'Upright' & Tim Minchin's Road to 'Apart Together'
“I can have a darkside, if you want me to. I can develop my brooding potential, if pain’s what you want in an act, pain I can do.”
- Tim Minchin, Darkside
Time has aged Australian musician/occasional comedian/genius Tim Minchin like a fine wine. The early to mid-2000s saw Minchin progress and fine-tune his lyrical sensibilities from band Timmy the Dog to his solo act; one that saw him earning praise more so due to his comedic content than his musical capability. But that’s not to say the man wasn’t talented. A fireball on piano, each song was filled to the brim with double-entendres, playful quips mocking various religions/beliefs, and joyful utterances of the naughty language words.
I first saw Minchin during a televised performance of his poem Angry (Feet) – about a Tourette’s sufferer’s anger management issues with his doctor – when I lived in Australia, and my young age meant I just found it funny how he kept quacking mid-sentence alongside the sudden spew of cuss words. It wasn’t until I (thankfully) matured into a pretentious teenager in Britain that I revisited him just before his Ready for This? Tour. I devoured every performance I could find on Youtube and spent the most money I ever spent on a CD buying his original So Rock and Darkside releases (Timmy the Dog has been lost to grandfather time unfortunately). I’m honestly glad I was at the right age for Minchin’s rise to stardom, and partly feel he’s responsible that my taste in comedy and art in general steers towards the ‘intellectual’ (god fucking shoot me) rather than the asinine. I very easily could have succumbed to a lifetime of Mrs. Browns Boys had I not been careful.
Still, there was a fascination with Tim Minchin himself. His stressed long hair, his mascara, his bare-foot stage antics and his self-proclaimed ‘Rock’N’Roll Nerd’ persona allowed him to simultaneously walk the line between self-respecting musician and awkward, bug-eyed, eccentric Aussie weirdie. The initial background of a stand-up with musical accompaniment melted away gradually, allowing him to bellow beautiful ballads like White Wine in the Sun with sombre sincerity rather than a playful wink. The ‘tortured artist’ routine is an oldie but a goodie, and Minchin did well to never veer off into self-parody with his comedic work (though he playfully poked fun during acting stints on shows like Californication).
Of course, the 2010s offered fewer personalised shining lights but greater artistic success. Collaborating with Dennis Kelly (playwright and the man behind the UK version of Utopia) on Matilda the Musical based on the classic Roald Dahl novel meant that Minchin became an acclaimed composer, handling the music and lyrics for the entire production – one that still holds the record for the most Olivier awards won by a musical. A further musical production of Groundhog Day was also scored by Minchin and went on to win numerous awards for its production. It’s clear that theatricality played a huge part in his work. This grandiose sense of scale, whether it be from the orchestral accompaniment of The Heritage Orchestra or sheer emotional heft, was pivotal to his creations.
“…and the weirdest thing about [my body] is, I spend so much time hating it, but it never says a bad word about me…”
- Tim Minchin, Not Perfect
From an outsider perspective, whilst his jovial TV show appearances and cheeky west-end productions kept their sense of fun and frivolity (I don’t know why but I’m digging this alliteration), Minchin took a step back from ‘comedy’ to focus on other projects. In 2013, it was announced he was working on a Dreamworks feature film entitled Larrikins, an animated musical epic set in the outback of Western Australia starring Hugh Jackman, Margot Robbie, Naomi Watts and Ben Mendelsohn among others. A distinctive passion project, Minchin was set to direct and co-write alongside Chris Miller as well as composing all the music for the project himself. However despite the project already having a huge chunk of animation/asset creation completed, it was shelved in 2017 without warning. All that remains are some assets and ideas left over that were included in the Dreamworks short film Bilby. Tim and his family had moved to LA for the project, and 2017 had dealt a soul-crushing blow that prompted them to move back to Australia, Sydney, to be specific. “I said no to a tour every year, to two or three different fantastic Broadway projects, to TV shows. I said no to so much because I went ‘I’m the director of a $100million movie and it will all be worth it’” he told The Guardian in 2018. This period of depression resulted in a defiant, rallying cry to create in his homeland.
It’s this gutsy rebellious nature that I felt betwixt the sex jokes and playful poking of belief on records like So Rock those years ago. And it’s not like he’s been keeping quiet. In between shows and projects Minchin has maintained a biting satire for modern causes whether it’s regarding marriage equality or sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. His original song 15 Minutes elevates the toxicity of the current cancel culture phenomenon as the same aplomb and bravado as his stage musicals whilst getting some good licks in just for good measure. But that doesn’t prevent it from sounding like a damn good time.
