Review: Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

2011 has been a great year for documentaries, especially ones with highly specialist topics, who knew motorsports could actually be interesting (TT3D, Senna)? Adding to this year’s pedigree is Australian doco Autoluminescent, which looks at the impact of guitarist/singer/songwriter Rowland S. Howard‘s music. Howard, who is probably best known as the guitarist in The Birthday Party, is a cult figure for some and for the rest of us, an unknown quantity.

But this is the beauty of a good doco, getting to know about a topic or a person that started out as a complete mystery. Filmmakers Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn use archival footage and talking head interviews, as well as still images and recordings, to introduce us to Howard, who appeared on the St Kilda punk scene in the 1970s as a teenage dandy/Byron-esque figure. After the implosion of his teenage band, Howard joined The Boys Next Door in 1978, who would go on to change their name to The Birthday Party in 1979. The film shows how his pioneering guitar sound and enigmatic personality, as well as his gifted songwriting abilities propelled The Birthday Party forward musically.

With talking head interviews featuring the likes of Nick Cave and other fellow Birthday Partiers, as well as international figures like Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), as well as film director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), Howard’s impact on the post-punk music scene is thrown into context by the people praising his unique guitar sound and songwriting abilities.

The politics of the inner workings and egos of a touring band are interestingly explored in this film, though the filmmakers do little to hide their bias towards Howard and somewhat underplay his substance abuse issues.  The old footage from concerts in Australia and West Berlin, as well as the recordings create a nostalgia for the music, even if you don’t remember it from the first time round.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay this documentary is that after watching it, I immediately sought out Howard’s music. And that is what it is all about really, the music. Although this film will obviously interest Howard’s fans, even those who are unaware of his legacy will find Autoluminescent a fascinating dip into the life of a musical genius.

Autoluminescent was released in Australia on October 27th

Directors:Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn

About Beth Wilson

A Brit based in Sydney, Beth is constantly fighting for an organised queuing system and the right to call chips, crisps. She can often be found working at film festivals around NSW, and has become accustomed to surviving on very little sleep. You can follow her on twitter at @bflwilson