When Kaye Harrison set out to make a schizophrenia documentary she had no idea her subject would make a come-back to music. It’s a fitting chapter in the long and often complex history of The Sunnyboys and unsurprising that once again a curveball would appear out of leftfield. Except that this time this ball has resulted in a home-run- an excellent feature documentary about one enigmatic creature.
The Sunnyboy had its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid Festival. It tells the story of Jeremy Saxon Oxley, the frontman of The Sunnyboys and its execution captures this big man to a tee. The film reflects his humour, musical prowess, intelligence and passion in what is a raw but ultimately hopeful and uplifting story.
The documentary includes interviews with Oxley’s Sunnyboy bandmates: his elder bass-playing brother, Peter; their childhood friend and drummer, Bil Bilson and guitarist, Richard Burgman. Oxley’s parents and partner are also interviewed along with Australian music luminaries like Michael Gudinski, Peter Garrett, John Watson and Stuart Coupe. The Sunnyboy also features lots of music, archive photos and footage of the band from their musical heyday and beyond.
The story goes that Jeremy Oxley was a child prodigy. A young surfing champion, he would go on to write songs and play guitar riffs that were so mature and emotional, i.e. way beyond his youthful years. The band achieved much success with their eponymous debut but failed to back this up on their two follow-up records (the former due to production issues while the latter was marred by the overblown excesses typical with that period).
But despite these roadblocks the group’s live following increased and pressures mounted. But the junior Oxley was floundering. His alcohol intake had spiralled out of control because he was self-medicating in order to deal with the voices he heard in his head as a result of his paranoid schizophrenia. The group disbanded and the members went on to work on other musical projects, among other things (Burgman would famously go on to play with Weddings, Parties, Anything and The Saints).
The Sunnyboy is a multi-faceted documentary that gives a history of the band and Oxley’s withdrawal from the Australian music scene. It shows how he was eventually able to get his psychological disorder under control with appropriate medication; how he had to repair previously fractious relationships; and most importantly, how he found love and re-emerged valiantly (after no less than two decades) with his old mates to play at the Hoodoo Guru’s Dig It Up! Festival to 2500 people in 2012.
The story is a must-see for all Sunnyboys’ fans and for anyone interested in learning more about mental illness and schizophrenia in particular. Oxley is one charismatic, colourful and interesting character. He’s full of witty one-liners (like introducing himself as “Jesus” to his partner, Mary, or sipping out of a “rockstar” mug. There’s also the time he turned a gold record into a bullet-hole laden sculpture, and the list goes on).
In some ways there is an air of both Ian Curtis and Keith Moon about Oxley. On the one hand there is the introspective and intelligent poet but the flipside is that Oxley is also a big child with a mean, self-destructive streak. But unlike those other musicians, Oxley’s at least lived to tell the tale.
Harrison has done an exceptional job of maintaining a sensitive, fly-on-the-wall stance with her work. She was also given unprecedented access to rare, archive material. Sunnyboys’ trainspotters will enjoy watching the old home movies from the Oxley family and listening to audio of Jeremy at age 11 speaking on a cassette tape.
The Sunnyboy is one complex and powerful tale of redemption. Its many interwoven facets are reflective of the crowded and often chaotic brain of its genius star. Oxley is no angel but he’s got one interesting life story and his exuberant personality makes for compelling, if not exhausting viewing.
Review score: 4 stars.
Originally published on 4 June 2013 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/review/sydney-film-festival-the-sunnyboy-australia-2013
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