Dystopian Australian classic Mad Max was about to get a massive makeover, thanks to the superlative musical skills of the Shaolin Afronauts, Adelaide based afrobeat specialists. I had been intrigued when I had seen it in the Adelaide Festival program. I’d listened to the Shaolin Afronauts before, but I had not seen the original Mad Max film and I was curious to see how they would pull it off. We arrived at the Festival Theatre, and near the space theatre we were ushered down a staircase into the bowels of the building.
We emerged from a rabbit warren of narrow passages into large performance and rehearsal space, with temporary seats. They had certainly drawn a big crowd and the place was packed. The walls were painted like a thick jungle, with lifelike models of tigers, sloths and other creatures hanging from the ceiling. A friendly sign let us know that no animals had been harmed in the making of the display. The performance space was warm and slightly humid – fitting in with the theme.
The Shaolin Afronauts made an unassuming entrance on stage, clad in black hooded robes of crushed velvet, fitting for any well respecting cultist. As the opening credits rolled, we were treated to the introduction and got a taste of the sublime skills of the ensemble. They have been playing together for a long time, and they are sharp, polished and skilled, and the rolling afrobeat, jazz and funk seemed effortless.
The opening sequence introduced us to near future Australia with a decaying social order, where leather clad uniformed thugs of the Main Force Patrol (Bronzes) dueled drug fuelled psychopaths (Scags) in V8 fuelled battles across the dusty plains and hills of rural Australia. The opening chase scene was counterpointed by a sequence of fast and furious Afrobeat rhythms, with the screeching brass section mimicking the squealing tyres, and drums and percussion punctuating the gunshots and explosions. It was beautifully synchronised, rising to a powerful musical crescendo when the villain Niterider met his explosive end.
The screen was suspended above the stage, and the band were playing underneath. I admit I was drawn into the film a little bit, and my attention was on that as I hadn’t seen it. They had subtitles running, because at various times the music would rise up, usually during scenes of action and dramatic tension, and then fade away during periods of dialogue.
When we met Toecutter and his band of post apocalyptic villains, the music sounded like a stately march as they descended on the unsuspecting townsfolk. As the festive mood in the town turned ugly, as they assaulted and harassed the local citizens, the music turned discordant and angry. Screaming brass sections mimicked the grinding metal of car crashes and iron bars beating the terrified victims car.
As the film progressed, I became mesmerised by the experience, letting the live music express the emotion, tragedy and drama of the film. The musicians came into and out of the film effortlessly, making their presence felt with their rich, layered and polished sound, yet not overwhelming it either. It was actually a remarkable feat, as key moments of drama were perfectly synchronised by creative uses of the instruments in the ensemble, like the brass section melding with the Max’s anguished scream after the death of his wife.
As an experience, I would highly recommend it – classic Australian cinema, coupled with a stellar Australian musical ensemble. I think the concept definitely works best with films with lots of action sequences and big wide open spaces, maybe Mad Max the Road Warrior next year?
Adelaide Festival Review By Jeremy Watkinson