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New Zealand 2016
Directed by
Te Arepa Kahi
93 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Poi E (The Story Of Our Song)

Synopsis: Yhe story of New Zealand’s unofficial national anthem and the musicians who against all odds made the first ever Te Reo Māori pop song a home-grown hit.  In 1984, Dalvanius Prime, an R&B singer and musician, collaborated with composer Ngoingoi Pewhairangi to write a catchy song in Māori language. He gathered together a diverse and talented group of collaborators, focused around the Patea Māori Club, to record the song and crowdfund a music video that captured the vitality and pride of his hometown as it faced the devastation of its sole employer, a meat freezing plant, closing down. The song was a hit and Prime mortgaged his home to take the group on a UK tour to perform for the Queen in a Royal Command Performance.

This joyous documentary manages to be quite serious and a bit tongue-in-cheek at the same time. We get its style straight away when we’re presented with an image of the town of Patea (where “Poi E” the song was written) with the caption ‘today’ followed by a grainy archive image of the same location with a new caption – ‘ages ago’. These funny captions and other graphics by Jeff Smith throughout the film provide an extra level of visual commentary that adds to its considerable charm.

Poi E is made up of lots of ‘80s footage (plenty of big hair and nostalgia) intercut with contemporary talking-head interviews and perspectives on the efforts of the improbably named Prime to promote the song and all it means to his world. He clearly knew what he was doing, even if that meant incurring the wrath of respected Māori composer and activist Pewhairangi who was not a fan of her lyrics being backed by ‘80s drum machines, synths and what Prime referred to as ‘space invaders sounds’.

As daggy as it might be, “Poi E” was a phenomenon. It exceeded all expectations, beating out Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to take the number one position in the New Zealand pop charts in 1984 and has remained in the New Zealand Top Ten for the past thirty years.The real power of this story, though, is in the way it manages to bring Māori culture and language not just into the mainstream, but into the minds of a younger generation who were at risk of losing their cultural heritage and connections. Prime’s own story reflects this risk when he speaks of sitting with his dying mother whose last words were spoken to him in the Māori language; a language he didn’t know. It’s one of the galvanising moments that inspires him to take action in a way that would ultimately lead to the creation of the song.

The importance of the intergenerational sharing of this song is further illustrated in the some of the interviews where key figures from back in the day share their insights on the impact of “Poi E” with younger counterparts. The funniest of these are the scenes between Stan Walker and Taika Waititi (actor and director respectively in this year’s New Zealand hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), as Waititi tries to explain the analogue ‘80s to Walker. In fact, it’s the infectious nature, humour and spirit of all of the interview subjects - including Jules and Lynda Topp (comedy duo, the Topp Twins), Joe Moana (who was the ‘kid who could dance like Michael Jackson’ in the original film clip, and reprises that dance in the film) and Barletta and Pauline Prime, (Dalvanius’ hilarious sister and sister-in-law) – that brings such energy to the documentary. It’s certainly a curio, but one well worth your time. As Walker and Waititi joke with each other at the end, “Poi E is” a song that all New Zealanders know, but nobody knows the words. But if you stick around after the credits, the filmmakers do their best to rectify that.




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