“Pick up your pitchfork and your torch, we’ll go hunt the monster down, but keep an eye out for uneven ground, we’ll turn on you if you stumble.”
- Tim Minchin, 15 Minutes
Cue Upright, then. Created by Chris Taylor and developed by him, Minchin, Kate Mulvany and Leon Ford, the drama series follows an aged rock musician Laclan “Lucky” Flynn (Minchin) who is thrown together with a young girl named Meg (Milly Alcock) as he travels across the Australian desert in order to transport an upright piano from one side of the country to another. The buddy road trip dynamic is the basis of so many classic tales, and Upright wastes no time in cementing itself as one of the best. Milly Alcock’s Meg is an immediate standout with her spunky attitude and antagonistic, rebellious actions that forever get the two of them into trouble. At first it seems as though Minchin’s Lucky will wear the brunt of the foil. He’s stern-faced and standoffish, with a unique dislike of Meg’s behaviour that simultaneously feels like an aura of adult superiority and general grumpiness of an arrogant, scorned individual.
Of course, there’s more to both characters. And what makes Upright feel special isn’t the story itself but the way it's presented. Comedy and drama mesh together extraordinarily well but it’s a double-edged sword. Swing one way towards either and you’re left with a damp squib. Shows like Scrubs (and recently Fleabag) have become synonymous with a quality beyond their peers due to the delicate and deliberate way in which they balance the two tones, and Upright is thankfully from the same school of thought. Across its eight episodes the duo run rampant across several disastrous set-pieces, ranging from awkward bar brawls to desert raves, but it never loses sight on putting Lucky and Meg’s background and intentions first.
Obviously, I won’t be spoiling the show here (you should really watch it) but you can probably guess that both of them aren’t in the happiest of places. Not only that, but they both bring out the worst (and later best) in each other and prove to be just what the other needs. This makes the show a manifestation of Tim Minchin’s whole career. The broad set pieces engage the general audience the same way his goofy aloofness initially attracted the comedy crowds, whilst the show’s emotional beats inspire them to stay. Alongside co-directing the final two episodes (alongside primary director Matthew Saville) he also wrote half of the series and provided some of the music (of course) and all of these elements amalgamate in such a beautiful way for the show’s emotional climax that it echoes in my mind as one of my favourite TV moments over the past few years.
The raggedy nature of Lucky, Meg and the deteriorating upright piano, with its hollowed sound and raspy twang, celebrate the damaged. But the damaged aren’t defined by what’s happened to them or who they’ve been previously. Recently here in the UK, A Level students across the country have been defined by our government as average or less-than in worth despite being extraordinary, merely due to their location or background. It’s disgusting and it’s vile and it’s something worth being angry about. We live in a world that celebrates the privileged and offers hunts of success to those less-fortunate who have had to put in ten-times the effort of those around them. Meg and Lucky are runaways. They’re almost archetypes but by choosing to stay together through thick and thin they achieve more. And this ‘more’ isn’t measurable to any amount of wealth or fame, it’s a stark reminder of an urge to be kind, even in the face of past unpleasantness.
Even though the title of this piece indicates I’d just be focusing (like many of my posts here) on Upright specifically, I spent the majority of my writing detailing the peaks and valleys of Tim Minchin’s career and, as a by-product, my knowledge/opinions of the man in the build up to the series. Much like him, and us all, everything we do now is because of our past experiences. Upright wouldn’t exist as it is without the collapse of other projects or the darker days or the move back to Australia. It’s the most simple and basic concept in the world when said aloud but our own personal experiences are so unique because they’re ours. Nobody else has lived the very specific circumstances you have. And that, in a way is your superpower. You are, much like his namesake, Lucky. And Minchin has continuously referred to himself as intensely lucky throughout his career, and not just as a offshoot of his humble artistry but because of the deeper understanding that the world is cruel – not in a nihilistic sense but in a base sense – and that kindness and openness can make it less so.
“And reflected in your eyes is all my love and all my lies, is all my promise and my pride, is all my fear and all my fight, is all my dread and my denial…”
- Tim Minchin, Carry You
Look, I’m a rambler. I know that, and chances are if you’ve made it this far you know it too. That’s part of who I am, the rest of me I’m still working on. To an outsider, Upright seems like another grasp for attention. They may balk at ads or brush off Minchin’s toned-physique as some kind of ego-centric actor boost that bloke who starred in 2018’s Robin Hood did. Those people, in the kindest way possible, are ignorant idiots. This turning point in the Aussie weirdie’s career signifies a shift in attention and what appears to be a period of focused emotionally open work.
