The independent scene that emerged from Dunedin, New Zealand, in the early 1980s had all the strange qualities musical trainspotters around the world associate with isolation. Hamish Kilgour from the Clean describes the city as a cauldron, with the low-hanging sky its lid. It’s a creative pressure cooker from which artists must escape.
In the decades since, the bands that steamed from the top of that cauldron have gone global. Next to the Clean, the biggest name is Martin Phillipps, the legendary leader – of 21 different lineups – of the Chills. They were the definitive Dunedin band, with a strange, light, airy, eerie, breezy magic that both matched the city’s geography and transcended it.
But they were cursed. The subtitle of The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy of Martin Phillipps – a new documentary by Julia Parnell and Rob Curry – tells you that this is, first and foremost, a portrait of the artist. A consummate songwriter, Phillipps appears as both a driven man and a lost boy, emotionally cut off from those drawn into his orbit to help him realise his vision.
The film opens in the interior of Phillipps’ home. Over the haunted opening notes of Pink Frost (“That’s fine art, according to me,” we hear Iggy Pop say, on a radio show), Phillipps pulls out his keyboard – then breaks into Heavenly Pop Hit, which wasn’t so much his biggest hit as his nearest miss.
Spliced amid scenes of festival crowds, ecstatic gigs and the video clip of the song, Phillipps climbs into a decrepit car and drives himself to hospital to receive the results of his liver function tests. Phillipps has hepatitis C. He is told, with medical precision, that he has a 31 percent chance of dying within 12 months.
Then he is given a guarantee: “If you do keep drinking, Martin, you will die,” the physician says.
There is so much about the Chills’ story that is, on the face of it, cliched. After a number of acclaimed singles and EPs, Phillipps, whose best songs are touched with a sense of wonder, signs his band to a multi-album deal with a US label, Slash. When the hits fail to materialise, he sinks into a fog of heroin addiction, alcoholism, depression and withdrawal.
But Parnell and Curry treat their subject with unusual sensitivity, helped by Phillipps’ extraordinary candour. He allows them access to every step of his treatment process, as well as to his archives (he is an obsessive collector). Around him, other band members, each of them individually numbered, step forward to speak.
What they have to say is just as unfiltered. The former drummer Caroline Easther (Chill No. 12) says Phillipps made her feel anxious. The bassist Justin Harwood (Chill No. 14) comments that he didn’t know if he was needed or expendable. He came to the latter conclusion after Phillipps told him he planned to write the bass parts on the band’s next album himself.
Another bass player, Terry Moore (No. 6), who played in two stints with the band, wonders if he’s going to be next. The drummer Jimmy Stephenson (No. 15) has been left traumatised. In tears, he pulls out a gold record of the band’s biggest album, Submarine Bells, the glass cracked after falling off his wall in an earthquake: to him it’s symbol of both “great success and shattered dreams”.
In between, we watch Phillipps going through piles of junk as he reassesses his life, sorting the detritus from the essentials. Preparing for an art exhibition – while spray-painting a mummified cat – he muses that “it’s much more fun working as a team on anything. But I’m not going to sacrifice the quality for just a bit of team spirit.” Phillipps remained Chill No. 1.
Over it all, Dunedin hovers. “The black cloud rolled in and it was there for a good long stay,” says Chill No. 26, Phil Kusabs. He’s speaking of Phillipps but he may as well be talking about the city, for its combination of suburban blandness and gothic grandeur. We see trees bent out of shape by the elements and the forest in which Pink Frost was shot behind the town.
It’s beautifully filmed, suffusing the documentary with an atmosphere to match the Chills’ glorious music, and we get to hear much of that, too. But it’s never allowed to get in the way of the story – there’s no recounting of the band’s discography and, other than Neil Finn and the aforementioned Iggy Pop, no higher luminaries are called on to affirm the band’s standing.
Phillipps’ story resonates because despite his self-involvement, it’s bigger than he is. It’s about artistic integrity, self-realisation, self-acceptance and a reflection on mortality. Towards the end of this sad, lovely film, the emotional rush is equivalent to the Dunedin surf washing on to the cold beaches – it finishes far more optimistically than it promises to.
As a fan, I wanted to punch the air. And of course, it will be fans of the Chills who queue up first to see this documentary. If you’ve not yet had the distinctive pleasure of hearing his band, the triumph and tragedy of Phillipps’ story will make you one for life.
First published in The Guardian, 14 June 2019