Film Review: The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps Dir: Julia Parnell

Up-and-coming musicians take heed…just about every pitfall that can happen to band happened to The Chills. So watch this documentary and take notes.

Martin Phillipps took his band, The Chills to the very precipice of international success, but events, both self-induced and nonvoluntary conspired to keep them from receiving the rewards they deserved.

These included death of a band member, a serious auto crash, drug addiction, a near-fatal disease, homelessness, personality clashes and debt. It’s no wonder it became known as “The Curse Of The Chills”.

Julia Parnell’s unflinching film begins in the hospital where Martin Phillipps, The Chills’ creative force and sole constant member, is being told that he may only have months to live after contracting Hepatitis C. It’s a sobering moment that instantly puts to an end any glorification of the so-called “rock & roll lifestyle”. The look on Phillipps’ face is heart-breaking.

From there we are taken to Phillipps’ flat in Dunedin, a cluttered house full of the usual musical mementos accumulated over a 40 year career, plus a lot more. Clearly, Martin Phillipps is a hoarder.

But now he’s trying to get some order back into his life, tossing out once-cherished items that no longer seem important.

This insight into Phillipps’ private life is important if we are to understand the dynamics within The Chills and why they rotated through over thirty members since forming in 1980.

Fans of “The Dunedin Sound” and Flying Nun will thrill at the early footage, posters and other paraphernalia displayed as the band’s formative years are revealed. Even then, “the curse” took hold as drummer Martyn Bull succumbed to leukaemia in 1983.

But Phillips persevered.

Finally, he and the current version of The Chills were signed to US label, Slash Records, distributed by Warner Brothers. The album Submarine Bells was released, the single Heavenly Pop Hit seemed destined for the top of the charts. But it wasn’t to be as Phillipps seemed to sabotage his own band from within by not allowing any input from the other members. Soon bassist Justin Harwood and keyboard player Andrew Todd were gone and the following album, Soft Bomb, was just that.

In addition to self-reflective comments from Phillips himself, we hear from plenty of former Chills including Harwood, Todd, drummer Caroline Easther and bassist Terry Moore, along with former manager Doug Hood, who was injured in a head-on collision with a truck in 1987. Incredibly, the rest of the band escaped, unharmed.

So, cursed, or lucky? You decide.

Fortunately, the film has a happy ending and Martin Phillipps and The Chills are still making music. And that one thing that almost gets lost in the story…the music itself. I swear, 1984’s Pink Frost sounded otherworldly, incredibly beautiful and absolutely unique when heard early in the film. It’s that sound that keeps Martin Phillipps going and should get you to the cinema when the film opens on May 2nd.

Marty Duda