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Graphic Scenes: Mambo Australiano!

Some ideas are so obvious that everyone jumps on board at hello. That was the case with Mambo: Art Irritates Life, an irreverent playful high octane documentary about one of Australia’s most successful brands – an unlikely, subversive collision of music, art and zeitgeist that took on the world.

Never more so than during the Sydney Olympics’ opening ceremony when Mambo delivered its own idiosyncratic pageant of Australian identity complete with fibro houses, lawnmowers, beer monsters, and fire breathing chickens! It was a defining moment for the nation and the label.

Currently in the early stages of production, the one hour doco is a collaboration between Bombora Film and Music Company director Paul Clarke (responsible for the recent Blood and Thunder story of the Albert music label) and Scott Nowell and Scott Dettrick from The Monkeys, an award-winning Sydney advertising agency.

Dettrick, formerly a Mambo art director, is the documentary’s production designer, creating individual Mambo-themed visual installations for each of the film’s interviewees. Nowell, who has written and directed short films, took his enthusiasm for Clarke’s music docos to the next level and is now his co-writer and producer. Crucially, Mental As Anything musician and artist Reg Mombassa, who started designing T-shirts for the company in 1986 and became its most high profile creative force, is involved musically and editorially. Clarke describes him as “Mambo’s Barry Humphries or Hieronymus Bosch.”

As its cheekily provocative name suggests, the project matches Mambo’s own tone and style. But it also reflects the genuinely subversive nature of the brand’s imagery. In their own words, they’re ‘the bastard children of surf culture’.

The doco outline describes Mambo as ‘an anarcho syndicalist collective of stirrers and modern mystics which went from a garage in East Sydney to becoming a much loved institution of ratbaggery. It became a $100M international clothing business presenting a manifesto of concepts and cartoons  attacking hypocrisy, politicians and organised religion and promoting Australian eccentricity to the world…’

“You can imagine how thrilled I was when the proposal came across my desk,” says ABC Executive Producer Jo Chichester.

“It’s a meaty, no-brainer David and Goliath story of Australians punching above their weight, drawing on fashion, visual arts and music and also plays with form.”

Rather than telling the story of Mambo in a traditional linear fashion, Clarke has adopted a less conventional, more ambitious multi point of view narrative structure, in the style of Japanese classic Rashomon. “That will help express divergent opinions of what was going on” he says. “All the key players see it slightly differently.”

Writer/ actor Adam Zwar will narrate, with a sound track of new wave and pub rock sounds from bands like The Sunnyboys, Lubricated Goat and Radio Birdman.

Mambo: Art Irritates Life will screen on ABC TV and iview next year as part of a new series of documentaries under the Artsville banner, which began on ABC TV on 10 September 2015.

Chichester says: “The series features blue chip docos and screen in a 9.30pm slot in a one hour format, which gives shows greater visibility and impact than the 10 pm half hour could. This film is perfect for reaching a broad audience that might not define itself as typically arts viewers.”

Fortunately, (Reg) Mombassa has kept an archive of the original artworks of iconic images such as the Australian Jesus and the Beer Tree from the label’s early days. So have enthusiasts and collectors, including T shirt curator – surely a first in documentary credits – Eddie Zammit, co-curator of Thirty Years of Shelf Indulgence Mambo exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2014.

“I think Jack Nicholson was spotted in a pair of Mambo shorts,” says Mombassa, adding “I made a suit once for Johnny Rotten.”

He still sounds a little nonplussed by the moment that is the film’s climax: the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Opening Ceremony featuring the bizarre creatures conceived by Mombassa.

“I was sceptical when Dare Jennings (the label’s founder) approached me to do the athlete’s uniforms and the show because I thought it was too straight and mainstream. In a sense it did backfire because it meant that after that, we stopped being cool with young boys: they saw too many of their fat uncles wearing our shirts at barbecues,” he laughs.

But the label was a laboratory for a generation of graphic talent since the days when Mombassa and fellow artist Paul Worstead and Richard Allen first dreamed up iconic farting dogs as their antidote to the Ken Done/ Paul Hogan version of Australia.

“To me Mambo is quintessential Sydney,” says Clarke. “It’s the city of Martin Sharpe and Arthur Stace – a very graphic place.”

Another of its most appealing aspects for Clarke is its relevance: “It’s about a time when brands were not as visible as they are today. Certainly, very few Australian brands registered globally with the same cultish impact. What makes this one unique is that it started as an art movement that the public took on and wore proudly, as it became more political and championed issues. You could say Mambo was the rebel yell of individualism!”