journalism itself). Ever since I was a kid, the idea of journalism has appealed to me, even if in real life it’s not all glam and scoops. 

This list of my Top 10 Journalism Movies includes ones that idealise the profession like crazy, ones that just use it as a prop for a comedy or a romance, and a few that really delve into the gritty hard yards that make a truly great story. Some of them really capture what it’s like to be a journo, and some of them really capture what we all wish it was like to be a journo. 

In alphabetical order: 

Ace In The Hole (1951) – The late great Kirk Douglas in his finest role, as a cartoonishly conniving tabloid journalist exiled to the rural sticks who stumbles on the “story of the century” when a local man gets trapped in a cave. Billy Wilder’s cynical noir takes us deep inside the media circus that ensues, and we watch in real time as Kirk’s Chuck Tatum slowly loses what’s left of his soul. We’ve had countless “boy stuck in a well” type media sensations in the decades since, but nothing has ever captured the dark side of journalism better. 

All The President’s Men (1976) – There’s no way any list of journalism movies could ignore this one. Oh, for the days when Watergate was the biggest scandal a White House could imagine. There’s no movie that shows the painstaking, frustrating detective side of journalism better than this masterpiece, with Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations portrayed with stark realism despite glossy Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing their parts. The click of typewriters and hours on the landline phone, the endless cigarettes, the newsroom almost entirely run by white men wearing ties – this is a vanished world now, and journalism is probably better for leaving a lot of that behind, but nothing quite captures what it was like “back in the day” better than this film. 

Almost Famous (2000) – The life that William Miller leads in Cameron Crowe’s gentle and bittersweet coming-of-age comedy is pretty much exactly the life I imagined I might have when I started scribbling as an entertainment journalist in the mid 1990s. Spoiler: I didn’t go on tour with Stillwater or fall in love with Penny Lane. Crowe’s movie is warmly sentimental, but in the best possible way. With the acerbic interjections of the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs to balance things out, Almost Famous shows us a fairy-tale fantasy of journalism that I can’t help falling in love with every time I watch it. 

Anchorman (2004) – Absurdly goofy? Sure! The gem in Will Ferrell’s run of wacky comedies is a spoof of journalism, but it’s also subtly a very accurate satire of the alpha-male mentality that existed in newsrooms for decades, one that was still quite rampant just as I was entering the industry. It’s only in the last few decades that newsrooms have become a bit more diverse, and in between all the gags Anchorman accurately captures what it’s like when journalists start to believe their own hype and let their ego take over. (See also: Any number of the ‘outrage merchants’ who chatter and moan daily on American news networks today.)

Broadcast News (1987) – The great journalism romantic comedy, even beating out Cary Grant’s His Girl Friday. The late William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks are a perfect trio of striving TV journalists in the 1980s, capturing the mix of solid professionalism, glossy vapid good looks and gender battles that defined the era. James L. Brooks carefully keeps all his characters human despite their foibles, and it’s a movie that’s as much in love with journalism and it gently mocks it. And for my money, the “Albert Brooks sweating” scene is one of the funniest journalism fails ever portrayed on screen. 

Citizen Kane (1941) – The grandfather of all journalism movies, even if it’s perhaps more about the corruption of power than anything else. But Orson Welles captures the era when news publishers were almost kings in his very lightly fictionalised take on William Randolph Hearst, and how Kane uses the immense power of the press to build himself a perfect world – without ever really knowing what to do once he gets it. 

The French Dispatch (2021) – The newest movie on this list, Wes Anderson’s kaleidoscopic anthology imagines a series of articles in a New Yorker-type magazine in its final issue. Anderson’s unique aesthetic has never been more pronounced than it is in this incredibly dense, ornate movie, which I immediately wanted to see a second time so I could go back and catch all the jokes and references I missed the first time around.

Shattered Glass (2003) – For a while there in the pre-social media world, scandals about plagiarist journalists were all the rage. This tense and darkly funny under-seen gem looks at the curious Stephen Glass, who made up magazine scoops left and right until he was caught. Featuring a never-better performance by Hayden Christensen, who will wipe your memories entirely of his hammy Anakin Skywalker, and terrific work by Peter Sarsgaard as the editor who exposes him.

Spotlight (2015) – A solid companion to All The President’s Men, set at the twilight of a certain kind of journalism, before job cuts gutted newsrooms worldwide. This deserving Oscar winner showcases a Boston investigative journalists team and their stunning work uncovering sex abuse cover-ups within the Catholic Church. With an absolutely top-notch cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber, it’s another movie that patiently shows the hard, hard work that goes into breaking a massive story, and yet makes it exciting as any thriller. 

