Stan Walker's big-screen debut is a story about
family, Bob Marley coming to New Zealand - and potatoes, writes
Scott Kara, of The New Zealand Herald.
Temuera Morrison (front right) play's Stan Walker's
(centre) potato-growing father in Mt Zion. Photo supplied.
It has to be one of Stan Walker's best performances yet - and
all he's wearing is a grass skirt. He's up there on stage
singing in his typically soulful lilt, but his band, Small
Axe, who also wear their piupiu with an odd mix of pride and
self-consciousness, are playing a lively, skanking
reggae-meets-Maori showband tune.
It's not the sort of song you expect to hear the Australian
Idol winner singing. Because this is no TV talent show or a
video for one of his catchy and suave chart-topping hits.
This is a scene from Walker's first feature film, Mt Zion, in
which he plays Turei, a young potato-digging Maori from
Pukekohe with dreams of being a singing star.
You see, it's 1979 and Turei and his band - made up of older
brother and guitarist Hone (Troy Kingi), and best mates
Reggie (David Wikaira Paul, best known perhaps as Tama from
Shortland Street) on bass, and Pou (Darcy-Ray Flavell-Hudson)
on drums - are taking part in the biggest audition of their
If they can convince the gruff and sceptical concert promoter
that they are good enough, they have a chance of opening for
Bob Marley at his concert at Western Springs in Auckland.
The song they're playing is called Mt Zion and they botch it
at the beginning and have to start again. But once Hone's
guitar (Kingi is a real-life guitar supremo) kicks in, the
song starts to simmer and leaves you shaking, skanking, and
''The song was probably never intended to be played fast like
that,'' ponders Walker, talking on the phone from his home on
the Gold Coast, ''but what made it come out like that [in the
film] is because Hone is rushing to get home, he wants to get
out of there because we're wearing our piupiu and all that.
He just wants to get back to Pukekohe. So everything goes a
little bit faster than it should have done,'' he says, as if
their performance was a real audition.
For the record, Turei and the boys are short-listed for the
support slot alongside a band called Golden Harvest (yes, the
real-life band who played before Marley that year).
It's a feel-good, fun scene and the point where the film
truly takes off - or, as writer and director Tearepa Kahi,
puts it: ''That's the moment where the roller coaster really
goes into high gear.''
Because, although Turei has talent, his ''Papa'' (played by
Temuera Morrison) and mother just want him to knuckle down
and dig spuds. But he has other ideas and is prepared to do
almost anything to fulfil his ambition to play before his
''Turei is a passionate fella,'' says Walker.
''He does love his family, and he has a really good heart.
His intentions are good, but the way he goes about things is
not the best.''
While Mt Zion centres on his musical quest, for Walker it's
also a coming-of-age story about the relationship between a
father and his son.
''And,'' says Walker, ''the unspoken love between a father
and a son. Because every day [for Turei and his dad] it's get
up, have a feed, let's go to work. They don't talk about
what's happening in each other's lives.
''But,'' he adds with a laugh, ''the film is also about the
music - and Bob.''
It's going to be a big year for Walker, who will also be one
of the judges on TV talent quest The X Factor New Zealand.
That show is about something he knows well, but his
transformation from singer to actor was a challenge.
It involved a mix of basic acting classes, guidance from
Kahi, some expert advice from Morrison - ''Tem told me not to
act; just be in the moment'' - and allowing himself to open
up and let go.
''It's hard to explain, and it ended up being quite natural,
but initially I was really shy,'' he says.
''But once I felt comfortable I just opened up and it
The casting of Walker was Kahi's idea and it first came to
him almost four years ago, after seeing a clip of Walker
singing Prince's Purple Rain on Australian Idol.
''I remember thinking, `What a big-anthem voice'. That was an
international voice, right there,'' he says.
But because Turei's story was inspired by Kahi's own
upbringing, the director also wanted an actor who could
relate to the character's predicament.
Given Walker's own tough childhood - in which he was exposed
to drugs, domestic violence and hardship - before his rise to
music-star status, he fitted the role perfectly.
Kahi: ''I really did think, if we could speak to not just
Stan Walker, the pop idol; but Stan Walker, Mum's little boy,
then we might have a shot at unlocking something. Because
sometimes there's nothing worse than a performer trying to
act, because they can't wipe away the performance aspect.''
Mt Zion is Kahi's first feature film. He and guitarist and
composer Shane McLean also wrote a number of original songs,
including Mt Zion, for the film.
The step up in scale was challenging, but it was nothing
compared to what he faced when it came to opening up about
his own feelings and telling his own story through Turei.
''When you look in the mirror, sometimes it can be quite
confrontational,'' he says.
''And with my story and my dad's story, getting honest with
it is what you're looking for as the years go by, and the
courage to confront all that.''
But this is no Once Were Warriors-type family drama, even
though Morrison's Papa is staunch and vents his rage on
occasion, because instead of ''fireworks'' and shock value,
Kahi's story is ''based right here in the home''.
''It's a simple little story and we worked really hard on
keeping it genuine and sincere.''
And even though he died in 1981, Mt Zion also stars Bob
Marley. Explaining how would spoil the film, but let's just
say he looks pretty happy to be in Aotearoa.
''So much of the film really happened. I really did lean back
on a lot of memory,'' says Kahi.
That lends it a personal tone, and he admits he made it with
his whanau and iwi in mind.
''I wasn't actually thinking beyond these shores, or beyond
Pukekohe,'' he laughs.
''But then, as the story grew, and the themes became more
evolved, I realised there are no borders. This story can
speak beyond this place.''