Finlay Macdonald talks to Julian Boshier, the director of Swagger of Thieves, a documentary about notorious ’90s rock band Head Like A Hole.
At one point in Julian Boshier’s riveting, candid documentary Swagger of Thieves about legendary rock beasts Head Like A Hole, guitarist Nigel Regan asks no one in particular, “Can someone lift the curse from this band?”
It’s a fair question. Illness, argument, money trouble, bad decisions, addiction and even death have dogged the band for years. They didn’t speak to one another for most of a decade, during which their charismatic co-founder Booga Beazley ended up washing windows for a living on the Kapiti Coast.
As if to set this tone of mortal disappointment, the film opens in Palmerston North Hospital, where Beazley is being treated for an infection, and worrying about possibly losing his leg. There are moments of pure poignancy, as the camera pans around a ward otherwise occupied by elderly men waiting for cups of tea, and a nurse mishears the band’s name as Hole In The Wall.
Rock and roll, right?
Elsewhere, Boshier’s unblinking lens captures possibly the best filmic evocation yet of what it means to be a touring rock band in New Zealand; squalid motel rooms, weird venues, passionate but potentially deranged fans, laundromats and crowded vans. Outside, snow-capped mountains and wide open spaces. Inside, second-hand smoke and several layers of clothing.
In the scene most likely to generate gasps, if not headlines, the boys cook up some heroin in a grim-looking kitchen during a South Island tour. If you know anything of the band’s history this isn’t necessarily surprising, but it is definitely confronting. Boshier had been shooting footage for a music video at the time, just before the band disintegrated.
“It was the final tour and things were very messy,” he remembers. “We were making the ‘Comfortably Shagged’ video. I was just filming anything, really. They’ve always had this reputation of being the bad boys, the drug takers, and they’ve always been quite open about that. It’s probably been part of their ‘brand’ really. But to prove it in a film, to take it to the next level … great.”
Boshier’s relationship with Head Like A Hole stretches back to their earliest days. Having made three videos for the band he was looking for a more substantial project for himself. While he liked their early music, he says he “didn’t want it to be a fanboy film, because I’m not a hardcore fan. I like their early music, that’s all.”
He liked something else, too. “I just thought Head Like A Hole have the ingredients for everything you need in a film. They’ve got a story, they’ve got a whole lot of bad stuff, a little bit of good stuff, but they’ve got character. Especially the singer. He’s got a sparkle in his eye. He’s the master of the sound bite. So I knew Booga would be easy, because you’ve got to have an easy person when you’re pointing a camera at them.”
What’s remarkable is that Swagger of Thieves is such a rare thing – a proper film about a New Zealand band. Aside from Shihad: Beautiful Machine, asks Boshier, what has there been? “I thought it was high time to make a film about a dumb white rock band.” (Shihad also provides also a thematic counterpoint to Head Like a Hole in Boshier’s film. The bands share DNA, most tragically in the form of the late Gerald Dwyer, who managed both up until his overdose in 1996, after which Shihad made what you might call better decisions, and Head Like A Hole never found another real champion to manage them.)
Reconnecting after the band’s long hiatus turned out to be good timing, though. With Beazley and his partner Tamzin by then parents, him making ends meet as Mr Local the window washer, and a reunion tour being planned, the script – not that there was anything like a script – began to reveal itself.
“When I came along on the scene, Booga was overwhelmed to see me, because it was a blast from the past,” says Boshier. “And they were very interested in a documentary. Between themselves they had a discussion and Tamzin said, if it doesn’t work out, at least we’ll have a professional home video. I thought that was quite a good attitude.”
It’s this rather deadpan honesty, which Boshier seems to share with the band, that informs the film’s compelling structure and tone. It’s largely in black and white, a decision made partly for technical reasons (a lot of red in the footage which doesn’t work well with video, according to Boshier), and partly aesthetics. “I think it evokes an emotion that you’re probably not aware of as you’re watching it. But I just think it’s appropriate to these people.”
The film moves back and forth in time, with no one incident or person dominating, the threads of personal history sometimes picked up, other times left hanging. In part this is also a product of the sheer labour intensity of editing down five years’ worth of footage, shot between 2008 and 2012, then juxtaposing it with archive material from the pre-breakup days. The first cut was six hours long, just one station of the cross Boshier bore as he struggled for narrative coherence in the editing suite.
“I love that going back in time by 12 years, instantly, I love that,” Boshier says. “I love that film Boyhood, which was also shot over 12 years. It’s dedication to a project. So I was trying to get that sense of time. I wanted it to be a deep film, I didn’t want it to be shallow. I was trying to make something that was bigger than Head Like A Hole.”
And so it is. Swagger of Thieves is about growing older, coming to terms with thwarted ambition and lost youth, about how long and hard the road can be. “It needed to be a depressing story,” Boshier agrees. “But in saying that, I think there is a lot of positivity there. To me, it’s that these guys are still together after 25 years. It’s been fragmented, sure, but they’re actually still together making music.”
He’s right, of course. The inverse of lost opportunities, mistakes and regrets is perseverance, loyalty to an ideal, and a brilliant fuck-them-if-they-can’t-take-a-joke life ethic. When the film ends, it may not be on a redemptive note, but it is perfect nonetheless. Most of all, says Boshier, it honours their unspoken contract.
“Throughout this process, I was thinking in the back of my mind, if I only ever make one documentary in my lifetime – because making a documentary is so hard and life-consuming – it had better be a good one. So I don’t look back and regret it. And I am quite hard on myself. Because you’re judged, and you’re judged harshly here in New Zealand. And Head Like A Hole have a legacy, they’re an important band in this country. You don’t want to fuck it up. They were handing over all their music licencing, they gave me incredible content, all their music. I had to return the favour.”
Swagger of Thieves has its world premiere on August 3 at Auckland’s Civic Theatre as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Julian Boshier.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.