Zodiac (2007) – When journalism turns into obsession. David Fincher’s sprawling, sinister epic about the hunt for San Francisco’s Zodiac killer avoids tidy serial murder movie cliches or easy closure, and somehow that makes it even more disturbing than any blood-soaked horror might. Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo are terrific as journalists who slowly lose their minds trying to find a killer, and Fincher masterfully escalates a sense of dread, which is inextricably tied to the one single question that drives almost every journalist’s career: I want to know

Clustered together at #11: His Girl Friday, The Sweet Smell of Success, Fletch, The Paper, Good Night And Good Luck, The Philadelphia Story, Adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

(*So what did I watch after Oscars live-blogging? Well, after a night that hit the peaks of drama and absurdity, what else could I watch but Anchorman for the 458th time? What can I say … sometimes journalism really is like being trapped in a glass case of emotion.)

Movies I Have Never Seen #16: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

What is it: Long before she directed Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known as a pioneering documentary filmmaker for her chronicling of the gritty reality of LA’s music scenes. Over three films from 1981 to 1998, she covered punk and metal stars and never-weres, fans and bands with an unsparing eye. The first of her movies, 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization, looked at bands like Black Flag, Germs, X, the Circle Jerks and Fear in squalid, sweaty detail, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best music documentaries ever made. 

Why I never saw it: Despite its cult status, Decline and its two sequels were barely released and almost impossible to watch for decades. Long ago, when I worked at video stores and paged through ink-stained fanzines, I’d hear about these movies a lot, but pre-YouTube or eBay, good luck ever actually watching them. Finally, a few years back, the entire series was released on DVD with a bunch of cool bonuses, and I finally sat down recently to watch them. Can punk still shock more than four decades on?

Does it measure up to its rep? Music documentaries are one of my favourite genres, whether they’re behind the scenes concert footage, making-of histories, birth-to-death storytelling or day-in-the-life voyeurism. Decline  is a little bit of all of the above. These aren’t superstars – X and Black Flag are probably the best known of the bands here, and this is a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag at that. Even by 1979 and 1980, punk was a bit past its first wave, and so you’ve got a variety of fiery young bands trying to figure out who they are – whether it’s the bludgeoning rage of Circle Jerks and Fear, the angst of Germs and Black Flag or the more arty, performative work of almost-forgotten bands like Catholic Discipline, this is a snapshot of a moment in time but an anger that’s still understandable today. We see heaps of roiling, brutal men in mosh pits, slamming against each other in an intimate way that seems even more invasive in a pandemic world. Spheeris has a knack for capturing the propulsive motion of punk, with a visceral touch that makes you feel like you’re back in these crowded, grotty rooms decades ago. We see the bands off stage – Black Flag in an insanely over-graffitied squalid crash pad, The Germs’ doomed, mumbly lead singer Darby Crash cooking eggs and playing with his pet tarantula. (Crash would be dead at 22 of a drug overdose suicide before this movie even came out.) There’s a tinge of hopelessness to Decline, especially when Spheeris talks to the fans like nihilistic skinhead Eugene, but that’s balanced out by some incredibly passionate performances, like young Black Flag singer Ron Reyes screaming out “Depression’s gonna kill me.” It’s strange to think that now, 40+ years on, most of these angry young men and women are either nearly senior citizens – or gone. Unlike slick, polished reality TV versions of life, the squalor and power of Decline never feels fake. 

Worth seeing? Decline of Western Civilization isn’t for those with gentler musical tastes – while some of the bands like X are excellent musicians whose snappy tunes still hold up well today, all of them are loud and confrontational. The Germs are barely holding a tune, with the chaotic power of their only album turned into a muddy, jagged roar. Spheeris closes Decline with a terrifying, mesmerising set by Fear, whose lead singer is shown as a bare-chested, swaggering Johnny Rotten on steroids spitting out homophobic and sexist taunts as the kids in the mosh pit smash into each other. It’s like a vision of Dante’s inferno, and it’s awful, yet at the same time, it’s amazing – the power of punk at its most primal, with a chorus screaming “I don’t care about you / F— you!” Fear’s thundering, cruel set seems to sum up everything that’s come before it. Punk could be awesome and it could be ugly and it could often be both at the same time, and Spheeris’ magnificent documentary captures it in all its complicated sprawl. I’m definitely moving on next to check out 1988’s equally cult but slightly more absurd hair-metal saga Decline of Western Civilization II and the reportedly even darker street kids-focused Part III, but the first Decline movie still packs the punch of a brawl in a mosh pit. It isn’t meant to make you feel good, but like punk itself, it’s meant to make you feel something.