‘Whoa’: John Farnham: Finding the Voice doco sheds more light on his reinvention story

Sony Pictures Australia

Much of John Farnham’s life has played out in public for more than 50 years, but for the first time, an authorised feature-length documentary will chart the personal and public battles of the music icon.

At the heart of Australian writer, director and producer Poppy Stockell’s debut feature documentary, John Farnham: Finding the Voice, lies the story of that song and how it became our unofficial national anthem.

From never-before-seen footage of a final interview with his devoted manager Glenn Wheatley, to revelations by UK singer-songwriter Chris Thompson (who was a co-writer of You’re the Voice), the documentary tells Farnham’s full story of early success, poverty, depression and reinvention.

Wheatley’s pivotal role

Speaking from Thailand, Stockell says it was an “absolute gift” to tell his story.

“The UK has Elton John, we have John, and I had the opportunity to tell his story … a filmmaker’s dream with such highs and lows, which were hard and heartbreaking,” she tells The New Daily.

“It is an epic story.”

Farnham, 73, has been out of the spotlight since August last year, after undergoing a 12-hour surgery to remove a cancerous tumour in his mouth.

He suffered a setback in his rehabilitation in March after being re-admitted to a Melbourne hospital with a respiratory infection.

Nine’s veteran entertainment reporter Richard Wilkins told Today on Tuesday he’s “doing OK” and was on the long “road to recovery”, thanks to the support of family, friends and a huge fanbase.

Stockell said Farnham’s illnesses are mentioned in the film.

“Yes they are [included] … it bowled us over … Glenn’s death was such a shock [in February last year] and we knew he would want us to keep working, to make Glenn’s vision for this film … then Olivia passed away [in August],” she said.

“And then John himself was struck by cancer … we had to include it. It’s also part of his resilience.

“When you start making a film, life happens and you have to lean into the truth,” she says, having started work on the project in early 2021.

John Farnham and the late Glenn Wheatley in Melbourne in 2002. Photo: AAP

Now, the story of Farnham’s life will be shared on the big screen next month – from him growing up in the quiet suburbs of Melbourne to shooting to pop fame in the 1960s, navigating the incredible highs and lows, and ultimately, achieving record-breaking success as ‘Australia’s Voice’.

“Glenn was the driving force behind this documentary, who is sadly not around to see it come to fruition … he was badgering everybody, not only to get [the album] Whispering Jack made, but to get this made,” Wilkins said.

“John has had highs and lows, quite an incredible journey, but this is really powerful, [with] some big names lending their voices.”

Richard Marx, Jimmy Barnes, Robbie Williams and the late Olivia Newton-John talk about Farnham, as does Celine Dion.

“It fills in the gap where religion should be,” Williams said.

“[His] story is incredible … this kid who was born in England … he was a plumber’s apprentice, he became the King of Pop and formed great bands, and then joined the Little River Band.

“And that was really the transition between his early career and his sensational solo career which kicked off in 1986 with Whispering Jack.”

Farnham was 38 years old when Whispering Jack was released.

John Farnham, on New Year’s Day, 1990. Photo: Getty

The long road to stardom

In one snippet from the teaser trailer, Thompson says he didn’t consent to Farnham recording the song.

“My publishing company said ‘John Farnham has recorded You’re The Voice. Is it OK to give them permission?’ And I said, ‘No’!” Thompson said.

“I tried to get him a record deal and everybody passed,” Wheatley says in the trailer.

“John, you are the best singer in the country. The Voice. You don’t like to think of yourself as a legend, but you are.”

Gaynor Wheatley said: “We went ahead and did it anyway. This was John’s audition to the world, again”.

“He sang the living hell out of that song,” Glenn Wheatley said.

“Glenn really did mortgage, much to the chagrin of his lovely wife Gaynor. He put his house on the line, such was his belief in John,” Wilkins said.

John Farnham at Werribee Park in November 2015. Photo: AAP

Early years of poverty and depression

Nobody ever questioned that Farnham could sing – but the challenge to find his artistic voice and become Australia’s most trusted and beloved performer took half a lifetime, says the documentary’s official synopsis.

Whispering Jack is still the highest-selling Australian album of all time, and this documentary “tracks the personal and public journey that has made Farnham Australia’s greatest and most-beloved musical artist,” it reads.

Johnny Farnham, as he was once called, was Australia’s biggest teen idol, according to the National Film and Sound Archive.

He won awards for Best Teenage Personality and Best-Dressed Male Performer, had a string of top-10 hits throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s, and was crowned TV Week’s King of Pop five years running.

His first commercially successful recordings were a cover of British novelty song Sadie (The Cleaning Lady) and Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.

Stockell, who has worked for all the major television networks in Australia, and has had success internationally with independent documentaries, uncovers video of a young Farnham speaking about his career.

“Either I was working or asleep, so when I was awake I was vulnerable,” Farnham says in the film’s trailer.

“People never saw me as a credible singer.”

Asked if he ever gets depressed, he replied: “Yeah, a lot.”

At one point, long after the bright lights of teen pop stardom had faded, Farnham’s wife Jill suggested treating themselves and son Rob to dinner at McDonald’s.

“I actually couldn’t take them … we didn’t have the money,” Farnham said.

Enter Wheatley, and the rest is history.

“It is an epic hero’s journey. Heroes don’t fulfil their destinies without friendship, and John had Glenn.

“I hope people [see] the grit and determination of John. It wasn’t handed to him on a platter. He had a phenomenal talent and musical ability. It was his determination and focus … John didn’t give up.

“He brought his team together, they fostered each other and blocked the world out in that garage making Whispering Jack and it paid dividends.

“He’s never shied away from revealing himself and that is what makes his interpretations of songs so powerful and touches hearts.

Stockell recalls “a quiet moment in the film”, where Newton-John reflects on You’re The Voice.

“She says people forget we have a voice and we can use that voice … that moment always makes me wobbly inside and makes me teary.”

Jill, Rob and [other son] James feature in the biopic alongside manager Gaynor Wheatley, Newton-John, musician David Hirschfelder, producer Ross Fraser and promoter Paul Dainty.

John Farnham: Finding Your Voice premieres nationally in cinemas on May 18 for a limited season

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