New doco goes behind the scenes at Rhythm & Vines, and digs up some dirt along the way. Chris Schulz meets the filmmakers.
Belinda Henley hadn't yet hit the record button for her new documentary when she got an urgent phone call.
On the line was Andrew Witters, the son of Gisborne businessman Dean Witters. Andrew had some bad news: Dean only had days to live.
He told her: "If you want to interview him, get down here."
Henley, an executive video producer at NZME, knew Dean played an integral role in the creation of Rhythm & Vines, the long-running New Year's music festival in Gisborne.
Dean was one of the festival's founders and the original owner of Waiohika Estate, the sprawling vineyard where Rhythm & Vines entertains upwards of 20,000 punters each New Year's.
Henly wanted the interview with Dean for her documentary, which was set to tell the "warts and all" behind-the-scenes story of Rhythm & Vines.
So she did what any good journalist would do.
"I scrambled down to Gisborne to interview him," she says. "That was a tough day. We interviewed him a couple of weeks before he died."
Her interview with an ailing, regretful and close-to-tears Dean Witters, as well as footage of his funeral, is one of many emotional moments in The Road to Rhythm, a four-part R18 documentary series that begins airing on nzherald.co.nz from today.
Co-directed by Henley and Phill Prendeville, the doco follows the festival's rollercoaster ride over its 15-year history, from its inception as a dance party for Otago University students to becoming New Zealand's premier New Year's festival, a juggernaut that's become a rite of passage for many Kiwi school leavers.
It hasn't all been plain-sailing. The doco lays bare issues surrounding the rise of BW Campgrounds, Andrew Witters' off-site initiative that grew to become a festival all of its own but was shut down after riots led to 63 arrests in 2015. It also covers the financial issues that nearly saw Rhythm & Vines bankrupted after expanding to become a three-day festival.
Watch: The Road to Rhythm - Part Two
Watch: The Road to Rhythm - Part Three
Watch: The Road to Rhythm - Part Four
But the documentary digs up even more dirt, discovering a strained relationship between festival co-directors Hamish Pinkham and Andrew Witters. "I think it was quite confronting," says Henley. "A wee bit of mud-slinging goes on, and that's not easy for them to maybe watch."
Pinkham admits to nerves ahead of the doco's debut. "It's certainly warts and all," says the softly spoken promoter. But he thinks it will be "cathartic" after several years of turmoil.
"It's ... a good chance to reflect on where we've come from. Watching the doco puts it in perspective how hard it's been over the years."
Henley admits she had to convince Pinkham, an old friend, and Andrew Witters to give her full festival access. She didn't want it to become a puff piece. "We did have to have some pretty frank and robust stories around editorial control," she says. "It's their baby, but it was really important to Phil and I that we ... maintained (editorial integrity)."
It's not all mudslinging. Henley and co capture plenty of candid moments, like the first-time festival-goers hilariously prepping for their Rhythm & Vines debut. Or staff suffering backstage freak outs over dodgy weather forecasts.
Then there's the moment Man's Not Hot rapper Big Shaq misses a flight and struggles to arrive at last year's festival on time. His rapturous arrival on stage to a frenzied crowd is a revelation.
Pinkham says it's important for fans to see the tough times too. "People see the gloss and the glamour and the travel and the lifestyle and being in the industry and getting to go to cool shows," he says. "But I don't think they realise a lot of the risk and dedication and courage and focus it's taken to get to this point."
Pinkham admits he's been so busy looking ahead to future festivals, and booking the next line-up, that he hasn't had a chance to look back. The doco's made him do just that. The toughest time, he says, was in 2015 after the BW Campground riot, when the festival's directors jointly decided to pull the plug.
"We collectively decided to throw the towel in," he says. "There was a point we had too much on our plate, then we hung up the phone, called each other back and said, 'Hang on, maybe there are some solutions here'."
Both Pinkham and Henley believe that's the best bit - the doco is following a festival that comes with a happy ending. The festival's just signed up with global touring superpower Live Nation. They've taken a controlling interest, meaning access to bigger artists and cementing the festival's future.
"Rhythm & Vines is in the best shape it's ever been in," says Henley. "There's redemption at the end.
"The story we wanted to tell was the ups and downs and how they got there."
Who: Filmmakers Belinda Henley and Phill Prendeville
What: The Road to Rhythm, a four-part documentary series chronicling the 15-year history of Rhythm & Vines
Where and when: Screening on nzherald.co.nz, from today
RHYTHM AND VINES: THE BIGGEST GETS
Fat Freddy's Drop, 2005
The Kiwi roots act are household names now, but when they signed up to perform at R&V in 2005, their all-conquering debut, Based on a True Story, hadn't yet been released. "I got sent it in April," says Pinkham. "I went overseas, came back in October and they'd just gone through the roof." Freddy's played on a bill that also included Salmonella Dub, The Black Seeds, Shapeshifter, Cornerstone Roots and Ladi6, acts that still tour regularly across summer. "It felt like we were the first to group that whole scene together," says Pinkham. But he says the New Year's set by Freddy's still stands out. "We had Dan Carter hanging off the stage ... all of Outrageous Fortune were there. It was a really iconic year."
Public Enemy, 2008
Pinkham admits the festival's sixth event went overboard signing as many big names as it could get, as it expanded to become a three-day festival. But the 2008 festival didn't attract enough fans. "We had 18,000 and needed 25,000," he says. "We had people saying, 'Why are you doing three days? We can hardly survive one'. It took a while for people to catch up on that." The bill was expansive, featuring everyone from alt-rock acts The Kooks and Franz Ferdinand to electronic acts Santigold and Carl Cox, and locals Shihad and Ladyhawke. But with Chuck D's menacing bellow and Flavor Flav's clock-twirling antics, Public Enemy was the festival's standout performance. "They brought a marching band," remembers Pinkham.
One of Pinkham's favourite things is watching acts grow with the festival. Kiwi electronic duo Sachi are one such act. "Now that we're established, we get offered a lot of artists, some great artists, even artists that have played at the festival before," Pinkham explains. "What I like is having a bit of foresight, taking a bit of a risk to selecting artists that are ahead of the curve, bringing them into the mix and seeing if they'd succeed." Sachi did just that, he says. "They've been brought up from pretty humble beginnings. Seeing them on the main stage last year was quite rewarding," he says.
Chance the Rapper, 2016
Foresight can play a part with international acts, too. Pinkham signed Chance the Rapper as a headliner early in 2016, then watched his career take off. "Selecting artists that are a little bit ahead of the curve and bringing them into the mix (is rewarding)," says Pinkham. "Knowing that we had his contract signed while watching his ascent ... he had an audience with the Obamas six weeks before headlining Rhythm & Vines," he says. "It's pretty exciting."
"You've got to keep up with the next thing," is how Pinkham describes his job at Rhythm & Vines. That next thing is a partnership with Live Nation, the live music juggernaut that recently took a controlling share of the festival. "During tough times it would have been good to have someone who believed in our vision," he says. "Live Nation's a company that understands risk and reward in a promotional space. They're the best in the world at it." Pinkham believes more doors have already opened, and that could lead to bigger headliners and better opportunities. "We can tap into their pipeline. Communication channels are open," he says. And he's already teasing a very big name set to be confirmed for next year's bill. "We've got an act at the moment that we've secured for this year's event that's pretty exciting," Pinkham says. "It will be pretty groundbreaking ... We're in a good space."
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