Tonight’s opening movie of the New Zealand International Film Festival captures a magical moment in our pop culture. Russell Baillie reports.

On an office wall deep in industrial Henderson, a poster frames the face of Dalvanius Prime. It's in black and white. The late singer, producer, activist, mover and shaker is wearing a superfly hat and a knowing look.

Beneath his face: "Poi E: The Story Behind Our Song."

Beneath that: "2015".

As the whiteboard on the opposite wall of his West Auckland production base reminds director Tearepa Kahi, actually, it's very much mid-2016.


There appears to have been a bit of a hold-up ... .

That's because last year Kahi thought he had finished his documentary about how Prime and the Patea Maori Club's hit song Poi E became a landmark in New Zealand pop culture and an enduring singalong.

He had already spent more than a year on the film, his second feature after Mt Zion, another music-powered tilt at 80s Aotearoa, but a drama, set in his birthplace, Pukekohe.

Poi E had started with his approaches to the club as well as Prime's family, some of whom had initiated the project. He also made overtures to the Ngati Porou whanau of the song's late co-writer Ngoi Pewhairangi.

* Listen to Andrew Dickens chat to Tearepa Kahi on Newstalk ZB here

A champion of te reo and composer of traditional waiata, she also wrote the lyrics to the Prince Tui Teka 1982 hit ballad E Ipo, which Prime produced.

Kahi filmed dozens of interviews with those involved in Poi E and its accompanying video, which put one nation under a groove in the late summer of 1984.

There was an extensive search for archival material that stretched from the garages of Patea to the vaults of the BBC.

From all that, Kahi, had plenty to make a documentary from. He finished it. That poster was printed.

But still, he wasn't happy. He thought he had failed. He knew he had to do something about it.

"It was all done but I knew deep inside there was a problem. The problem was voice. My voice was in the way of his voice," he says pointing to Dalvanius on the wall.

But before the story of how Kahi redid his movie to prevent it from becoming just a B-side pop doco, first a reminder about the remarkable A-side that inspired it.

Poi E

is still the only te reo song to reach number one in the New Zealand charts. It was a sleeper hit, taking 18 months and the video screening weekly on pop show

Ready to Roll

, to finally catch on.

It entered the chart at number three in mid-February 1984. A few weeks later it finally knocked Foster & Allen's Maggie out of the top spot and it stayed for another month, becoming the biggest-selling single of the year.

But the song wasn't just a case of one-hit wondrousness.

As the likes of Taika Waititi, who used the song in his musical closing to Boy, Moana Maniapoto, Don McGlashan, the Topp Twins and other interviewees in the doco attest, It was a where-were-you-at-the-time moment.

It certainly was for Kahi. He was 7 years old. Seeing the video, with white-gloved breakdancer Joe Moana in the waka atop that Patea memorial, had quite an effect on him.

"It just screamed out on Ready to Rolll and I remember cutting up the lino in our kitchen and putting it on the back lawn. Me and my brother would just practise - 'It's dance mum! We've got to nail this backspin!'" Originally recruited from the streets of Wellington, the now Australian-based Moana reprises his bop performance in the film.

"He had such a big effect on me, and meeting him was a dream come true," says Kahi. "Man, was that you on that waka?"

The history of the song arising out Patea's adversity has been much covered over the years. The Taranaki town's freezing works closed in 1982, bringing it to the brink of economic extinction.

"We went from earning quite big money to nothing - and then hello, we're back," then-club chairman, the late John Nyman told TimeOut's Scott Kara in 2010, at the time Boy shot the song back into the charts.

"It lifted the whole community out of the doldrums. It just gave pride back to a lot of us and we felt we were someone again rather than nobody - and that our town was something rather than nothing."

All of that is in The Story of Our Song too, with PMC members young and old offering entertaining takes on being part of the Poi E phenomenon.

"I am really pleased that we have captured a lot of the originals who are still alive," says club trustee Miri Snee, a niece of Prime who was also on the recording and video.

"Some of the older folks like my mum and her sister and a few of the aunties and uncles are getting on. That's the biggest buzz of it all - we've captured them forever, really."

