Madeleine Parry knew all The Angels’ big hits and how the seminal rock band wove into the tapestry of Australian pub life. But when producer Peter Hanlon sent her a one-pager about directing a documentary about the band, it wasn’t the music or the rich legacy that made her jump at the project. It was the story of The Angels’ surviving original band members, Rick and John Brewster.

“The thing that really hooked me in was the story of the brothers,” Parry tells InReview.

“It was really a saga of two very different personalities, who became estranged for a number of years and reunited after being one of Australia’s biggest bands together.

“I thought, well, that sounds a little Shakespearean, and I think that there is a dramatic narrative arc that we can hang the story of the band around.”

Film director Madeleine Parry.

Parry has been working for more than two years on The Angels: Kickin’ Down the Door, a 100-minute documentary delving into the band’s history.

One of Australia’s top bands in the 1970s and into the ’80s, The Angels mastered a particularly tense, electrifying and stripped-back brand of rock ’n’ roll.

Rick and John, both guitarists, formed the band in Adelaide in the early 1970s intending to knock Sherbet off the charts. Belfast-born Bernard “Doc” Neeson joined them on lead vocals. They started off playing the suburban pubs and university campuses, later joined by bassist Chris Bailey and drummer Graham Bidstrup. It wasn’t long before they caught the eye of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, who got them signed to Alberts Music.

In 1978, The Angels released the album Face to Face, one of the country’s biggest-selling records. It included such hits as “After the Rain”, “Take a Long Line” and “Comin’ Down”, and was on the charts for 79 weeks.

Sitting outside the editing suite where the finishing touches are being added to the film, Parry says its premise evolved as she dug deeper into the subjects. The documentary became not only a story about the relationship of Rick and John, but also Doc Neeson, who died in 2014.

“There was a lot of tension in that relationship and that kind of created the great music, but also saw all of their relationships fracture,” Parry says.

“There’s a real kind of an observation on the insanity of joining a rock band because, especially back then, people would tie their lives together at a young age in search of this dream.

“When you find yourself tied together with people and everyone’s got different ideas of how the thing is supposed to go, it just makes for madness.”

The filmmakers went looking for archival footage for the documentary. Parry says they ended up with hundreds of hours of film, which included some never-before-seen material from Neeson’s family.

A lot of the footage was from concerts, which didn’t entirely match up with the dramatic and personal story the director wanted to tell. Video artist Liam Somerville was brought in to create an animation to convey some of those key moments not caught on Super 8 film. Somerville used motion-capture software to create photo puppets, which Parry says gives the movie a “punk feel”.

Doc Neeson in full flight during an Angels gig at the Sydney Sports and Entertainment Centre in 1985. Photo: supplied

Fans of Parry’s previous work could be forgiven for thinking this documentary seems like an about-face for the director. Her earliest film was Murder Mouth, a 14-minute personal exploration of what it’s like to kill your own food. Following this, she directed the Emmy-winning Hannah Gadsby Netflix stand-up comedy special Nanette, then another Gadsby special, Douglas.

“In the previous documentaries I’ve done, I’ve worked with very marginalised or vulnerable communities and I’ve been very sensitive to consult with them,” she says.

However, she hasn’t taken the same approach with Kickin’ Down the Door, “because I’m aware that when bands are involved in their own film sometimes that can water things down or make the process very difficult because the band might have fractious relationships, and they all have different opinions”.

The band won’t actually see the documentary until it has its world premiere, headlining the Adelaide Film Festival in October.

One of those sure to be in the front row will be John Brewster. Speaking down the phone from his home in Encounter Bay, he admits to crying a few times during filming.

“Madeleine knows how to use the buttons, I can tell you that.”

At 72, Brewster is still touring with The Angels alongside his brother and his son Sam, a bassist. While he hasn’t seen the documentary’s contents, he says it will no doubt add to the legacy of the band.

“From everything that I know about it, it’s not just going to be a simple story about a band forming and driving around Australia in an old station wagon and then getting a big hit,” he says.

“I think it will be a story with a sense of drama, you know ­– the good times, the bad times, all of that. I look back on all those days and I’m just kind of proud of it.”

Back in the 1970s, The Angels played around 330 gigs a year to crowds of more than 3000 people. Brewster admits there were some “tough times” but also some “good bits”.

It was gonna be a wonderful night and we’re all in a great mood and then suddenly two of us were taken to the hospital

He singles out the AC/DC Back in Black tour in 1981 and the David Bowie tour in 1978 as highlights. “We did the whole Australian tour with him and we had dinner with him and his band every night.”

Sandwiched in the middle of those concerts was the infamous New Year’s Eve concert in 1979. Roughly 100,000 revellers swarmed the steps of the Sydney Opera House to watch The Angels play. The night ended in a riot, and the local council banned rock music from all future New Year’s Eve celebrations.

“It was gonna be a wonderful night and we’re all in a great mood and then suddenly two of us were taken to the hospital,” he recalls.

“It was quite funny actually, because my brother Rick, who’s made his career in The Angels standing like a statue and ripping it up on the guitar, he was still playing when the band had stopped.”

The Angels in a photo from 2014, when they celebrated their 40th anniversary with the launch of two commemorative albums and an Australian tour. Photo: Craig Peihopa

Brewster says while he and Rick are “as thick as thieves”, their relationship endured a rocky patch in the 1980s. Most of the fights were over songs and lyrics. Brewster says the creative process often dissolved into personal insults.

The brothers didn’t speak for five years until one day Brewster picked up the phone. He says the outcome was “wonderful”.

“We got together and just went through a whole lot of stuff that really dates right back to childhood.”

Despite the years of quarrelling and madness that engulfed the band, Parry says there is still a perception that a rock documentary “might seem light”.

“It is fun, and it is music, but it’s also high drama,” she says.

“These are people’s lives and their dreams, and they take huge risks, and there are big costs, and there are betrayals, and there’s, you know, the potential for forgiveness.

“It’s still a very, very human dramatic story.”

The Angels: Kickin’ Down the Door will premiere on October 19 at the opening of the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival, which will release its full program on September 12.

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