MIFF Review: The Eulogy

World premiering at Melbourne International Film Festival 2018 is another 7 years in the making documentary feature on the life of one of Australia’s finest musicians – Geoffrey Tozer. Framed around Sir Paul Keating’s famous eulogy where he lambasted the Australian Arts Community for lack of support, the extraordinary life of Tozer is told. Like the protagonist himself –The Eulogy is as problematic as it is fascinating.

The story of Geoffrey Tozer is an intoxicating, thrilling, and heartbreaking tale. It’s one of ruthless ambition, unmeasured talent, social excision, and personal dysfunction. The hugely under-appreciated Australian pianist, who died after a long battle with alcoholism, managed to maintain a wealth a journals, recordings, and archival documentation. This becomes the resource within which director Janine Hosking has built this extremely polished work – The Eulogy.

We journey with Sydney Conservatorium of Music Teacher Richard Gill as he takes us on an odyssey through the life of Tozer, a musician he’s never heard before, to find out why he was shunned by the Australian Arts Community. Framing the narrative around a lecture to a group of teenage musical prodigies, Tozer comes to life through journal entries, live performances, television & radio interviews, and talking heads.

Whilst the story of Geoffrey Tozer himself is riveting stuff, several choices made in the build of The Eulogy make for a frustrating experience. Keating himself refused to be interviewed, instead offering to re-read his eulogy as his contribution to the project. (?) The whole movie is built around his speech and he won’t talk about it or his time with Tozer?

The framing in the classroom feels misplaced and slightly obnoxious. Are we all just children too? Is your intent to talk down to us? Is the audience for The Eulogy meant to be just students? Why Hosking chose this approach boggles me.

Gill’s interview approach works very much in the style of a TV news magazine with the occasional flutter with his personal reactions.  It’s fine, it just feels very television. Mind you, this is Hill’s first crack at it, so points for trying!

The more interesting and dramatic aspects of Tozer’s life are brushed over. His homosexuality is tacked on at the end, as is any real look into his personal life, and it all feels rushed and undernourished.

An emotionally manipulative move to show the interviewees when reduced to tears feels unnecessary and, much like MacDonald’s hugely problematic Whitney, the closing stages of The Eulogy relies too much on Tozer’s downfall when it should be swan songing about his amazing performances.

What also grates is the languishing long takes of interstitials that just slow it down. The title treatment alone sits on screen for near 10 seconds, slow pan shots of buildings, pictures, etc etc overstay their welcome. They look great, but they don’t need to be on screen for so long. At 102 minutes, there’s easily a good 5-10 minutes you’d gain by tightening it up.

There are many elements to enjoy in The Eulogy and Tozer’s story is fascinating, his performances gobsmacking. For me, dear reader, this is a story of boy, his domineering mother and a life where a gifted musician may have matured but no other aspect of him did. It’s not a bad documentary, but it could have been EPIC.