Odds are that if you are an Australian, you are very familiar with the 1981 Men at Work song ‘Down Under’. Be it at sporting matches or played by a cover band in a dingy pub, the song is synonymous with the Australian spirit and is viewed by many as one of the country’s unofficial anthems.
In You Better Take Cover, the origins, recording, reception and legal controversy of ‘Down Under’ are explored in greater depth and with more time than most songs receive in the documentary form. Originally recorded with a strong reggae feel, the documentary explores how the song was rerecorded and released at a time when Australia won the America’s Cup, leading to endless plays on the radio and in the homes and pubs across Australia.
For a documentary short, there is a strong range of interviews outside of the key players (John Rees and Jerry Speiser are featured in the documentary with footage of the late Greg Ham and what sounds like a phone interview recording of Ron Strykert) most notably with Paul Kelly and Michael Leunig. Both provide an artistic opinion in the legal proceedings that took place in 2009 after a Spicks and Specks question asked which nursery rhyme did ‘Down Under’ reference (the answer, of course, is ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree’.) Some legal opinions from academics and lawyers also add to the general consensus that the flute riff in question of plagiarism was the result of indirect referencing, despite what the court found.
To those who have an interest in artistic lawsuits, there is plenty to take from this documentary. Court transcripts are interestingly reconstructed and include the verdict which saw the defendants having to pay 5% of the song’s royalties from 2002 onwards to the plaintiffs (Larrikin Music, the company who holds the copyright of the song; the songwriter died in the late 1980s and was not a part of the court case.)
Perhaps more interestingly though, You Better Take Cover musically dissects the song’s original recording to a rerecording a couple of years later which much greater production elements, highlighting the huge importance that unblemished sound recording has alongside of the actual songwriting.
At almost thirty minutes, there does feel as if there is much more that could be said to bookend the Men at Work story. The band’s origins are briefly introduced, but without all of the four living band members appearing in the documentary, it is difficult to fully realise a well rounded story. This is one missing element that is at no fault of the documentarians though. Harry Hayes‘ direction as well as Alice Stephens’ strong cinematography show an appropriate attention to an interesting subject.
Notably absence from the film is Men at Work leader singer Colin Hay. Without pondering too deeply into why this may be the case, the documentary still manages to cover all of the necessary ground into providing a stimulating look into the one of Australia’s most loved songs.
You Better Take Cover will be playing at the inaugural Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.