In November, Tim’s debut studio album Apart Together is being released. And from what I can gather from the singles released so far, it’s an amalgamation of every single thing here. Leaving LA is a defiant goodbye to the cliché-ridden and dream-squashing notion that Hollywood represents. I’ll Take Lonely Tonight is a raw and human rebuttal of the adulterous intentions that seep in after the honeymoon phase of a relationship. The title track Apart Together meanwhile is almost an ode to the self-destructive tendencies of romance. These melodic ballads, bolstered by Minchin’s astute, everyman lyrical choices and crooning vocals are bereft of comedy. These are the outpours of the same man, all his intellectual intensity, his carefully measured metaphors and his self-aware hypocrisy just…diverted into one aspect – his music…it still won’t get as many hits as Kitten Waking Up, however.
It’d be easy to cast off this change in direction as a decision that goes against his entire ethos. If he loses the kookiness and starts to take himself seriously, is that the end of ‘Tim Minchin’? Of course it isn’t. It’s progression and expression, simple as. If there was a pivotal moment I had to pick in order to explain this choice I’d have to point towards the release of 15 Minutes towards the end of 2018. Like many fans I rejoiced at Tim’s promise of new material, but the promise was wrong. It read ‘here is the first of what will hopefully be an album worth of song releases in 2019. I hope it amuses. x.’ I knew the uncomfortable tone, and I’m glad the jovial sense of fun remained intact with the track but seems (so far) absent from the album. In that gap, Upright proved a strengthening of will and paved the way for Apart Together. The comments on this latest output have all been jokingly referring to one of his earlier pieces, negating the need to come across as ‘dark’ (and therefore faux deep) in the song Darkside, but whilst the more serious tone of his latest work contrasts in tone to his earlier work, its values are the same.
“Being an artist requires massive reserves of self-belief, of course I know now that the two years I spent [at WAAPA] feeling unbelievably bad about myself was simply training for the subsequent eight years feeling even worse…”
- Tim Minchin’s honorary Doctorate speech at WAAPA, 2019
The quirks and lack of self-entitlement from his comedy shows has naturally progressed into a raw honesty, one that fans have long known about from his unreleased work. The only difference now is, he’s putting it in the foreground for all to see. It's not like Tim hasn't experienced success in translating love ballads before, some of his best and most popular work within his oeuvre have derived from riffing on the genre. Songs like You Grew on Me, If I Didn't Have You, Inflatable You and If You Really Loved Me all show the foundation of great, timeless and passionate love songs are there ready to be released. It's been a long time coming.
I can’t wait for the album and whatever comes next, whether it be more touring or writing/acting work. I’m just glad we’re getting more Minchin. I hope you are too.
In the UK, Upright is available on Sky.
In Australia it is available on all Digital Platforms.
In the US, it is available on Sundance Now.
No physical release has been announced yet. I really hope it gets one.
Apart Together is release November 20th.
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In just under two weeks, I have the privilege to be a part of Show Face Festival – four days of work from over 60 emerging writers/actors/directors/producers/designers and illustrators all presenting brand new pieces of online theatre, poetry and art across the bank holiday. Founded by Lauren Elizabeth after making a public call out on Twitter, the festival very quickly drew in support from even bloomin’ Dame Judi Dench herself!
Tickets are free, and you can book you spaces to see some of the pieces (and find out more) over at http://www.showfacefestival.co.uk
I myself have two written pieces being performed within the festival which some wonderful teams have been involved in. I hope it amuses.
Another week, another load of worrying advances and developments across the globe. Whilst the #BlackLivesMatter movement will never stop, protests are still being held in various places worldwide to protest the unjustified murder of people like Breonna Taylor.
In the US, President Donald Duck Fuck Trump is deciding to attack the postal service in a blatant attempt to rig postal votes – something that is punishable by US law for AT LEAST six months.
Coronavirus cases have risen once again here in the UK despite an easing down of rules. Even though it’s not reported directly to you, keep in mind we’re now starting to average about 1000 new cases a day. It’s not over. Remember only to go out if need be, keep your mask on in stores and be safe for others.
It’s that time of year where the UK decides to suddenly stop caring about life and instead film refugees struggling to make their way across the channel in search of better living conditions. The way news broadcasters in this country have acted is despicable.
The fallout from the explosion in Beirut continues to have a devastating impact on the economy.
That’s just a fraction of what’s going on. It’s difficult to keep up to date I know, but if you spend even just 10 minutes a day researching these topics you’d be able to arm yourself in conversation and pass on the truth. You could help make a difference just by staying aware.
Here’s a helpful link with some of the resources for issues going on today.
Meanwhile, here’s a website that allows you to help donate to such causes for free, just by watching advertisements: https://arab.org/
The world sucks right now, but it needs you to help it get better.
Thank you for reading, I’ll see you next week.
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