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John Farnham: Finding the Voice

This rousing biodoc steps through the Australian music icon's journey from 'Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)' to the anthemic power ballad that almost didn't happen — and beyond.
By Sarah Ward
May 18, 2023
By Sarah Ward
May 18, 2023

There's no need to try to understand it: John Farnham's 1986 anthem 'You're the Voice' is an instant barnstormer of a tune. An earworm then, now and for eternity, it was the Australian song of the 80s. With its layered beats, swelling force and rousing emotion, all recorded in a garage studio, it's as much of a delight when it's soundtracking comedy films like the Andy Samberg-starring Hot Rod and the Steve Coogan-led Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa as it is echoing out of every Aussie pub's jukebox. Making a noise and making it clear, 'You're the Voice' is also one of the reasons that Farnham's 1986 album Whispering Jack remains the best-selling homegrown release ever nearing four decades since it first dropped. But, as John Farnham: Finding the Voice tells, this iconic match of track and talent — this career-catapulting hit for a singer who'd initially tasted fame as a teen pop idol two decades prior — almost didn't happen.

Whispering Jack also almost didn't come to fruition at all, a revelation so immense that imagining Australia without that album is like entering Back to the Future Part II's alternative 80s. Writer/director Poppy Stockwell (Scrum, Nepal Quake: Terror on Everest) and her co-scribe Paul Clarke (a co-creator of Spicks and Specks) know this, smartly dedicating a significant portion of Finding the Voice to that record and its first single. The titbits and behind-the-scenes anecdotes flow, giving context to a song almost every Aussie alive since it arrived knows in their bones. Gaynor Wheatley, the wife of Farnham's late best friend and manager Glenn, talks about how they mortgaged their house to fund the release when no label would touch the former 'Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)' crooner. Chris Thompson, the English-born, New Zealand-raised Manfred Mann's Earth Band musician who co-penned 'You're the Voice', chats about initially declining Farnham's request to turn the tune into a single after the latter fell for it via a demo.

A whole documentary about 'You're the Voice' might've been indulgent even for the biggest Farnham fans — a short doco about its role in the aforementioned Hot Rod needs to be made ASAP, however — but that's not Finding the Voice from start to finish. Stockwell and Clarke take the birth-to-now approach, although they're really building towards Farnham finding that smash, and exploring why it was such a jolt of lightning for the musician's life and legacy. With editors Scott Gray (Mortal Kombat) and Steven Robinson (The Endangered Generation?) stitching together a wealth of archival material, the journey begins in earnest with the plumber's apprentice with the impressive pipes, the novelty track he was never all that fond of, and the immediate success and screaming girls that followed.  Pop music history is littered with teenage sensations who didn't enjoy more than one hit song or two, which might've been Farnham's fate; through several pivots and comeback attempts, it did indeed appear his destiny.

Finding the Voice doesn't take the pressure down, or avoid the lows before the highs: the singles that charted but couldn't shake the 'Sadie' vibes, the mismanagement before Wheatley, the RSL gigs with bandmates who couldn't play, the lack of interest in the UK and the frequent rejection at home. It doesn't avoid the frustrations before 'You're the Voice' and Whispering Jack gave Farnham more than a touch of music stardom paradise, either, or the yearning to be something other than 'The Cleaning Lady' guy. The film weaves in the then-Johnny's time doing stage musicals, including 1971's Charlie Girl, which started his romance with dancer and his now wife-of-five-decades Jill. It steps through his Little River Band era, and the passion and statement of intent resonating in their Farnham-sparked tune 'Playing to Win'. In addition to its ode to its namesake, Finding the Voice was always going to double as a trip through Aussie rock history as well as a homage to former The Masters Apprentices bassist Glenn Wheatley, who died in 2022 due to COVID-19 complications ‚ and it's a balancing act that's handled expertly.

Many a music biodoc has mined untold treasures from bygone footage and the shared memories that go with them, a format that Finding the Voice doesn't challenge. The unearthed clips also survey a glorious range of hairstyles — the famous golden flowing 80s mullet is merely one, the five-time TV Week King of Pop era gifting others — while context comes via family, friends, colleagues and admirers offering their thoughts and recollections. After Glenn's passing, Gaynor proves a key source, also illuminating her role in both Farnham and her husband's careers. Jill Farnham and sons Robert and James assist with fleshing out the man behind the mane and music, with Farnham's children noting how sheltered they were from his tough times. And singing his praises? Jimmy Barnes and Daryl Braithwaite, neither voicing any envy — yes, this is briefly a Farnsy-and-Barnsey flick — plus everyone from Celine Dion and Robbie Williams to Richard Marx and Olivia Newton-John.

The one that Farnham always wanted professionally — and wanted to emulate the Grease star's overseas triumphs — Newton-John joins Finding the Voice's chorus via voiceover only. Given her death in 2022 as well, the documentary is also a tribute her way without stealing the spotlight from its main figure. With Farnham's own recent health battles with cancer and a respiratory infection well-documented, he too is only heard recently and seen via materials from across his career. That might've left a gaping hole at the movie's middle, but Stockwell ensures that it never feels like a lost opportunity. Cannily, not pointing the camera the 'Age of Reason', 'Two Strong Hearts', 'Chain Reaction' and 'Burn for You' singer's way helps the filmmaker be judicious with her talking-head interviews, and find freedom beyond merely making a hagiography or a glossily authorised bio. It also reinforces two core contrasts: that great music is eternal, but even superstars are only flesh and blood; and that the tunes that last seem like easy hits, but so often spring from a lifetime of hard work.

Accompanying the blast-from-the-past visuals, the adoring-but-never-fawning discussions and the exhaustive then-till-now chronicle is the expected stacked roster of Farnsy hits. Finding the Voice was never going to sit in silence, and nor has anyone who has ever heard 'You're the Voice'. Among its astute choices, the film also veers into concert footage — and seeing the power ballad performed by a leather pants-clad, sleeveless tank-wearing, unmistakably sweaty Farnham in pre-unification West Germany, one of the two countries beyond Australia where it reached number one on the charts (the other: Sweden), is a pure seeing-is-feeling moment. How long can we appreciate this Aussie icon? Always, as long as we're all someone's daughters and sons, as the triumphant and insightful Finding the Voice understands.

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