Slim and I, which will open this year’s Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival at Winton on Friday, tells the story of a partnership that has left an indelible legacy on Australia’s cultural landscape.
As Gold Coast-based producer of the film Chris Brown told an audience at the launch of the festival last month, McKean “wasn’t the woman behind the man, she was the woman who was right beside the man”.
In addition to directing productions that have spectacularly showcased the rugged Australian landscape, including box-office hit Red Dog and television miniseries Wake in Fright, Stenders also helmed the acclaimed 2017 documentary The Go Betweens: Right Here.
This skill set made Stenders an immediate contender when Brown began searching for a director a few years ago.
“I was certainly aware of who Slim Dusty was and Chris Brown basically pitched it to me,” Stenders told InQueensland.
“He had seen the Go-Betweens film and really liked it and he was saying there was an opportunity to take a similar look at Slim Dusty but through the perspective of Joy McKean and once he said that the whole thing sort of came to life.
“I knew a little bit about Joy but not as much as I know now and I just thought it was an intriguing story and I think in this day and age, those kinds of stories about those kinds of women are really important.”
In addition to launching the Slim Dusty Touring Show with her husband in 1954, McKean also wrote some of his most enduring hits, including ‘Lights On The Hill’, ‘Walk a Country Mile’, ‘Indian Pacific’ and ‘Kelly’s Offsider’.
Despite being Australia’s most prolific and successful recording artist – who sold more than 7 million albums during his lifetime and was recording his 106th album at the time of his passing – Dusty was simply known as the bloke that sang ‘A Pub With No Beer’ to many, and as Stenders said, “I was guilty of that myself”.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, Slim Dusty, he’s just that country guy with the hat and he sings country songs and he’s got a lot of album covers with trucks and tree stumps and things on them.
“What blew me away, and I was really humbled, was I realised, oh my God, not only did they do that pioneering work but the songs they wrote and the songs that Joy wrote particularly, I had this epiphany one day when I was listening to their music, that these are actually brilliant songs.
“They are deceptive in their simplicity and I wasn’t really a country music fan but I basically became a convert. His body of work was just absolutely record-breaking and of course, he couldn’t have done that without Joy by his side.”
Stenders said Dusty and McKean were “true pioneers in every sense of the word”, crediting the pair for establishing a regional touring framework that still exists today.
“They created connections and audiences that didn’t exist before and they basically built an audience base that so many other musicians were able to follow and enjoy, especially with Indigenous Australia.
“They were really the first of their kind, white Anglo-Saxon musicians playing to Indigenous communities and connecting with them. It was really quite remarkable – reconciliation through music, which I just thought was such a beautiful idea.
“When I learnt more about what they actually achieved and what they did and the connections they made, I was really quite overwhelmed, I was really quite moved. They really did do a lot for those relationships.”
In addition to telling Dusty and McKean’s story, Slim and I also features interviews with Australian musicians including Keith Urban, Paul Kelly, Troy Cassar-Daley, Missy Higgins and Darren Hanlon, who discuss the influence Dusty and his music has had on their own lives and careers.
Many of the musicians involved also give their own renditions of songs from Dusty’s vast anthology.
“That was sort of something that developed somewhat organically but I’m also a pragmatist,” Stenders said. “I was thinking, I’m talking to Troy Cassar-Daley, he’s a musician, he’s a troubadour, so why interview him without a guitar? Why do that? Why not interview him with his guitar and if he’s willing, why doesn’t he strum a few things.
“What I love about documentary is you can find the style and the ideas through the process of making it, I call it ‘live filmmaking’.
“It was just an obvious thing to ask and most of the time everyone was really comfortable with that – Missy and Paul and Troy and Darren Hanlon. We asked Keith, but he had a cold the day we shot him, or he would have done it.
“The brilliance of those songs is they can be broken down into being performed on one instrument and sing with a voice, that’s the beauty of that music and I just wanted to capture that alchemy that happens when you have someone just sing beautiful words to a melody.”
Brisbane-born Stenders said he has been invited to attend Vision Splendid several times but scheduling conflicts have always prevented the now Sydney-based director from doing so.
“I’ve known one of the festival organisers, Greg Dolgopolov, for a very long time and I’ve always wanted to go but every year I’ve been busy,” he said.
“This year was going to be the first year I could actually go and unfortunately it’s not going to happen so I’m a bit bummed out but what’s great is Slim and Joy have had a long history with Winton, so there’s a nice synergy there.”
Slim and I opens the Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival in Winton on Friday, and is showing in cinemas nowJump to next article