The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Chills
"Gritty, grainy, colourful and unusually intimate, this is a film that sets out to defy expectations."

A huge hit in their native New Zealand and successful at attracting fans worldwide, The Chills were celebrated in their heyday for what was briefly a distinctive sound. Melodic and soulful even at their most pop-focused, they were one of those bands that seems forever to be on the brink of becoming the next big thing internationally. That it never quite happened doesn't mean they gave up. It may indeed have been a boon for them artistically, and it certainly makes for a much more interesting story.

See a title like this and you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another tale of a rock 'n' roll band in which everyone takes drugs and the pretty one dies. In fact, the Chills were forced to cope with loss quite early on in their history when one of their members succumbed to leukaemia. The other problems came much later and singer/songwriter/guitarist Martin Phillipps is in his late forties when we first encounter him here, in an extraordinarily intimate scene with his doctor. "You've got a 51% chance of dying in the next six to 12 months if you don't take exceptionally good care of your liver," she tells him. "If you do keep drinking, Martin, you will die."

This is the story of the band that never quite made it all the way, and it's also the story of what happened after that appointment, what Phillipps calls "the most extraordinary two years of my life." It gets up close and personal as few documentaries do, with contributions from band members past and present but with most of its focus reserved for a man re-evaluating his existence on the brink of self-destruction. This creates an underlying tension that gives everything else we see more vitality, and ultimately the journey takes us to unexpected places.

Phillipps' ability to survive is, it seems, inescapably connected with his need for creative outlets. Songwriting is not the whole of it. We see him in his garden spray-painting desiccated animal corpses in fluorescent colours for an exhibition intended as a strike against anthropomorphism. We see a box full of eggshells from a period when he was eating one boiled egg a day, each with a different face drawn on it. "This one looks a bit like Ringo," h says, holding it up for the camera.

He's a collector. He has a hallway stacked with DVDs "yet to be watched," a drawer full of plastic trolls. His shelves are piled high with books; in one room we see a cluster of guitars. He shows us his old comics, one called Catman that was "a particular favourite", and makes a little plastic Godzilla produce its famous roar. Despite their number, his possessions are clean and organised. Many are connected with memories of a beloved grandmother. Everything here seems like a piece of him, yet he's quite bemused that anyone else might find it interesting.

As we take a tour through the history of the band, richly illustrated with archive footage and supported by cross-referenced anecdotes and preserved paperwork, we can see the familiar effect of pressure on more than one of its creative members; by the time opiates come into the picture they seem like a natural solution. Then there's Hepatitis C, initially incurable, and gradually accumulating liver damage. And there's methadone, ibogaine, hope. If the power to make music can return, can life do likewise?

Gritty, grainy, colourful and unusually intimate, this is a film that sets out to defy expectations. Even if it doesn't quite achieve all its ambitions, it makes for an interesting ride.tells its story well.

Reviewed on: 13 Mar 2019
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The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps packshot
The story of lyrical genius, Martin Phillipps and his band, The Chills, is a cautionary tale, a triumph over tragedy, and a statement about the meaning of music in our lives.

Director: Julia Parnell, Rob Curry

Starring: Bob Biggs, Daniel Dawson, James Dickson

Year: 2019

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: New Zealand


SXSW 2019

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