Triffids movie is an absorbing tribute of one of our most soulful lyricists

Love in Bright Landscapes ★★★★
(M) 100 minutes

Broadcaster Jonathan Alley worked for more than a decade on this documentary about David McComb, the mercurial and gifted co-founder of the Triffids, whose reputation has grown each year since his early death in 1999.

The band had more success in Europe than Australia, but the Triffids were influential in the way other pre- and post-punk Australian bands were not – for their lyricism and the poetry of McComb’s songwriting. McComb has a lot in common with Nick Cave, except Cave has so far survived the temptations of band life. McComb was never equipped for the task.

He had a bad heart, like a 19th century romantic poet. He died at the age of 36, three years after a heart transplant. He was in trouble with alcohol well before that. The inquest mentioned heroin toxicity, but his wife Joanne Alach believes he did not have the will to cope with all that life threw at him. He did not stop drinking even after the transplant. Adam Peters, longtime songwriting collaborator, calls his death a f—ing waste.

The film is comprehensive and thoughtful, packed with excerpts from 74 songs, and great performance clips. Alley interviewed McComb’s elderly parents in Perth before their deaths, which adds a terrible poignancy.

Still, there are unanswered questions. As a teenager, McComb became extremely close to Will Akers, who was for a time the band’s bass player. McComb’s parents considered Akers a bad influence, because of his drug habits. Late in life, McComb released an album called Love of Will, written while Akers was in jail.

Akers is interviewed, but not about the nature of their relationship. If they were lovers, why not say so – and if not, why leave the question hanging? It appears this was a defining relationship for McComb. All the more reason not to pull the punches – unless of course, there were legal limits.

The form is pastiche, with room for the written word as well as the sung version. It’s still hard to tell how good a poet he was, given that the only collection of his poems was posthumous, but there is plenty to suggest he was one of the most soulful lyricists that Australia has produced. His connection to the landscape, and the specific landscape of his childhood in Perth, is nicely explored.

When so many other bands sounded like foreign imports, the Triffids sounded like where they were from – the suburbs of Perth. The film gives an absorbing and mostly frank portrait of McComb, his life and times. He was far from the rock star cliche, despite his early death. The film is persuasive about his talent, as well as the fact he was loved by many who still mourn him.

Love in Bright Landscapes is in cinemas from May 5.

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