Playing a round of word association can be an effective way to come to terms with a film director’s style. Pick a director, then ask: what descriptors instantly spring to mind?
When I think about the veteran Australian filmmaker Richard Lowenstein, who has been plying his trade in the local film, TV and music industry since the early 1980s, it’s: Cool. Grimy. Punky. Rocky. Scuzzy. Zeitgeisty. Dynamic. Distinctive.
The key to Lowenstein’s success is, particularly, that last word. Like the best auteurs, his films are unmistakably ‘his’. He filmed what he knew. His oeuvre is stuffed full of punks, rockers, wastoids, counterculturalists and iconoclasts. The 61-year-old director very much drank the bong water, living and working in this space since his youth. Stained couches and bars with live gigs and sticky carpets are his natural habitat.
Lowenstein’s films include last year’s Mystify: Michael Hutchence and the 1986 cult classic Dogs In Space. He’s directed four features to date, a handful of documentaries plus loads of music videos for major artists, including U2, Hunters & Collectors, Pete Townshend and especially INXS, for which he helmed more than a dozen and a half. Where do you start? Right here.
Lowenstein’s most legendary feature – the cult classic Dogs In Space – left an indelible mark on Australian cinema, remaining compulsory viewing decades after its initial release. The film, while fictional, has the weight of a quasi-historical document, capturing a very specific time and place: terrace house living in Melbourne in the late ’70s, during the post-punk ‘little bands’ scene.
The legendary Michael Hutchence headlines the cast with an oddly flamboyant performance as Sam, frontman of the titular band. Textured with a social realist aesthetic, the film has little plot and lots of excess. There’s loads of drug- and booze-enabled partying and gigging, leading into a cautionary message about the human and emotional toll of leading hedonistic lifestyles.
With its erratic energy and shaggy production values, Dogs In Space feels like a debut feature. In fact, Lowenstein’s first had arrived a couple of years prior. Strikebound is an overlooked period drama capturing the fight for worker’s rights in Gippsland, Victoria in the late 1930s, when employees of the Sunbeam coal mine went to war with management. The story is action- rather than character-driven, capturing various initiatives from the workers including strikes, protests, beating up scabs and barricading themselves down a mine shaft.
The performances are uniformly impressive and the film has a gritty, lived-in texture that perfectly suits the settings and time period. It feels mature, considered and tonally impeccable – a notable achievement given Lowenstein was only 25 when he made it. Strikebound is among the most impressive Australian feature film debuts from the 1980s, despite having made little impact here or abroad. A restored director’s cut is available on Vimeo.
With Dogs In Space seared in the public consciousness, Lowenstein returned to shared house living – perhaps in an attempt to rekindle some of the bong water-infused magic – substantially later with his Noah Taylor-led adaptation of John Birmingham’s bestselling book, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand (which arrived in 2001).
Lowenstein mostly sees comedy where he previously saw drama and tragedy, and creates a decent, enjoyable, unexceptional picture. He also directed a hard-to-find 1993 film called Say A Little Prayer, about a 11-year-old boy and his relationship with a drug-addled young woman.
In 1987, a big lineup of marquee local acts came together to put on an epic festival that toured six Australian cities, filling stadiums with the likes of INXS, Jimmy Barnes, Divinyls and The Triffids. It was an influential event in Australian music, designed to counter the perception that homegrown acts couldn’t compete with international headliners. INXS frontman Michael Hutchence reportedly said during the tour: “It’s grown-up time. We’ve come of age. This has proved that we’re part of the world music scene.”
All the acts were in fine form, and Australian Made: The Movie shows them belting out a heap of showstopping tunes including, among many others, renditions of ‘Ride The Night Away’ (Jimmy Barnes), ‘Temperamental’ (Divinyls) and ‘What You Need’ (INXS). (It also captures activities far from important than the music, such as the shotgunning of a tinnie at 7 in the morning.)
