Filmed over ten years and encompassing different cities, across different countries, Meal Tickets is a documentary about evolving personalities. In particular, the evolving personality of artists from Perth, Western Australia. Director Mat de Koning started filming the band Screwtop Detonators as they were making their way from Perth to America to make it big. Ten years later, after countless sweaty gigs full of thriving bodies, fractured relationships and missing underwear, Koning finished filming. Meal Tickets starts out as an energetic teen ready to take on the world, and concludes in a mature, measured manner.
The films title comes from band manager, Dave Kavanagh, who scooped the Screwtop Detonators up, seeing them as the key to being the ‘next big thing’. Upon delivering them to the US, Kavanagh jokingly says, we’ll have hookers, blow, private jets, and we’ll give you some meal tickets as well. As a way of introducing us to the story of these young, green blokes from Perth to a world that will gladly eat them up whole, there’s no better way than through this line. Promised all the riches in the world, but only to be fed through cheap food.
Coming from a small city like Perth, it’s inspiring to see local bands making it big overseas. There’s a feeling that when someone from your home town makes it big, the whole city has made it big with them. When bands like Tame Impala show up on Saturday Night Live wearing a Freo Dockers scarf, there’s a certain buzz that comes from that. As if Perth, the city, has been invited to the table where everyone is chanting ‘gibble gobble, one of us, we accept you one of us’.
Going in to Meal Tickets on my first watch, I was just expecting a rise-fall-rise story of a band from Perth. Having grown up attending gigs at many of the venues shown in the film, there was a voyeuristic aspect to Meal Tickets that I was anticipating – was I at that gig? Is there any gig hounds that I can see in the crowd that look familiar? It’s exciting seeing your own home town explored in a documentary, and even more exciting seeing those whose talent you respect make it somewhere outside the bubble-like field within Perth. I expected to see some great music, maybe some crazy antics, and that’s about it. What I didn’t expect was a film about the relationships that are forged and lost on the path to success. If that sounds dark, well let me reassure you that the film is not that. The music, naturally, fuels the narrative in all the right ways; with de Koning’s on the stage camera work giving you a ‘just like being there’ feeling, even with the bass heavy, heavily distorted music pounding through the speakers.
Kavanagh mentions that there are two bands that he had the chance to work with that had ‘it’ – The Libertines and the Screwtop Detonators. Within an hour of the band hitting New York, the drummer has lost his passport. Days later, they’ve lost their roadie. With twelve gigs in eleven days, and all the chutzpah, alcohol and verve in the world, it seems that nothing can stop the Screwtop Detonators. With the success of others, ideas of grandeur and a promised path to the top, the Screwtop Detonators are almost set up for failure from the beginning.
The key to success is an elusive thing. For each person, success comes in different ways. One minute your roadie is out on the streets missing his underwear, the next he’s fronting a band, releasing albums and forging his own path. At a dark NYC venue, a girl asks a band member if they have a MySpace page, they’ve gotta have a MySpace page, everybody will find you if you have a MySpace page. But what use is a MySpace page if there’s no album to follow up the touring? One of the many underlying themes of Meal Tickets is the question about what is success, and how exactly does one obtain it? What happens when Triple J don’t put the latest song into rotation? What happens if nobody shows up to a gig? What happens when after playing the same songs at live show after live show, you still have no album to show for your efforts and you’re tired of playing the songs you once loved? While not all of these questions are answered within the film, it does provide a great leaping off point of exploring what it means to be an artist from a small city searching for fame.
Throughout the film, friendships fracture, relationships are strained by boxes of pornos that girlfriends were never meant to find, the lack of an actual Screwtop Detonators album causes issues. At what point does the band take control of their own narrative? When a band member hears of a You Am I tour, they call up the promoter and get a fairly good idea that their chances of supporting them is non-existent. At which the band member says ‘I feel bad for him, he was gardening’ – a line which goes against the punk music they play. Once an album does eventuate, the ‘label’ they’re able to sign with is only going to pay them in CD’s. The question remains – what’s the point of going through all the blood, sweat, tears and pain if there’s nothing in the end?
Meal Tickets fairly quickly shifts from the Screwtop Detonators onto other aspects of Perth originated art. For what must have been hundreds of hours of footage, over ten years, there is a heck of a lot of curating going on here. It feels like de Koning has written a grand opus, and has edited out every word, every sentence, every paragraph that is inessential to the core story. Or to use a better analogy: this is like a cacophonous song that has been stripped back, the reverb reduced, backing vocals gone, keyboard thrown out, just leaving a drummer, a singer with a guitar and of course, a bass player, to blast out a kick ass song that you won’t forget.
Shots of band members sitting by the water at night pondering about a major event play for brief moments, but it feels like that could have been a whole night shooting. To pare everything down to one core line takes an intimate understanding and appreciation for the material that a director is working with. The old adage of less is more is effectively displayed here. It’s economic filmmaking at its finest.
