Poi E: The Story Of Our Song is a film that captures the spirit of the music that inspired it.
There’s something to be said for a music documentary that doesn’t dwell too long on tragedy or misfortune. Poi E: The Story of Our Song is that break from convention; it’s a story about resilience by way of adversity, yet it’s not weighed down by either of those things. Instead, and similar to Poi E itself, it’s bold, spirited, and downright joyful. It pulls you in close, just like those opening bars of the song have always done.
We have director Tearepa Kahi to thank for that. Poi E: The Story of Our Song is his second feature film (his first, Mt Zion, was released in 2013), and he navigates his way through historical moments of hardship with precision and poise. He captures the sentiment of the early-80s without losing focus of why we’re looking back in the first place.
Poi E was released in 1984, two years after the Patea Freezing Works had closed down and left the small South Taranaki town in a state of economic collapse. The song, which is sung entirely in te reo, would spend four weeks at the top of the New Zealand charts, and help revive an entire community. It was performed by Pātea Māori Club, but its legacy sits with Dalvanius Prime, the towering and charismatic Aotearoa futurist who co-wrote the song with Māori composer Ngoi Pēwhairangi.
After a stint in Australia, Prime had returned home to Patea in aid of his sick mother. Her death would soon trigger a personal journey for the musician, one that saw him take a sharp left-turn with his songwriting. For the first time in his life, he would also embrace te reo and look to expose the language to young people in a way they could actually relate to.
Before Poi E: The Story of Our Song landed in the hands of Kahi, the initial idea was to make a TV documentary to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the song in 2014. But turning it into a feature-length film wouldn’t be the only adjustment; the documentary was intended for release last August, but it was pushed back because Kahi wasn’t happy with the final product. In interviews, he had hinted at a different approach altogether, one that involved actor Maaka Pohatu portraying Prime in segments throughout the film. Despite one exception, those scenes seem to have been left out of the final cut.
Still, more changes would be needed. “It was all done but I knew deep inside there was a problem,” Kahi recently told NZ Herald’s Russell Baillie. “The problem was voice. My voice was in the way of his voice.”
So by way of an interview, the late singer became the narrator. Chris Bourke, a well-known music journalist, had sat down with Prime back in 2000, and he passed on the uncut version of their conversation to Kahi to use as a backgrounder. It would ultimately be reworked into the film, which gives those unfamiliar with Prime an insight into just how compelling he could be when he had a microphone in front of him.
But Poi E: The Story of Our Song is as much about the people that surrounded Prime as it is about the singer himself. Kahi uses Prime to pivot between past and future, yet the film doesn’t hitch itself only to him. This is an oral history of a town, a time, and a song - not just one man.
It would be a disservice to everyone else involved to have it any other way. There are faces you’ll recognise – Don McGlashan, Murray Cammick and The Topp Twins all get screen time, as do Taika Waititi and Stan Walker – but it’s the aunties and uncles and other Pātea Māori Club elders that really bring life to the film. They’ll have you cracking up long after the credits have rolled.
In its own way, Poi E: The Story Of Our Song captures the essence of the music that inspired it. In the final minutes of the documentary, and once the story has been told in full, we’re left with a translation of the lyrics to see us out. But it’s what’s said between the lines that has always made Poi E feel so meaningful; it’s a song that preaches community, self-identity, family and, above all else, pride. As the film proves, those things will always continue to resonate.
Poi E: The Story of Our Song is screening at the NZ International Film Festival. It'll be in cinemas on 4 August.