In popular mythology Rowland S. Howard was Melbourne’s dark prince, immortalised in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire as a rock ‘n’ roll Nosferatu – otherworldly, elegant and wasted. From the late 70s he lurched across the world stage, creating sonic sculptures drenched in reverb and foreboding. He was the foil to a young Nick Cave, first in The Boys Next Door and then The Birthday Party where he helped define the look and sound of post-punk Australia, his exploits resonating around the world. He burned brightly for a time before fading into semi-obscurity, his flickering light finally extinguished in 2009.
Autoluminescent is a eulogy of sorts, a tribute to Howard’s legacy from local production house Ghost Pictures, directed by Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn with cinematography by Andrew de Groot. It’s a beautifully crafted film that seamlessly interweaves some fascinating archival footage and interviews with atmospheric, dreamlike passages scored by friend and colleague, JP Shilo. Combined with Shilo’s readings from an unpublished Howard manuscript entitled Etceteracide they create a portrait of the artist that is both moody and mysterious, much like Howard himself.
The film begins with a precocious Rowland Howard emerging 'with everything intact', as it seemed to Cave, on the Melbourne punk scene of the mid to late 70s. Those now legendary days of St. Kilda's Crystal Ballroom are presented here in grainy black and white as equal parts music, romance and heroin – all to be recurring themes in Howard’s life. An almost chatty Nick Cave and Howard's longtime romantic partner and musical collaborator Genevieve McGuckin, lead a parade of talking heads through the story of Howard’s early musical development and his contribution to the success of The Boys Next Door with Shivers, the song he wrote aged sixteen.
Changing their name to The Birthday Party in 1980, the band relocated to an indifferent London awash with synthesizer pop. They responded with a beautiful brutality, expanding the musical range and emotional palette of contemporary music in the process. It was high art and no rent, theatrically confrontational and hugely inspirational to those who were listening, both here and abroad. Howard’s admirers were many, and although the film is effective in relating his impact internationally through interviews with members of Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch (with whom he would later work), Primal Scream and others, Australian contemporaries such as The Saints, The Go-Betweens and The Triffids are surprisingly absent.
Soon The Birthday Party would abandon their London squats for West Berlin where they were lauded by the local community of artists, musicians and misfits. It’s fascinating to hear film director Wim Wenders describe the arrival of these exotic Australian ‘birds’ on the Berlin arts scene, with their spiky hair, pointy shoes and hard drugs, and their subsequent influence on its culture, culminating in Wings of Desire.
Autoluminescent also explores Howard’s sometimes complicated relationships with women. He wore his ‘little glass heart’, as he puts it, on his sleeve and the women in his life loved him for it. It’s those women, McGuckin especially, that make this film work. As a co-producer she brings authenticity to the project, but on camera it’s her willingness to share her ‘Rowley’ with us that brings a deeper understanding of the quite private man behind the persona. It’s the little details from friends and family, like his phobic aversion to bananas, which help humanise the dark prince of myth.
The film follows Howard’s disillusionment post Birthday Party and his subsequent involvement with Crime and the City Solution (with longtime collaborator Mick Harvey) and These Immortal Souls (with brother Harry Howard and McGuckin) before returning to Melbourne in the mid 90s. Later he married film editor Jane Usher, adopting an almost domesticated lifestyle as stepfather to her son while enjoying a period of creative renewal.
Yet there’s no happy ending to the story. The marriage ended a few years later, buckling under the weight of addiction. Howard’s health declined, his liver spent from Hepatitis C and later cancer just as he was enjoying a resurgence of public interest in his work. The filmmakers treat his final months with an understated sensitivity, his last interviews dignified and illuminating as he ruminates on his drug use and all it has cost him. We see him ascend the stairs to launch his last album, Pop Crimes, and a moment later he is gone.
Rowland Howard had hoped Lowenstein would make a warts ‘n’ all style documentary and perhaps in this regard he might have been disappointed that the final result is an entirely respectful and sympathetic depiction of his life and times. Autoluminescent is a powerful and evocative film that stands as homage to the singular vision and artistic achievements of a complex and charismatic individual.
Stills from the film Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard courtesy of Ghost Pictures.