As the film begins, there’s a feeling that de Koning is on board with the Screwtop Detonators to simply have a good time, drink a few beers and capture footage of his friends making it big. But, just like the band members themselves, there is a gradual maturity that becomes evident as the film progresses throughout the years. The energy remains constant, and de Koning always aims to capture the best story that he can. Even though the parties are always pumping and the beers remain cold throughout the years, you can feel that there de Koning grows into a greater awareness of what he’s capturing, eventually reaching a point of clarity that feels like stepping out of a hot concert into the fresh, clear air – finally seeing the night for what it is, a field of uncertainty, but full of promise.
It helps that de Koning has such a great rapport with the people whose story he’s telling. Unless you’re Michael Moore, often it is more effective for the documentary filmmaker to be as distanced from the action as possible as to not influence, or coerce the story. But with the personalities of the band members, and the narrative of roadie turned musician, Will Ferrier, (who in turn became the lead of Will Stoker and the Embers), as well as artist Matt Doust, there is never any doubt that despite his proximity to the artists, Mat was never going to alter their journeys. If anything, it’s that proximity that allowed Mat to adjust the narrative as necessary throughout the years of filming. There are moments where characters go on diverging paths, either through a fight in a street, or making an unexpected career choice, that you can almost see de Koning making a quick, on the spot decision as to which narrative to follow. Does he follow the bandmate who instigated the argument, or does he go with the rest of the group? As a one man team, it’s impressive how much footage and how many narrative threads de Koning captured.
When the band members of the Screwtop Detonators first hear of Will Ferrier’s decision to start a band, and the subsequent naming of the band, there’s immediate derision. Somebody asks the question, who’s going to see a band called Will Stoker and the whatevers? However, it’s through Will’s journey that another thematic layer is revealed. In front of an almost empty theatre in a venue somewhere in Melbourne, Will stands behind his mic and pronounces that he’s Will Stoker and this is his band, and that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that very morning. While Meal Tickets isn’t a deep look at the pairing of mental illness and being an artist, it does still paint a fascinating picture of what it means to be someone who creates music and is seeking an audience while grappling with whatever is going on in their mind.
Meal Tickets appears to ask questions that have plagued the Australian music industry for a long while. As artists, is it simply enough to create music? If so, what do you lose, or what do you gain, on the road to creating a good song? What happens when the door to success is held open to you, and the world on the other side doesn’t appear like a place you’d want to be? What happens when dreams and aspirations don’t actually eventuate into anything.
There are some emotional beats near the end of the film that I truly didn’t expect heading into Meal Tickets. On repeat viewings, these climactic moments provide a greater emotional resonance to some of the earlier actions, giving the feeling of looking through an old photo book. Will Stoker’s journey to America to try and crack the market there has a circular aspect to it. We’ve seen the Screwtop Detonators journey begin there, and by this point, we know the conclusion to their story – so the level of trepidation of seeing someone embark on that exact same journey is exciting, but also just a little bit heartbreaking.
If I’m painting the film as a more dour affair than it is, then I’m doing it a disservice. Meal Tickets is a great, powerful film about music and the artists journey that’s full of excitement, loud music, raucous parties and just a little bit of sex. It’s a familiar tale that anyone anywhere in the world can relate to. No doubt there’ll be many people wanting to hit up their local pub and check out that local band they’ve always been meaning to see after this. de Koning skews away from music ever so briefly in the last act to shine a light on artist Matt Doust. Doust’s paintings are profoundly beautiful and his appearances here provide another glimpse at what the life of a Perth artist is like.
By the conclusion, as band members have retired to Fremantle to renovate a house, and others have gone on to have kids, it’s then that you can respect and admire the ten year journey that it took Mat de Koning to bring Meal Tickets to fruition. Documentaries can be a measured art – hundreds of hours, thousands of kilometres and much patience, needs to be condensed down to a watchable, legible format. For a first feature film, Mat de Koning has created a stunning piece of work that will leave viewers excited for what will come next. Meal Tickets is what cinema is all about – stories that make you feel like you’re part of what’s going on.
See this film. You will not regret it.
Meal Tickets screens at both the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival and the Revelation Film Festival. The dates and links to buy tickets at right here:
Revelation Film Festival – 8th July at 6:30pm
– 18th July at 2:30pm
– director Mat de Koning will be doing Q&A sessions after both screenings
– Will Stoker and the Embers are playing at Babushka after the July 8th screening. Tickets can be purchased here.
Melbourne Documentary Film Festival – 16th July at 7:00pm
Cast: Screwtop Detonators, Dave Kavanagh, Will Stoker and the Embers
Writer: Mat de Koning