“I've been contemplating suicide/But it really doesn't suit my style...” The famous opening lines of “Shivers,” written by Rowland S. Howard when he was just sixteen, pretty well sum up his brand of wry, guarded romanticism – even if Howard came to have second thoughts about the song, or at any rate the overwrought way it was performed by Nick Cave as the frontman of The Boys Next Door.
Howard, who died in 2009 of liver cancer at the age of 50, has never been as famous as Cave, his sometime bandmate. But as man and musician he's at least as intriguing a figure. This thorough, reverent documentary by Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn portrays him as a self-created dandy, an autodidact in the noblest sense – though we get only a few hints about how he managed to step onto the Melbourne punk scene in his mid-teens with tastes, prejudices and idiosyncratic guitar style all fully formed.
More than with most rock musicians, an air of precocity clung to Howard. In the early Boys Next Door footage, he's like a bashful, resentful schoolkid, standing off to one side while Cave hogs the spotlight. Playing the androgynous pin-up for publicity shots, in eyeliner and skinny tie, he's pure glamour.
Later, when the drugs caught up with him, he came to look like an old crone – but at all periods he had a perfect face for cinema, gaunt and finely-drawn, with hooded ageless eyes and full lips often parted in world-weary amusement. It's no wonder that Wim Wenders was so determined to make Howard a part of Wings of Desire (1987), his cinematic ode to 1980s Berlin, where The Birthday Party (the successor to The Boys Next Door) were for a while the hippest band in town.
Assembling a documentary on a relatively obscure personality like Howard is a technical challenge – finding the right balance between archival clips and present-day interviews, providing a fair sample of the music while still conveying the basic, journalistic facts. Not everything succeeds here, especially not the vaporous interludes where the camera wanders through a Gothic netherworld of cats and tombstones, accompanied by whispered extracts from Howard's unpublished novels.
But at best, Autoluminescent is that rare thing, a tribute to an artist that comes close to being a work of art in its own right. Howard's death is so recent the interviews often have an uncomfortable intimacy, as friends, fans and the various women in his life (three overlapping categories) take turns to pay their respects. So many affectionate stories get told – about Howard's hatred for bananas, say, or about the playfully violent fantasies he would dream up with his young step-son. Not merely a biography of one man, the film offers a whole collection of indelible portraits, like a family album.
As in any family, there's also a feeling of unspoken tensions, scores not yet settled. Mick Harvey, who bore direct responsibility for firing Howard from The Birthday Party, fronts up for his interview with a look of stolid anger, like a local councillor defending an unpopular planning decision. Cave seems ill-at-ease whenever he's on screen – as well he might – while still managing to use phrases like “my lyrical style” without a blush.
Some of the most moving recollections come from Howard's brother Harry, who played bass in a couple of the same bands and says he doesn't mind being overshadowed: “It's a good shadow.” But Howard also left a mark on those who only knew him from a distance – like Wenders, who would sometimes spot him loitering at bars after gigs, and who speaks with matter-of-fact sadness of their failure to stay in touch. “He left Berlin, and never have I seen him again.”