The mid-1980s were a time of major change politically, economically and culturally. For some it was a time of upheaval, disruption and a lost past. For others it was a fresh opening to the world as the first waves of globalisation pushed back restrictions, regulation and controls. The role of government changed and so did the way society reacted.
It wasn’t obvious at the time but 1984, with the mid-year election of the David Lange-led Labour government, was also a watershed in cultural terms.
At the beginning of that year, Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club had released a video track that combined traditional Maori waiata with poi and the then popular street culture of breakdancing and Michael Jackson moonwalking.
It took several months of TV airplay before it caught on. Music radio stations rejected it, fearing listeners would be put off by the Te Reo lyrics. Station playlists preferred imports such as Foster and Allen’s “Maggie”, which was the top hit of the time.
Those involved repeatedly state in the documentary Poi E: The Story Behind Our Song (Sony Pictures) that until then the Maori contribution to popular music was restricted to Howard Morrison Quartet novelty numbers and covers of international hits.
The Topp Twins, Don McGlashan and others recall the impact of “Poi E” as revolutionary. Boy director Taika Waititi, who gave the catchy tune a revival in 2010, and Stan Walker contribute a more contemporary perspective.
While too many talking heads can slow any musical documentary, the ones chosen by director Tearepa Kahi mostly make a valuable contribution.
But the highlights are video footage taken from television and whoever had the foresight to be in the recording studio at the right time.
Prime Minister Lange is seen immensely enjoying one of the many variations of what some would say, including myself, that Poi E defines New Zealand more than any other anthem.
The world premiere screening at Auckland’s Civic Theatre last month was attended by many members of the Patea Maori Club, then and now.
They performed yet another impromptu live version after the curtain fell — it’s the kind of song that is enhanced by repetition and the film doesn’t disappoint.
For the benefit of non-Te Reo speakers, a translation is presented at the end. Thankfully, Poi E never succumbed to an English version, despite its popularity.
More than 30 years on, it deserves anthem status. Led by the irrepressible Dalvanius, the club’s popularity spread around the world, culminating in a Royal Command performance in London in 1985 and appearances on British TV.
The overseas scenes provide an emotional roller-coaster, as lyric-writer Ngoingoi Pewhairangi died while the club was touring amid the euphoria of international fame.
The commercial angle of this success isn’t explored, though some of the interviewees suggest royalties are still coming in.
Further acclaim will surely come over the next few weeks as Poi E the film gives Hunt for the Wilderpeople a run for its money as the biggest Kiwi film of the year.
Rating: General audiences. 93 minutes.