A consideration of the life and work of musician, the late Rowland S. Howard. From his teenage years in 1970s Melbourne through his international musical adventures and on to his recent death, AUTOLUMINESCENT documents the fascinating life of an important and independent voice in music.
The Melbourne punk scene of the late ‘70s created a number of cult figures and Howard was one of the most influential. Never a household name, his song writing and guitar work was respected immensely by his musical peers. Some of these folk, like Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore to name three of the more famous, have been interviewed for the documentary. Naturally, Nick Cave and Mick Harvey of The Birthday Party are also interviewed and their comments are very revealing.
Howard’s years as a member of The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party are well documented. The film provides no end of photographs and video showing the people, places and the gigs of that era. The rest of Howard’s career is dealt with more haphazardly, perhaps reflecting the reality of a creatively restless existence and his long-term heroin use. The timeline of the film gets harder to track from the forming of his band These Immortal Souls (1988) onward. Some of this has to do with the creative decisions made by the filmmakers Lowenstein and Milburn. Keeping track of who did what and to whom and when, is difficult because of the huge number of people involved, but the lax attitude to naming interviewees properly, doesn’t help the situation.
Howard’s personal life is glimpsed through interviews with ex-girlfriends, partners and siblings, however no clear picture emerges of what, other than music, motivated this guarded artist. Howard himself speaks both in old interviews and in footage shot very close to the time of his death. He was well aware that he might die of the liver cancer he had contracted. His memory of the past is funny and insightful, but he still remains a private figure.
As a sidebar, there is also recent interview material from Howard in the half-hour documentary We’re Living On Dog Food that Lowenstein made to accompany the 2009 DVD re-release of his feature DOGS IN SPACE (which was also set in this world). This short documentary is a fine complement to AUTOLUMINESCENT and as of the time of writing this review, it was available for viewing on ABC’s Artscape ‘blog.
Australians, aren’t particularly good at chronicling our own cultural history; talking about our musicians, writers and filmmakers in a thoughtful and comparative way is simply not something we do often or naturally. AUTOLUMINESCENT has its flaws, but it also is a timely document of a unique creative life. AUTOLUMINESCENT is currently screening in Perth. It runs for 110 minutes. I rated it 3.5/5.