Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Review: Poi E movie opens film festival on a high note

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The world premiere of Poi E: The Story of Our Song opened the New Zealand International Festival at the Civic last night to a sell-out crowd.

Though as festival director Bill Gosden noted wryly in his speech, only 75% of those in the theatre had paid. It was a night with a big guest list.

That was understandable given the event was being attended - and eventually serenaded - by many of the Patea Maori Club who appeared in the infectiously fun, stylishly nostalgic documentary about the 1984 te reo hit Poi E which was last revived in the finale of Taika Waititi's Boy.

Waititi featured as one of the outside commentator talking heads used sparingly in director Tearepa Kahi's doco, a film which manages not just to capture the magic of Poi E's fleeting big moment in the different times of 1984, but talk about its long term effects.

Like how it became something that expressed modern Maori identity to the generation who bought it, breakdanced or swung a poi to it.

Or how, in its own electronically enhanced dance beat way, it became an Aotearoa anthem alongside the likes of Pokarekare Ana.

On paper, that might all sound somewhat thesis-like.

But it's a warm, funny, touching movie too, care of the many personalities that Kahi captures including Patea Maori Club veterans and extended whanau of the song's co-writer, the late Dalvanius Prime.

He's the star of this show and his voiceover is the movie's main storytelling engine.

If you were to fault the doco as a piece of journalism it would be that in its efforts to keep things moving, it wastes no time explaining who some people are - most are introduced just by a first name and amusing nickname.

On the other hand, it does a very good job of delving into the odd-couple songwriting partnership behind the song - the impatient showbiz guy Prime and Ngati Porou kuia and staunch te reo traditionalist-lyricist Ngoi Pewhairangi, despite both being no longer with us.

But even in its serious mission, it's a film of cheeky humour - mirroring Prime's own attitude - and it has much of fun being amusingly liberal in its translated English subtitles to the some of the earnest te reo pronouncements.

I am pretty sure one senior member of the club did not actually say "Temple of Funk" when discussing Prime's musical education. But te reo is, of course, a rich and varied language that moves with the times.

All of that made for the funniest, funkiest opening night to the festival in this writer's memory.

There's never been a better screen treatment of music and the people who make it to come out of New Zealand, either.

No wonder the 75 per cent who paid gave a standing ovation to the film and the club who took to the stage afterwards to sing.

But anyone heading long to its other festival screenings or when it comes out on general release next month should be warned: You'll laugh, you'll possibly cry, yes you'll get that damn tune stuck in your head for days. But you may even learn some of its lyrics other than that chorus. It'll be worth it.

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