It will soon be four decades since the release of ‘Whispering Jack’, an album that achieved, 24x Platinum sales with its lead single ‘You’re the Voice’ winning the ARIA for Single of the Year, and a song that still has regular rotation on radio stations in Australia.
Directed by Poppy Stockell, John Farnham: Finding The Voice is much more than just a John Farnham biopic. The real heart of the story comes from the detailing the relationship between John Farnham and his late manager, Glenn Wheatley. I’ve always been aware of the relationship between Farnham and Wheatley, sometimes their names were synonymous with each other, but I never understood the beauty of their relationship before now.
Finding the Voice thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time dealing with Farnham’s early years, briefly touching on his immigration to Australia from England and his time in local bands. The film doesn’t waste a great deal of time getting to the ‘Johnny Farnham’ years.
For anyone that doesn’t know about John Farnham’s early career, he started as ‘Johnny Farnham’ with the massive hit in 1967 ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’. As much as I love ‘Sadie’ because it’s so of its time, I never knew how big it really was and how detrimental his Johnny Farnham persona would be in his later career.
I really have to credit the way that Stockwell directed this part of Farnham’s career in the film, acknowledging the importance of it, and also making a careful joke when Farnham makes it first. His relationship with David Mackay is a large topic of discussion with the crueller aspects of Mackay’s management being brought to light. His choices made in management of Farnham are undoubtedly exploitative and cruel at times. His interviews don’t confront him about his actions and when put alongside interviews with others in Farnham’s life, don’t offer Mackay a chance of redemption, even if he deserves one.
The true strength of the biopic starts in Farnham’s lead up to join Little River Band detailing how strong his friendship with Glenn Wheatley was, and the mental health struggle that Farnham was dealing with during this period. The most prominent people in Farnham’s life at the time, talk about how his career was still struggling to reach the same level of success as his Johnny Farnham years, meaning that despite his talents as a vocalist with an obvious stage presence, some in the music industry simply wouldn’t touch him.
I had no idea about this slump in Farnham’s career, let alone that it spanned for 12 years, from ‘Sadie’ to his time as the frontman for Little River Band. Despite fronting Little River Band for five years, I felt like that time was treated like this aspect of his career, much shorter time with little to no pleasantry, with members of the band, resenting Farnham for his on-stage presence and crowd attention.
In a voice over, Farnham does voice some frustration about being a part of the band but more so a frustration because he was unable to use his own creative voice, mostly stemming from singing songs that had already been recorded by original front man, Glenn Shorrock.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the recording and release of ‘Whispering Jack’ is given the most attention in the film. I would have liked to have seen this particular aspect to have received a little more attention because this is where audiences get to see more of Farnham’s love of making music, shown to be based, in part to the fact that he can now have creative input.
One of these ideas was wanting ‘You’re the Voice’ to feature its now signature bagpipe section, and because bagpipes can only be in one key, the entire arrangement of the song needed to be changed and it is this arrangement that ended up on the record.
From the footage shown, it’s obvious in Farnham’s face that he was enjoying every aspect of the recording, despite his ongoing financial struggles. I mentioned earlier, how much emphasis the relationship between Farnham and Wheatley the film has. After learning that Wheatley made the decision to mortgage his home as a way to have ‘Whispering Jack’ recorded and distributed, this showed the level of love, and support that the two had for each other.
It was from this section in the film, that the tears started. On my part, it came from seeing the impact of Farnham’s music on a global scale, watch Farnham sing to a German crowd on both sides of the Berlin Wall the chorus to ‘You’re the Voice’ was an incredibly powerful moment to see on screen. I can’t fathom how it would have been to be there.
As the film details all of Farnham’s triumphs during this time, it doesn’t shy away the topic of Wheatley conviction for tax evasion but thankfully, it’s a short aspect that is more about Farnham and Wheatley friendship than a larger exploration of the topic. When the film comes a to Wheatley’s passing it’s another heavy emotional blow as the sacrifices the two made for each other are reiterated through interviews with Wheatley’s wife, Gaynor Martin, sharing that one of Wheatley’s final moments was listening to Farnham talk to him over the phone.
Finding The Voice may be one of the few biopics or documentaries that doesn’t shower its subject with unfair praise. Any praise and acclaim given to Farnham all seems to be warranted. Farnham is never claimed to be a caring human without showing it to us first. If a person mentions how powerful Farnham’s voice is, it will follow or be followed by an example of this. Every statement about Farnham is backed up and nothing is ever said that a person may have an opposing opinion of.
It is clear that Finding The Voice has been made about Farnham the musician first, and then the discovery of what a kind and compassionate man he is was when making his music.
John Farnham: Finding the Voice constantly filled me of my own memories of Farnham’s music, to my aunt playing ‘Whispering Jack’ on repeat or consistently singing ‘Sadie’ out loud as a way to frustrate my own dad. This is what made me realise how important John Farnham was to my life, something I hadn’t realised until watching this film.
What makes a film like this so special and what makes music so special, is how it can conjure up memories and fill us with emotions more than anything else in the world. And as it turns out, John Farnham’s voice has that power over me.