But the movie's most fascinating aspects come from its portrait of the determined Prime and how the song came to be written and recorded.

Kahi virtually seats us at the kitchen table of Pewhairangi's Tokomaru Bay home as Poi E first comes together.

One of Prime's cousins made a cassette recording of the early run-throughs. As Kahi gathered material for the film, she pulled the tape out of a sock drawer where it had sat for many years. When it is heard in the movie, it's something magical.

The film also traverses the odd couple Prime-Pewhairangi partnership.

Pewhairangi, who died in 1985 just as the club was performing in Britain, wasn't happy with the final record, though she accepted Prime's point, that her mokopuna loved the song and that kids were being exposed to te reo without it being a lecture.

Dalvanius Prime is a late singer, producer, activist, mover and shaker is wearing a superfly hat and a knowing look.
Dalvanius Prime is a late singer, producer, activist, mover and shaker is wearing a superfly hat and a knowing look.

As Prime, who didn't speak te reo, told the New Zealand Herald's Graham Reid in 1988: "I got ostracised by a lot of people for working with someone from Ngati Porou. However, we had formed such a strong bond it was water off a duck's back to us. She was a tohunga and a matriarch - and a very strong person musically and politically. People look at our songs like Poi E and think they're just Maori songs with a dance beat, but they are quite wrong."

Elsewhere in the film, the musicians and engineers on the recording discuss Prime the demanding producer - "I want space invader noises!".

It took an hour to create its synthesizer-powered backing track, followed by two nights of singing by the club, crowded around the mikes in an Auckland studio.

All of which would have made for a solid television doco.

But Kahi had taken on the project as a movie, a story to sustain for 90 minutes. Some in Prime's extended family had initiated it as a television project for the 2014 30th anniversary of the song. They had taken it to prominent Maori television producer Bailey Mackey, who eventually bowed out, but suggested it to Kahi after Mt Zion.

Watch the trailer for the film, Poi E: The story of our song

Almost three years and one major rethink later, Kahi - whose wife Reikura is a producer on the film - has finally finished Poi E, his second feature. And he's finally happy with it.

And he has Dalvanius himself to thank for that.

Respected music writer and radio producer Chris Bourke had interviewed Prime in 2000, two years before he died, for a Radio New Zealand series. He still had the raw audio and initially offered it to Kahi as background material.

"He was a brilliant interviewee: articulate, witty, outrageous, gossipy, and most of all musical," says Bourke.

When Kahi heard Prime in full flight, he knew he had found the real voice of his movie.

"It was only when I heard his cackling high-pitched laughter I knew 'boy you are so far off'. It's certainly brought some cinematic scope to this, his presence, his voice. He says things in a way no one else does."

"As an artist or a storyteller, it's been the best experience of my life being able to get that level of honesty and really take yourself out of the equation and listen to the man tell the story."

Tonight as the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival, Poi E and the Patea Maori Club will rise again before the film goes on wider release.

Yes, the Patea Maori Club will be in attendance at the premiere. You have to ask: Do they ever get sick of that tune?

Snee laughs that, after being part of a workshop in Auckland last week to teach Poi E's poi actions and those lyrics to all-comers, yes the earworm effect can be bit much.

"After the weekend singing it 50,000 times, you sort of go away from there thinking 'I don't care if I never sing that song again.'

"But then you hear it on the radio or see it on the TV, you think 'Aww there's our song...'"

For Kahi, having his movie open the film festival is a dream come true. Though he is looking forward to at least one other significant screening.

"We've been nurtured to think about the overseas life of our films first and to recalibrate the story and the cultural representations for overseas people.

"But for me this one was 'nah, how's it's going to play in Hawera [Patea's nearest cinema] where he lived," he says, pointing to the man in the hat.

"I can't believe how present he still is in that community. And, now I have spent two and a half years doing this, how present he is with me as well."

Low down


Poi E: The Story of Our Song


Directed by Tearepa Kahi


At the Civic tonight. Opens in cinemas August 4