Directed by: Poppy Stockell
Released: May 18, 2023
Grade: B+

John Farnham: Finding the Voice

It’s rare to see an Australian documentary released widely in big multiplexes across the country but there’s enough faith from the distributor of John Farnham: Finding the Voice to give it a whirl.  Farnham is an Aussie music icon and while the doco is not revolutionary in terms of style and content, it provides a fitting tribute to the singer’s talent and perseverance.  As we’ve learned from countless music biopics, it’s often a long, windy road to the top for most performers (and it’s even harder to stay on top).

Farnham’s life story is told in chronological order and begins back in the mid-1960s when he was a young, naive upstart singing about Sadie the Cleaning Lady.  The archival footage we see is in black and white – a reminder of just how long ago it was when Farnham started out.  It’s easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight but the next two decades were a struggle professionally, financially, and mentally.  It wasn’t until “Whispering Jack” became a smash hit in 1986 that Farnham truly capitalised on his talent and found international fame.

As if mirroring Farnham’s career, this documentary has gone through its fair share of ups and downs in being produced.  It was a passion project for Glenn Wheatley, the singer’s long-time manager, but sadly, Wheatley passed away in February 2022 at the age of 74.  The film was roughly half complete at the time with Wheatley having recorded an insightful interview, considered to be one of his last, which is seen throughout the film.

Wheatley’s death clearly had an impact on the film.  The finished product of director Poppy Stockell feels as much of a homage to Wheatley as it is to Farnham.  There’s nothing wrong with that approach but some are rushed given time constraints.  Wheatley spending 10 months in prison for tax evasion comes across as an innocuous, throw-away comment which itself could have been the subject of an entire feature length film.  At least it might prompt audiences to do a little post-film reading – rarely a bad thing when it comes to docos.

A bunch of talking heads appear on screen to chat about their memory of events and/or their general admiration for Farnham himself.  The list includes recognisable stars like Celine Dion, Robbie Williams, Jimmy Barnes, Daryl Braithwaite, and Jimmy Emmanuel, but also family members and long-time band members.  Two faces are noticeably absent.  We hear from the late Olivia Newton-John but it’s audio as opposed to video given her health issues at the time.  Farnham isn’t heard from at all.  Given his recent battle with a cancerous tumour, Stockwell relies on archival interviews in telling his version of happenings (as opposed to a reflective, current day conversation looking back).

It takes a while to warm up but the power of John Farnham: Finding the Voice comes from its interviewees.  Some of them become quite expressive and that vibe passes through the screen and onto viewers.  It’s what great storytellers can do – tell a tale which pulls you in.  It also allows the emotion of the moment to be passed from one to the other.  It’s hard not to be moved watching Gaynor Wheatley speak about her late husband and time spent alongside Farnham.

Regardless of how much you know about John Farnham and the Australian music industry, there’s something to take away from John Farnham: Finding the Voice.