It's not science; it's just hard work.

Mat de Koning has achieved something very rare. He’s turned his camera on his mates and created a documentary that has broad appeal. Meal Tickets, produced by Brooke Silcox, Mat de Koning, and Dave Kavanagh, and directed by Mat de Koning, is a rockumentary on a massive scale. It tracks the journey of the Screwtop Detonators from high school friends in Western Australia to aspiring rock stars in the USA and Melbourne right through to their inevitable implosion.

In some ways, this is car crash viewing as we join the band just before their first tour to the USA and identify with their youthful enthusiasm and naivety. We hurtle through this 30-day tour with them.  In grainy backstage footage, peering through the drifting smoke, we party along. Cue stereotypical sex, and drugs, and rock and roll. 

The tagline for the film is A band of best friends; A roadie that wanted rockstardom; A documentary ten years in the making. The roadie is Will Ferrier who starts out as merch boy and guitar tech on the Screwtop Detonators USA tour but quits halfway through the tour because he isn’t prepared to let go of his daydreaming unprofessionalism to actually do the job he’s there to do.

On tour with the Screwtop Detonators in Meal Tickets

Will reappears when the band moves to Melbourne and they discover that Will has reinvented himself as Will Stoker & the Embers. Will has found his stride and is convincing as the front man of this alt-rock art outfit. The rest of the documentary follows both the Screwtop Detonators and Will as they chase opportunities, make good decisions and bad, and, ultimately, grow up.

This isn’t a story about what it takes to be a rock star, although there are some fantastic insights offered by the band’s manager Dave Kavanagh. It’s not even a story about friendship, despite having the privilege of being privy to many revealing moments between the boys in the band. The thing that makes this so watchable is that this, ultimately, is a story about what success really means.

Is success being signed to a record label? Is success having a certain number of fans or followers? Is success buying a house or having a steady job and a happy family? Talking about building a fan base (but he could equally be talking about success in life), Dave Kavanagh says, “it’s not science; it’s just hard work”.

Dave Kavanagh and Will Ferrier in Meal Tickets

This is the pervasive theme. There is no formula for a successful life.  The Screwtop Detonators and Will Ferrier take very different paths and end up in very different places. The band is in it for a good time and because the members want to make the music that they want to make. They aren’t committed to success at any cost. Lead singer, Benny doesn’t want to wear the stupid jacket that Kavanagh tells him to put on. “Why would I wear something that makes me feel like a twat?!”

It’s the age-old attitude of artists trying to stay true to their art. This commitment to self-expression is what eventually leads to the band and their manager parting ways.

The Screwtop Detonators on tour

Will, on the other hand, is made of different stuff. His self-expression is all about chasing success no matter where it takes him. His alternative band and performance art work with the late Matt Doust is definitely about the art but it’s also about Will as a brand. His recent appearance on The Bachelor could be viewed as incompatible with his early work but, to me, it looks like exactly the sort of thing that Will Ferrier should do to be true to type.

I haven’t even mentioned the other thread to this story. Meal Tickets is filmed over the decade that social media really started to find its feet. When a fan asks Benny if he’s heard of MySpace we’re thrown back to a time before Facebook and Twitter and likes and followers. The Screwtop Detonators don’t embrace this new world. They are old school punk rockers who just want to play. Again, this speaks to the different paths to success and an examination of what success is.

In Meal Tickets de Koning proves himself to be a brave and emotionally intelligent filmmaker. He’s taken what could have been a drunken stumble across the path of a local pub band and, instead, created a personal story of ambition and friendship that speaks to anyone who has ever wondered what success means.

Meal Tickets is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Get your tickets here...