For once, it's not about the music

ROCK FAVOURITES: Vicki Anderson talks to Shihad frontman Jon Toogood.
ROCK FAVOURITES: Vicki Anderson talks to Shihad frontman Jon Toogood.

Vicki Anderson talks to Shihad frontman Jon Toogood before and after seeing the documentary about the much-loved New Zealand rock band, Shihad: Beautiful Machine.

For once, it's not about the music.

Shihad frontman Jon Toogood wasn't sure whether he was going to go to his hometown premiere of the documentary Shihad: Beautiful Machine.

Kiwi rock band Shihad, comprising Toogood, Karl Kippenberger, Tom Larkin and Phil Knight celebrates its 24th anniversary this year, and this film takes a magnifying glass to their lives off stage.

Directed by Sam Peacocke, and opening in theatres yesterday, the movie about one of New Zealand's most popular rock bands is billed as providing "an all-access pass to the legendary band's fights with fame, fortune, the industry and themselves".

"I might just drop my mum off and go sit in the park," Toogood said last week.

"I don't know what it's going to be like to sit in a room full of strangers and watch it."

The film premiered in Wellington on Wednesday, and I assume he went along.

His nerves were understandable, the film is a "zits and all" look at the band which reveals the dynamics of the group, exposing and examining every flaw, from Knight's alcoholism to backlash over the temporary name change to Pacifier post 9/11 - which Toogood memorably describes as having to choose between "s... A - forget the American dream" or "s... B - change the name and do it anyway".

It delves into their subsequent American tour, "that joke", and offers a candid look at the group's personal relationships.

It also covers Toogood's own breakdown in 2001, a period where he developed a phobia about music.

Even before it opened, the documentary caused controversy with the claim that there'd been a falling out and Peacocke was yet to see the finished version of the film that received $813,900 in funding from the New Zealand Film Commission.

Toogood admits it wasn't all "smooth sailing".

"From a creative viewpoint, having Sam involved was gold, it relaxed us. We trusted that there was a guy just as passionate about film as we were about music in control of the movie. I saw him stress and stress about making a great movie which is what we do with our music, those things are excellent. In terms of post- production there were a few corners cut on the audio front which I would have done differently, but it's a weird one, it's not a Shihad release, it's someone else's," Toogood explains.

"We deal with audio day in and day out, I would have gone to battle with the production company a bit more but all in all I think it's a fantastic movie. It's a really good New Zealand documentary. You don't have to be a fan to like this movie."

The film, shot around the world, is Peacocke's debut feature-length film.

He was responsible for Shihad's Beautiful Machine music video and his short film Manurewa was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Crystal Bear for Best Short in the Youth section.

Talking to Toogood again this week, he is full of praise for Peacocke.

"I can't stress enough how important it was for Sam to get on board as a director. He stressed about finding the thread for the movie and what was going to make an engaging movie. He wanted a movie that demystified what it is to make music. It's about passion and art, it is almost incidental that we are in it," Toogood says.

"It could have been about a New Zealand artist or dance troupe. I think he really found a beautiful thread, along with the editor, Cushla. He treated us with respect. He doesn't hide anything."

Watching the film I expected leather, much throwing of the goat and tales of decadence.

I didn't expect that the band's parents talking about their children would be so moving. Mr and Mrs Toogood on the big screen, seated on what appears to be a Shihad couch cover, were particularly poignant.

"It was tough for me, my dad passed away recently," Toogood explains. "It was a big important change in my life. He has always been so important in my whole life. It was weird going in to check the mix of the audio and to do that I had to watch through the film . . . it was only four weeks after my dad had died. I was really nervous actually about seeing him - I didn't know whether I could handle it but Sam's filmed it so beautifully and let them be themselves that I found myself going 'I want more'. I missed dad and Sam has really captured him."

It turns out the young Toogood was a budding cricketer.

"I think Dad was a little disappointed at first when I gave it away but then he saw how passionate I was about music.

"They did the right thing. They said 'our son's found something he loves, let's support him'. I thought that was really admirable.

"They knew it was a gamble they were just happy I had found something I could be honest and passionate about and they were there from day one. I appreciate it more now that I am an older guy."

The relationship portrayed between Toogood and his former wife, Ronise Paul, which provided much inspiration for Shihad's lyrical material, is an honest look at how chasing one dream can destroy another.

"I think in any job that takes them away from home for a long time, it's hard work," Toogood says.

"Just to survive you have to close down those connections almost, just to survive and then you have to reconnect when you get back and there are always periods of learning how to live with each other again. In terms of the movie, it wouldn't have worked if everyone involved hadn't been involved, everyone's partner has their say. I think you get a balanced view. No-one comes out as the bad guy or the good guy, it's just people."

The depiction of the group's tour of the United States proves an eye-opener and sees the normally mild-mannered Kippenberger riffing angrily over intentions to replace everyone in the band, aside from Toogood.

"It's a factory line production, we don't have that here because we are too small," Toogood says.

"Commerce overtakes art and it's a really good documentation of how that happens and how it is a big amount of pressure. That footage was amazing, I don't remember that being taken. We had never in our lives been dictated to about what we put in our sets, it was a classic mistake, we thought 'um, well, we're not from this country, let's listen to them'.

"It's like I was telling kids in a music class last week, one of the most important things is that nobody knows best about what is best for your music than you."

What's next for the group?

"Right now I'm trying to write a list of top 10 90s alternative records for Rolling Stone magazine," Toogood says. "Then we play Splendour in the Grass festival and then do more shows in September."

The group are in talks with Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman, who produced Shihad's album Churn, to perform in Egypt.

"I like the idea because it's so f...... out there. I went through a Churn rediscovery so it ties in with me quite nicely and I've always wanted to go to Egypt."

Toogood reckons that, ultimately, the movie is less about Shihad and more about the New Zealand artistic mentality.

"It's so different from the norm. It's not a 9-to-5 job. It's not a New Zealand music story, it's just a New Zealand story.

"No-one comes off looking like a bad guy, people are just people. Sam's made a really beautiful New Zealand documentary.

"He's made a great film, it doesn't even matter that it's about Shihad."

The Press