When he’s not telling tales of Red Dog in the Pilbara, he’s bringing Australian soldiers stories to life with films like Danger Close. In between, he’s reworking Australian classics like Wake in Fright into modern TV revisions, and traipsing around The Pacific with Sam Neill, all the while building up a filmography as a documentary filmmaker as well. In 2017, Stenders released his first music documentary, The Go-Betweens: Right Here, an engaging talking heads flickabout Brisbane band The Go-Betweens. Now, in 2020, he’s delivering yet another music documentary, this time focusing on country music icons Slim Dusty and Joy McKean, in the wandering gem that is Slim & I.
This expansive film covers the life and legacy of Slim Dusty, Australia’s grandest and greatest country music legend who amassed over his career an astonishing 107 albums. To prove the enduring affection that Dusty has in Australia, one just has to look at the history making milestone that his ‘best of’ album, The Very Best of Slim Dusty, made, with it lasting for 1000 weeks in the ARIA Country Albums Chart, after its release in 1998.
Thanks to pristine archival footage that had me asking myself whether it was recreated for this film (it wasn’t, it just reminds how alive film looks), we get to see the travelling team that was Slim Dusty and Joy McKean. Pleading ignorance here, growing up I was completely unaware of the role that Joy McKean (Slim’s wife, manager, and songwriter) had in making Slim the success he was. Sure, I knew of his iconic songs, The Pub with No Beer and Duncan, these sing songs about drinking and familiar Aussie mateship that have easily immersed themselves into Australian culture, but I didn’t know that so much of his success came with the push and drive of his partner.
This is where Slim & I soars, with the charming talent of Joy getting equal screentime as Slim does. Separated from her family for three years due to polio, Joy found comfort in music, and in turn, discover the delight of the wonder of yodelling, the style of singing called the ‘guitar solo of country music’. As Hillbilly music started to form, becoming the ‘punk music’ of its day, Joy, Slim, and countless other Australian music lovers found comfort and freedom within country music.
Together, Slim and Joy managed to forge a career that changed rural Australia, bringing folks together in a harmonious manner through their charming style of music. But, without Joy, it’s questionable whether Slim would have been the success that he was, as she helped push Slim to realise and focus on his artistry, ensuring that he wasn’t swayed by dalliances into vices that would have possibly ruined his music career. Additionally, many of the iconic Slim Dusty songs were written by Joy McKean, with Joy winning the first Golden Guitar award for writing Lights on the Hill, a beautiful ode to truck driving in the outback.
As Slim and Joy drive from town to town, making the best of Australia’s outback to spread their music in an era where television was a rarity, we’re able to see the continent-wide smiles that folks have on their dials when they get to meet these music legends. The impact that Slim Dusty’s music had on country towns and those who live there spreads across time is felt from the many voices who mourned Slim’s passing. Some seventeen years on, Slim Dusty remains a legend, a figurehead for country music, and a benchmark for many aspiring musicians to attain.
Stenders goes to great lengths to ensure that the gravity of Slim Dusty and Joy McKean’s importance in the Australian music industry is fully realised, with equally iconic musicians like Paul Kelly, Kasey Chambers, Missy Higgins, and Keith Urban (who toured with Slim in his twilight years), all providing heartwarming remarks about the impact that people like Slim and Joy had on their lives. For Dusty faithfuls, the chance to hear snippets of his songs performed by these great artists will fill you with joy, and while I certainly would have loved to hear more of Dusty’s songs covered at length, I understand that this is not the film for that.
What Slim & I is though, is a joyfully endearing and exciting documentary that celebrates a pair of true blue Aussie icons. Country music may not be my music wheelhouse, but Slim Dusty and Joy McKean are part of my Australian cultural history, and I’m left all the more richer for having been afforded a stroll down their country music legacy lane.
Equally so, Kriv Stenders affection and dedication to Australian history far and wide positively drips from every frame of his filmography, with a keen interest in celebrating the icons and the legends that helped make Australia the country it is today. Whether it’s Robert Forster, Grant McLennan, and Lindsay Morrison, or Peter Brock, or the great ANZAC’s, or a mysterious dog in the outback, or even a couple of country music legends, there’s a celebration of all things Aussie in Stenders work. There is simply no other Australian director working as hard or consistently as Kriv is today, and for that reason alone, his output needs to be applauded.
Slim & I is his finest documentary, a kind harmonious treat that surprises with its openness and eagerness to embrace you in the charm of country music. I may not have appreciated country music prior to watching Slim & I, but I certainly have welcomed it into my heart after it. A delight for all ages.
Director: Kriv Stenders
Featuring: Slim Dusty, Joy McKean, Missy Higgins, Paul Kelly, Keith Urban
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