Sam Brooks reviews Anthems, a six-part documentary on New Zealand’s iconic hits, which starts tonight on Prime.
New Zealanders are possessive as hell over our culture. Pavlova, Russell Crowe, Lord of the Rings, colonial racism – if it’s ours, we really own it. Where it really sinks into the marrow though, is our music. For better or worse, there’s not a New Zealander who doesn’t have a reaction where they hear the five ya’s during ‘Bliss’. Through sheer osmosis if nothing else, there are New Zealand songs that we feel like we own a little bit of – and that live on through us.
Anthems taps into that ownership. It’s a celebration of the songs that we know best, whether it’s through golden oldies station or through being on the phone to Studylink. The first episode alone, which focuses on ‘the exhilarating experience of performing their biggest hits live’ includes interviews from Peter Urlich, Dave Dobbyn, Lorde, Annie Crummer, Tiki Taane and other such stalwarts of our national music scene.
Alongside the interviews, there’s a smattering of live performances from across the years. It’s a wise choice to open this endeavour with a 2018 performance of ‘Bliss’, and it’s remarkable, when it cuts to a much earlier performance of the same, how much of the energy in the song remains intact. The band loves it, the crowd loves it, probably because it’s a genuine banger. In this first episode we get a few of these, ranging from Six60’s ‘White Lines’ to Shapeshifter’s ‘In Colours’, to a truly 80s performance of ‘Melting Pot’, and these gems are better gateways into these New Zealand music than any interview.
Case in point: A new performance of ‘Victoria’ by Jordan Luck, less mobile than in his ’80s heyday but no less charismatic, intercut with a decades-old clip of him (and the Dance Exponents) performing the same song. It’s a surprisingly effective segment. There’s a reason why the show is called Anthems, and as much as the show purports to have a specific focus for each episode, it’s honestly just nice to hear some of these songs in different contexts, and see how they stand the test of time.
That being said, there’s a scattershot nature to the first episode at least that makes it feel oddly directionless. The episode jumps between Th’ Dudes, When The Cat’s Away, Shapeshifter and Shihad in a way that feels simultaneously meandering and jarring; there’s no narrative through-line to keep you invested in the episode. It feels almost as though the concept for each episode, or at least the first, was arrived upon in the editing room, because once the hook is established – famous musicians talking about singing famous songs live – there’s little meat to keep us on the line.
While each individual anecdote is compelling, whether it’s Peter Urlich talking about being in Th’ Dudes or Annie Crummer outlying her complex relationship with the now problematic ‘Melting Pot’, they don’t exactly build to anything. There’s no big message or profound statement at the end, just a collective kind of agreement that yes, performing live is a special experience that generally feels good for both artist and audience. It’s pleasant, but it’s not particularly deep.
Which is unfortunate, because Anthems is at its best when it does actually go deep. For example, Tiki Taane describing the process of mixing Shapeshifter’s ‘In Colours’ live, how he starts the vocals up high and then brings everything in on the chorus, is one of the highlights of this first episode. It’s the best of what a music documentary can be – it doesn’t just show Taane’s detailed, deep knowledge of his craft but his enthusiasm for it. He’s heard this song performed a hundred times, probably mixed it live about as much, but he still has this infectious joy when he talks about it. This, more than talking heads about what it feels like to sing in concert, gives us an idea of what is important about these songs, and these musicians.
If Anthems includes more moments like this, we’ll have a hit on our hands. New Zealanders have that ownership, that umbilical cord-like attachment to our biggest songs, and to have a little bit more insight into not only the songs or the people who made them, but the culture that gave us them would be genuinely valuable.
I just hope there’s an entire episode devoted to New Zealand’s pop music peak: Deep Obsession.
Anthems starts tonight at Prime at 8:30PM, and runs for six episodes.