Alive and picking Tim Elliott
Subject and narrator ... Chad Morgan (left) with Tex Perkins.
Hellraising country music legend Chad Morgan defies the odds to star in I'm Not Dead Yet, writes Tim Elliott.
On January 21, 2008, a report went out on Queensland radio that Chad Morgan, the buck-toothed balladeer and sheik from Scrubby Creek, was dead. ''Gave me
sister an awful fright,'' Morgan says. ''She went off her brain. I rang up the station and corrected them. But, hey, I have been dying for 50 years. In the
old days, when I was drinking real heavy, everybody was always saying, 'He'll be dead in a year.' So I'm kind of used to it.''
Morgan, who has not touched a drink in 26 years, is very much alive, still howling like a badly shot dog, touring and making music. At a not-so-sprightly
78, he is also the subject of a documentary called, rather fittingly, I'm Not Dead Yet, by Sydney director Janine Hosking.
''Chad is one of the original country music legends, along with Slim Dusty, Smoky Dawson and Buddy Williams,'' Hosking says. ''Chad is the only one still
alive and he's the only one to have received so little recognition.''
Hosking's film is narrated by long-time fan Tex Perkins. It tracks Morgan as he and his second wife, Joanie, make their way around NSW and Queensland,
playing in an array of typically low-key venues - shopping centres, RSLs, country pubs - on their way to Chad receiving a lifetime achievement award at
the 2010 Country Music Association of Australia Awards in Tamworth.
But the movie also offers a loving look back at the artist's extraordinary career, which began in 1952 when the nervous 19-year-old appeared on Australia's
Amateur Hour to sing a self-penned song called The Sheik of Scrubby Creek.
With his enormous, buck-toothed donkey grin and now legendary ''nappy hat'', Morgan made an unlikely star but his performance that night won him a record
contract, setting the stage for an unconventional and turbulent career. Despite his alcoholism, Morgan is a survivor, having toured with everyone from
Slim Dusty and Normie Rowe to Mental as Anything, his hillbilly energy connecting with audiences for 60 years.
''I've never changed,'' he says. ''People can see a lot of themselves or someone they know in the songs I write and it makes me seem like I'm one of them.
I'm not on a big pedestal. I mix with the fans. I don't have bodyguards and I don't have [an] agent - they only rip you off.''
In a sense, it's lucky he's even alive. There have been motorbike accidents, car crashes, fights and prolific womanising (in 1992, he told journalist Bruce
Elder about drinking a man under the table: ''After he passed out, I got his missus in the cot. That's the kind of mongrel I was'').
Then there were the guns. Once, while touring north Queensland, he shot a can off the head of fellow musician Trevor Day. ''Trevor dared me and when I said, 'Don't be stupid,' he said, 'You don't have the guts,' So I went 'OK, fine.' He stood about 50 yards away and I got my .303/25 calibre hunting rifle and aimed at the top rim of the can so as not to blow his head off.
''He was shitting himself, too, because when it hit, the can spun on his head and he thought he'd been shot.''
Hosking says the fact Morgan doesn't have a record company or a manager made for very honest filmmaking. ''When we met up to discuss the project, I told
Chad that I wanted to do a warts-and-all kind of thing,'' Hosking says. ''He just went 'OK,' as if he hadn't considered there was any alternative. That's
when I knew, yep, this was going to work out.''
THE SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL
June 8-19, various city venues, sff.org.au, $15-$17. I'm Not Dead Yet screens Tuesday, June 14, 8.30pm, Event Cinemas, 505 George Street.
Best of the rest
''From the daring approaches of our official competition films to the inspirational subjects of the Foxtel Australian Documentary Prize line-up, this
year's festival is a rousing chorus of vision, inquiry and creativity,'' says the director of the Sydney Film Festival, Clare Stewart.
The festival kicks off with Hanna, in which director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), swaps bonnet drama for lethal action. Fearless, exacting
and beautiful, 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) lives in the wilds of Finland with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA agent who is training her to be
an assassin. Scored by the Chemical Brothers, this film is ''intense and surreal'', Stewart says, ''high-octane espionage overlaid with fascinating imagery
Stewart also recommends A Separation, an Iranian drama about a husband and wife whose complicated divorce triggers a piercing examination of the roles of
ethics, truth, class and religion in Iran.
From Australia, meanwhile, we have Sleeping Beauty, an unsettling erotic fairytale by award-winning author and first-time director Julia Leigh, in which
Emily Browning plays the socially isolated but sexually bewitching Lucy. Or, for a somewhat different side of Australia, check out Toomelah, by
Inverell-born director Ivan Sen. Set on an Aboriginal mission north of Moree, this brutally honest film follows 10-year-old boxer Daniel (Daniel Connors)
and the tangled allegiances that drag him into a cycle of violence.
Also highly anticipated is Terrence Malick's new feature and Cannes 2011 Palme d'Or winner, The Tree of Life. Slipping between the 1950s and the
contemporary US, this unusually labyrinthine film stars Brad Pitt as a tyrannical father and Sean Penn as his son, Jack, who, once grown, must navigate
between dreams and memory to reconcile with the past.
Stewart is equally a fan of The Beaver, in which Mel Gibson plays a man suffering from depression; Take Shelter, a psychological thriller set in small-town
Ohio; and Bear, a stunt and action comedy short film from the ever-reliable Nash Edgerton.
''I also like the idea of ending at the beginning,'' Stewart says, explaining why she chose to close the festival with Beginners, a bittersweet romantic
comedy from director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), in which Ewan McGregor plays a reclusive bachelor who risks everything for love. ''It's stylistically really
inventive, drawing on everything from the silent slapstick of Buster Keaton to graphic drawings,'' Stewart says.''
THE SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL
June 8-19, city venues, for screening times and to book tickets see sff.org.au, $15-$17.
With Thanks to
Fri 3rd June 2011