Gurrumul Directed by Paul Damien Williams
Published Apr 26, 2018Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was a man of few words. Blind from birth and raised in an Indigenous tribe in Australia, English was maybe his fourth or fifth language anyway. But when he opened his mouth to sing, he said everything you needed to know about him. The documentary Gurrumul serves as a stirring tribute to the late singer, managing to capture the soul of a reclusive and quiet artist who shied away from stardom, but remained dedicated to sharing his gift with the world.
Hailing from Galiwin'ku, Elcho Island in northern Australia, Gurrumul learned how to play an upside-down guitar as a child, an unorthodox method that would never change, and went on to be a member of the popular Australian band Yothu Yindi. The multi-instrumentalist would later pursue a career as a solo artist, singing stories of his homeland in predominantly Yolngu languages. The film doesn't take long before introducing his preternatural ability to the uninitiated, as we see Gurrumul laying down a vocal track in an isolated studio booth, where his voice rings out with its signature purity.
For someone who avoided the spotlight, there's thankfully no shortage of moments from his life captured on camera. Most of them find Gurrumul accompanied by collaborator Michael Hohnen, an Australian producer and bass player who clearly became a trusted friend. Whether Gurrumul is in the studio recording an album or touring the world, Hohnen is almost always beside him to make sure he feels comfortable. Their relationship is a touching staple throughout his career, and the pair appear to get along just as well personally as they do creatively.
Though his talent was immense, working with Gurrumul was not always easy for those around him. At one point in the documentary, Gurrumul participates in a televised performance of "Every Breath You Take" alongside Sting, but is so far removed from the industry that he has no idea who Sting even is, let alone know how to play the song on guitar. It makes it even funnier when Sting pops into Gurrumul's dressing room after the performance to say hello, and is made so uncomfortable by Gurrumul's typically subdued manner that he eventually makes a slightly inappropriate joke that lands with a thud before heading on his way.
Gurrumul's reluctance to play the fame game ran deeper than just being ignorant of Sting though, as his producer and manager were forced to accept the fact that his family and home were always going to be the highest priority for him. It's hard to begrudge him for his motivations when we meet Gurrumul's family and learn just how different his tranquil way of life was from the more traditional pursuit of money and acclaim. But it made it incredibly difficult to plan things like tours or albums when Gurrumul was raised in a culture where everyone lives for the moment without thinking of tomorrow.
It's thoroughly refreshing to find a musician so wholly uninterested in anything but communicating his ideas and melodies. The greatest testament to his power is a scene in the documentary where Gurrumul performs in a record store, and the camera captures the reactions of various customers hearing him for the first time while they mindlessly thumb through rows of albums. One by one, they stop what they are doing immediately and make a beeline over to witness the raw power of his inimitable voice.