Last year filmmaker, surfer, surfboard shaper, musician and all-round renaissance man Andrew Kidman released his long-anticipated (by me, at least) 40-year tribute to seminal Australian surf film Morning of the Earth. Here's my review of the project, published on Swellnet last year.
Spirit of Akasha
I will start this review with a disclaimer; I am, and have been, a Morning of the Earth (MotE) tragic since I first discovered it back in the late 80s. I was new to surfing, but everything about it - it’s aesthetic, the surfing, the exotic locations and the way it linked surfing to something bigger, something spiritual – really caught my imagination and it has held me in its grips ever since. When I paddled out at Uluwatu last year it was the MotE Dream Chant that echoed on high rotation through my skull as I walked down the steps, through the cave and out onto the reef. MotE was the first DVD I ever bought and I have watched it on average about four times a year since then, whenever I felt a need to reconfigure my outlook or try to recapture the state of mind that the film communicates so well.
And I know that I am not alone in this, judging by the reaction following the Australian release of Spirit of Akasha in January. When I first heard Andrew Kidman had the blessings of MotE creator Albe Falzon to create a 40-year tribute to the film that meant so much to so many people, I got excited. No, that’s an understatement. As the kids say these days, I frothed. Being familiar with Kidman’s work on previous projects such as Litmus and Lost in the Ether, I couldn’t think of a better craftsman to deliver a production truly worthy of this formidable heritage.
Over the past 18 months or so I have been eagerly snapping up the hints, glimpses and snippets that Kidman, Falzon and fellow Producer Chris Moss have been releasing to the public, and the froth levels slowly but inexorably built. It got to the point where I felt compelled to contact Kidman and Moss to see if I could help them organise a screening in Adelaide, just so I wouldn’t miss out on experiencing the film on the big screen. This was realised last weekend, when I and 30 other die-hards gathered at the Mercury cinema for the long-anticipated screening.
MotE is a homage to the value of living simply, in harmony with your fellow man and with the world around you. Its compelling celebration of the ideals embraced by many in the world of surfing at the time - the amalgam of physical, creative and spiritual elements - struck a chord at the time of its creation, and the sense of adventure that drove those depicted and others to explore far off corners of the world for unspoiled cultures and waves and has captured imaginations, mine included, throughout the ensuing decades.
In making Akasha, Kidman had two main objectives; to pay tribute to the original creation, and to discover whether the sentiments so effectively expressed by Falzon in the early 70s could still be found in today’s hyper-commercialised world. To be honest, my impression from watching the film in isolation from its companion artefacts was that except in very isolated pockets, the feeling is very much absent from the modern world. If Kidman’s aim was to say that yes, it could still be found, then I’m afraid that I wasn’t convinced. It just seemed to miss the mark somehow. The narrative, if there was one, came across as being a bit disjointed and the sections just didn’t flow together nearly as well as they did in the original. For what it’s worth, I think it he was up against it to find the residual sparks from the fire that MotE lit in 1972. I know there are many people out there who subscribe to this ethos, including those depicted in Akasha. I just don’t think the film conveyed that to the audience as well as it could have.
Don’t get me wrong though, the film was still a high quality production with many highlights. The footage of Steph Gilmore riding a Dave Parmenter shaped single fin at Greenmount is hypnotic and definitely one for the ages. There’s something about Steph’s whole approach that is infectious, leaving the viewer energised and brimming with positivity and joy. This clip, along with one released previously that features Steph’s clip superimposed over Michael Peterson’s original Kirra sequence from MotE, clearly illustrate her optimism and connection with the ocean.
The sections starring Sam Yoon are another standout. Whether shaping a board in the backblocks of Tugun, taking off at second reef Pipe on a big yellow board – that’s one serious slab of foam – or slaughtering a rooster on a Hawaiian roadside, Sam, more than just about anyone else in the film, seems to embody the ideals pursued by the filmmaker. Perhaps that is why Kidman dedicated such a large proportion of the film to Yoon. But perhaps it was a disproportionate amount of time, if comments I heard on the night are anything to go by.
Similarly, the concept of having Mick Fanning ride a replica of the famous MP Kirra board makes sense creatively – the passing of the torch to a new generation and all that – but I just didn’t feel it. Often when I see contemporary surfers riding single fins I can’t shake the feeling that they just don’t quite get it. They ride them the same way that they would a modern high performance thruster, like they’re trying to overpower the wave, to carve it into submission rather than work with it to produce something bigger and more beautiful than its component parts. And for me that’s the real attraction of those old boards. Yes it may sound like worn-out hippy bullshit, but they make it easy for you to just let go and become one with the wave.
But remember, these were my impressions after having only seen the film. Then the double soundtrack arrived in the post and everything changed. My God it’s good.
The original MotE soundtrack, a collaborative effort engineered by G. Wayne Thomas, is on its own a remarkable piece of work. And as a soundtrack, it’s almost universally recognised as being one of the best of any surf movie, either of its time, or any time since. Thomas brought together some of the most talented Australian musicians and bands of the day to produce a soundtrack without peer. Until now. The soundtrack for Spirit of Akasha is a monumental achievement. I cannot emphasise this enough. It’s awesome. I haven’t heard new music this good in a very, very long time.
Not only have the producers reprised the original MotE score, but in bringing together an eclectic and equally talented mob of contemporary artists, musicians and surfers to work on the tribute soundtrack, they have brought to light a work of staggering quality. It switches effortlessly from uplifting, to achingly poignant then, in the case of the reworked ‘Awake’ by the Goons of Doom, to right up there an inch from your nose. It recaptures the essence of MotE perfectly and then adds whole new chapters to its legacy. If the film perhaps missed the mark by itself, the album hits it smack bang in the bullseye, then splits the arrow with the second shot. And Tom Curren - who knew? Is there anything he can’t do? His rendition of Sure Feels Good, performed by Brian Cadd on the original MotE soundtrack, just drags you to your feet and demands that you dance. And it takes a lot to get me dancing, let me tell you. Others must have noticed this talent in him before now, he’s on the soundtrack after all, but for me it came as somewhat of a revelation.
It’s when the soundtrack and film, along with the other artefacts produced as part of this project, are examined together that you start to get a feel for what Kidman was aiming for. Like his previous productions, this was never supposed to be just a film. It’s a collaboration spanning borders, time, creative practices, and media. And when it’s considered in this context, Spirit of Akasha is a work of considerable cultural importance. Its mix of print (the book Single, based on the Gilmore/Parmenter segment, as well as the books that accompany the albums), audio and film, as well as the online content via the website and Facebook page, make this a project of epic scope and proportion. It’s a very modern product that provides new insight into some very old and highly contested ideas, which humankind has been grappling with for millennia and continues to do so today. It might not provide us with too many answers, but I don’t think that was the point of the exercise. Instead, it gives our enquiring minds fuel to keep searching, to push beyond the material for a higher truth that’s hidden somewhere around the next corner, or at the back of the next barrel.