Many Australians know of country music legend Slim Dusty. A dedicated group of fans even know the woman behind the legend, was his wife Joy McKean. The new feature length documentary SLIM & I, charts the fifty-plus years in which their partnership created an extraordinary legacy of Australian music and entertainment.
Slim Dusty was born David Gordon Kirkpatrick in 1927 in New South Wales. He wanted to be a musician from childhood and struggled with his family’s wish that he continue their cattle farming business. He spent his teen years performing and songwriting, recording his first song at the age of 19. While Slim was making his name travelling the country music circuit, Joy McKean (born 1930) and her younger sister Heather, were singing stars on radio 2KY having a weekly half-hour show. In the early fifties, Joy met Slim and they quickly formed a musical and romantic partnership.
Dusty’s international hit The Pub with No Beer was recorded in 1957 and was written by his friend Gordon Parsons. Many of his other songs were the work of McKean. She became responsible for other aspects of the act, which they toured all around Australia from 1964 onward. She was a musician and a singer and also the tour manager who took care of the bookings, ticketing, publicity and money. She looked after their children and organised the other members of the band. The fans saw and heard Slim, but all the levers of this entertainment enterprise were expertly controlled by McKean.
This extremely successful act that generated a multitude of recordings and won many awards was also notable for the number of times it travelled around the country. Slim and Joy made sure they visited every region and small town they could. Perhaps surprisingly, for those not familiar with Slim’s work, his songs were popular with Indigenous audiences because the band got out to as many communities as possible.
The film’s director Kriv Stenders is best known for his films RED DOG (2011) and DANGER CLOSE: THE BATTLE OF LONG TAN (2019). He is also responsible for an excellent documentary THE GO-BETWEENS: RIGHT HERE (2017). The strength of that piece was the extensive interviewing and the rhythm of the skilfully edited story. Stenders could not interview Slim, who died in 2003, but he did have access to Joy McKean who is in her 90s and is still capable of telling stories and commenting on her life. As with the Go-Betweens’ doco, the editing and cinematography is first rate.
There is a wealth of on-the-road photographs and cinefilm supplied by Joy and other members of the family. Stenders has also taken the unusual decision to portray some of the events of Joy and Slim life using footage from THE SLIM DUSTY MOVIE made in 1984. That film (directed by Rob Stewart) was something of a hybrid, dramatising Slim and Joy’s early years (where they were played by actors Jon Blake and Mary Charleston), but including some later footage of the real participants. The result is that the production values of what would normally be inexpensive re-enactments are much higher than expected and give the Stender’s film an extra level of gloss.
There are also some fine talking heads speaking about their experience of the music and legacy of Slim and Joy, including: Keith Urban, Missy Higgins, Paul Kelly, Don Walker, Kasey Chambers, Bill Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley, Chad Morgan, Heather McKean, Anne Kirkpatrick and Darren Hanlon. Higgins and Cassar-Daley each sing a McKean penned song – beautifully.
SLIM & I is a lovely tribute to Slim Dusty and it reframes the career of Joy McKean giving it the proper perspective and respect it deserves. 106 minutes. (8/10)