Jonathan Alley: Keeping Tracks

As part of the 2022 Australian International Documentary Convention (AIDC), organisers recently announced a stellar line-up of screenings and sessions on the state of documentary filmmaking. The event is set to touch on a broad range of topics and styles, spanning indigenous and cultural filmmaking, technology, socio-political agendas, ethical ambiguity, intimate profiles, and the vital necessity of factual content to combat the current saturation of misinformation.

One of the most anticipated sessions in the programme is Playback: Crafting Music Docs And Pathways To Licensing, featuring a panel of esteemed Australian music documentarians set to discuss the challenges of producing music docs and how to effectively navigate the quagmire of licensing rights, closing deals, and producing films that won’t end in litigation. One of the panellists is industry stalwart Jonathan Alley, broadcaster, publicist and now documentary filmmaker currently riding high on the success of his feature debut, the long gestating Love In Bright Landscapes, a thoughtful celebration of the life, music and ultimate tragedy of The Triffids’ frontman David McComb.

“I wanted people to understand why he was important, and how big a figure he really should have been, not only in music, but in literature and poetry,” explains Alley of his doco, and its subject, David McComb. “We actually lost a great intellect when we lost Dave, and he should be contributing to our national conversation much more widely than simply just from the realm of songwriting. David was quite unique. He was not prejudiced about art. With Dave, it didn’t matter if it was high-brow or low-brow, so long as it made a connection that was valid. He could read Russian poetry and have that influence a song, or he would watch some trashy late-night TV or hear some really rude, dirty hip-hop record, and that might influence a song. I find that fascinating.”

But while Alley – whose thirty-plus years in the Australian entertainment industry have seen him work in marketing and publicity while bringing a number of acclaimed music docs to Australian audiences via his work with independent distributor Madman Entertainment – would seemingly have a viable appreciation of the intricacies marring music to film via licensing agreements, the newly minted filmmaker admits that navigating the personal realties of the process was in and of itself a significant learning curve.

“In ways, it was exactly how I thought it would be. And in other ways, it was slightly harder than I thought,” elaborates the former FilmInk contributor. “I found it a little bit more hard-nosed than I expected. But that’s logical. This will probably come up in the panel, and it’ll certainly come up with talking to the other producers, but the less straightforward issues actually tend to be with publishing splits, where a song has been co-written and one party is published by one publisher and another party either represents themselves or is published by another publisher. That’s the classic trap where you can fall into the murky waters of what’s known as most favoured nations, where basically, the price just gets jacked up until everybody’s happy. That’s what you have to work really hard to avoid. And I really can’t recommend enough that filmmakers work with a music supervisor with a track record, who understands both sides of the equation, and who they can trust. That proved to absolutely be the case with us.”

Scheduled for March 7 at ACMI’s Cinema 2, Playback: Crafting Music Docs And Pathways To Licensing will see Jonathan Alley joined on stage by producer Cody Greenwood, whose award winning Under The Volcano will also be enjoying an AIDC screening on March 5; producer and director Philippa Bateman (Wash My Soul In The River’s Flow); and producer Carolina Sorensen (I’m Wanita), in an hour-long session billed as an interrogation of the different types of music documentaries – archival, concert and observational – while demystifying the practicalities involved in licensing footage and music. And while the overview itself sounds like a practical and essential resource for upcoming filmmakers, Alley is quick to acknowledge that the music doc genre itself continues to resist definition by its very diverse and broad nature.

“Having attended AIDC once to pitch my film many years ago, I was aware of how well regarded AIDC is and how useful it is to local filmmakers,” Alley offers. “So I was very happy to be involved when they decided this year to run a panel exploring some of the useful things to know for music licensing, and then deciding to include three very different music documentaries. I would even say that the title music documentary, in some ways, doesn’t apply to all three films, but that it definitely applies to each in other ways.

“My film, Love In Bright Landscapes, uses a lot of poetry and home movie footage, and restored colour slides in quite abstract ways,” Alley continues. “Wash My Soul In The River’s Flow uses beautiful landscape photography and Aboriginal language on screen, which is really important and quite fitting. I’m Wanita has a more fly-on-the-wall viewpoint. So, AIDC wanted three very distinct films with different licensing needs, but where each really had the need to license particular songs that are absolutely vital. It was a line in the sand. If you didn’t get the songs, the film’s not going to be what it could be. And that was certainly the case with my film. If you watch the three films at this AIDC panel, they’re all very different from one another, but each one of them really does move a long way away from the sort of rock doc cliches we are used to. The recognition of what a rock doc can be is actually getting wider and wider.”


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