Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard

Richard Gray

MIFF: Richard Lowenstein’s new documentary doesn’t simply summarise Howard’s career but quantifies the impact of it.
Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard
I gave away myself/tripped on the spiral stairs/Tumbling down the well/I fell on a soft spot/I'm white heat, I'm white hot... again.

When Melbourne musician Rowland S. Howard died in late 2009, the music industry the world over mourned the loss of a pivotal figure in not only the post-punk scene, but in rock music of the last three decades. The name may not be instantly familiar to all audiences, but Howard’s bands The Young Charlatans, The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls (to name a few) produced some of the most influential music of their time. Autoluminescent documents the life and influence of this seminal musician over his often chaotic career.

Director Richard Lowenstein is rapidly becoming the documentarian of choice for historical sojourns through Australia’s rock heritage. Autoluminescent acts as a companion piece to Lowenstein’s earlier We’re Livin’ On Dog Food (2009), a documentary portrait of the Melbourne post-punk scene, and his 1986 semi-factual feature film Dogs in Space. Yet it is primarily a document dedicated to Howard himself, crafted not only by Lowenstein but by those who worked with, knew and loved Howard.

The rock stalwart is painted as a figure that emerged fully formed onto the Melbourne scene in the late 1970s, like something out of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or a silent movie star. Indeed, central to the narrative is the dichotomy between Howard’s fragile looks and his inner demons. As if in recognition of this, Lowenstein acknowledges Howard’s passing, but doesn’t dwell on it: this is a living, breathing celebration of a legacy that in many ways, particularly thanks to films such as this, is still finding new life.

From Nick Cave, whose cover of Howard’s ‘Shivers’ is perhaps the best known of the subject’s works, Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Henry Rollins and Wim Wenders (who gave Howard’s band Crime and the City Solution feature billing in his 1986 portrait of Berlin, Wings of Desire) and a host of others, we get a holistic portrait of the musician’s web of influence. Many artists dismiss their most popular works, but with Howard there is a certain justification for not feeling connected anymore with ‘Shivers’, a song he sarcastically wrote at the age of 15 as a commentary on schoolyard crushes (“I’ve been contemplating suicide/But it doesn’t really suit my style”). For most that would be enough to rest their laurels on, right next to a series of expensive collectible guitars, but Lowenstein depicts a driven artist who has never stopped searching for ways to perfect his sound. Lowenstein’s documentary doesn’t simply summarise Howard’s career but quantifies the impact of it.

Rating: Four stars

Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard
Directed by Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn
Australia, 2011, 100 mins

Melbourne International Film Festival July 21 – August 7

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What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Gray has been writing about film for over a decade. As Editor-in-Chief of both The Reel Bits and DVD Bits, Richard is responsible for bringing movie news and reviews to viewers with diverse tastes. The sites provide broad coverage of new release and retrospective films of all genres and styles. Richard is the KOFFIA Blog Editor for the Korean Film Festival in Australia, and a member of the Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA), which in turn is a member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). Follow him on Twitter: @DVDBits