Edited by the great Jill Billcock, who also edited Dogs In Space, the cuts are so intuitive you barely even notice them. Mixed in with the stage performances are interviews with musicians and audience members, conducted by Troy Davies.
You wouldn’t know it from watching this film (given the focus is never on him) but Davies is a hell of a character: an artist, cross-dresser, sex worker and drug user very much deserving of his own documentary. And that is precisely what he got in 2016’s Ecco Homo, which Lowenstein co-directed with Lynn-Maree Milburn and, to me, marks the peak of his powers as a documentarian. Executive produced by Bono and Ben Mendelsohn, Ecco Homo asks: just who was this peculiar and mysterious individual? Do we care? Should we care? Short answer: you will by the end of it.
Lowenstein and Milburn embrace their subject’s life as one gigantic puzzle, full of missing and mismatched pieces. It was clearly intended to be a detective story; interviewees are even listed as “participants” in credits. Chances are you’ve never heard of Davies, but it doesn’t matter. Ecco Homo is an engrossing exploration of a mysterious person with a foot in celebrity culture and the post-punk drug-washed haze of Melbourne circa the ’80s.
That haze is the backdrop to much of Lowenstein’s work, imbuing it with a sticky and gaseous quality. From 2009 to 2019, the director made three other feature-length documentaries addressing that haze and that time period, directly and indirectly: We’re Livin’ On Dog Food (2009), Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (2011) and Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019). How much you engage with each of these films depends on how interested you are in their subjects.
Like Dogs In Space and Strikebound, We’re Livin’ On Dog Food explores a particular time and place: the underground music scene in Melbourne circa the late ’70s and early ’80s. Mystify and Autoluminescent are obviously more star-driven. I prefer the latter, given Mystify seems uncertain about the best narrative hooks with which to frame the story of the legendary late musician.
Time to turn off the lights, crank up the music and tee up some music videos, Lowenstein style. The largest chunk of the director’s work in this field was as the go-to filmmaker for INXS, creating a ton of their official videos.
Among the most famous is the music video for ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, during which Hutchence drifts around the streets of Prague. He begins next to a mist-covered lake, singing and clasping his gloved hands in the cold. Just as two lovers appear in the foreground wrapped up in an emotional embrace, we hear those immortal words: “I was standing. You were there. Two worlds colliding…”
This was one of three music videos Lowenstein shot for the brand in the Czech capital, the other two being for ‘New Sensation’ (with Hutchence looking schmicker, in tie and button-up shirt) and ‘Guns In The Sky’. In the late ’80s, Lowenstein directed two music videos for U2: ‘Desire’ and ‘Angel Of Harlem’. The former, which was filmed in Hollywood, combines glimpses of street life – people at magazine stands, in phone booths, hanging out on balconies – with black-and-white footage of the band performing. Bono prances around in an open black vest and akubra hat.
Lowenstein combined monochrome and colour again (sometimes in the same shot) in his music video for Crowded House’s ‘Into Temptation’. He worked with the band again in 1986 for ‘Mean To Me’, featuring the group performing in what appears to be an airport hangar. The footage is spruced up with animation and pop art-like elements, as if doodled over with ink and painted blobs. It’s bright, colourful and very ’80s.
The magnum opus of Lowenstein’s music video body of work to date is an epic experimental project that blurs the line between music video, film and documentary. It is 1985’s White City, which was billed as a “longform video” adaptation of The Who man Pete Townshend’s fourth studio album, ‘White City: A Novel’. With a running time of almost 60 minutes, this audacious production folds together tracks from the album into a sprawling concoction of places and images – capturing, for instance, a housing estate in London, near where Townshend grew up, and a poolside concert involving synchronised swimmers.
If released nowadays, White City would most likely be labelled a “visual album” – the terminology Beyoncé has used to describe her lavish productions Lemonade (2016) and Black Is King (2020). It embodies many of Lowenstein’s traits and virtues. It’s cool, grimy, rocky, scuzzy, dynamic. And, of course, distinctive.