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John Farnham’s Family on ‘Finding the Voice’ & the Revered Singer’s Possible Return to Touring

On the back of the documentary breaking box office records, John Farnham’s sons speak about their father’s journey

John Farnham


Since he went public with his cancer diagnosis almost a year ago, the private health battle and recovery of revered Australian singer John Farnham has had the whole of Australia concerned.

The last couple of years have been extremely gruelling for the performer, but they have also been challenging for his sons, Robert and James, who have been heavily involved in his care and looking after his affairs.

One of the positives for John and his family, however, has been the record-breaking success of director Poppy Stockwell’s documentary, John Farnham: Finding the Voice.

Released in May, the film quickly went on to break Australian box office records, becoming the highest-grossing Australian feature length documentary of all-time in the process;, at the time of writing, it currently holds the fourth highest box office for an Australian feature overall.

“The outpour was amazing. I couldn’t believe how many people have been watching it, it’s just crazy”, Robert Farnham tells Variety Australia.

The film, which tells the story of John’s journey from the suburbs of Melbourne, where he was working as a plumber’s apprentice, to a chart-topping pop sensation, and the many highs and lows in-between, was actually not one the singer initially wanted to do. It was the convincing of John’s longtime manager for over four decades, his best friend GlennWheatley (who plays a key role in the film), which led him to agreeing to do it.

“The idea was birthed by Glenn, and Glenn worked with Poppy, the director, who did a fantastic job. Dad didn’t really want to be involved with it,” Robert says.

James and Robert Farnham

Image: James and Robert Farnham Credit: Sony

While Robert and James didn’t oversee every element of the documentary, ceding most responsibilities to Poppy, they did have input. One of the most important things for both brothers was to protect their father’s legacy by ensuring it was not a puff piece but rather an authentic depiction of John Farnham’s story.

“Dad’s a very real person in general. So, for him, having someone approach him to do a movie about himself is probably his worst nightmare. He doesn’t see the big deal in himself. But it is nice to see the doco representing that as well and being as true as can be” Robert reveals.

“James and I went to a screening at the Sony offices in Sydney. We’re very defensive and protective of our family name. And within the first 15 minutes, I put my phone down and didn’t even write any notes because [Poppy] just knocked it out of the park,” he adds.

The film’s production faced numerous difficulties. In the years leading up to it, John had already lost several close family members. The singer, himself unable to see Glenn due to the pandemic, then faced the devastating and unexpected loss of his longtime manager last year. Another setback was the loss of close friend and frequent collaborator, Olivia Newton-John, also a key participant in the film. And then there was, of course, John’s own cancer battle.

“Our family was pretty close with Olivia. James worked with her on one of the tours. I did a movie with her years ago, so we were (super) close. She was coming around for dinner. Obviously, we’re very close to the Wheatleys, so, it was tough. And that really hit dad pretty hard. And that was on the back of COVID, all kinds of crazy”, the brothers say.

Making everything even harder, there were severe COVID restrictions in Victoria which prevented visits. “We kind of banded together and really supported each other and still support each other. Mum really helped me a lot to get through it all and helped [all] of us. She’s a very strong woman and was always there to help all three of us”, James explains.

“Dad was really strong. He dealt with what he had to deal with and he’s much better now. He’s at home, he’s eating all the food, he’s walking his dog, he’s singing. It’s good to have him back to normal,” Robert adds.

Despite this very difficult time, the brothers say the overwhelming response to the film has lifted the spirits of the family.

“Mum’s just as elated as the rest of us. She’s seen it. The first time she saw it was at the premiere and I don’t think she stopped crying through the whole thing. Dad still hasn’t seen it. It’s a bit [hard] for him. But mum was amazed. We’ve got a family group chat and we get updates every day about how well it was doing at the movies, we still all talk in that, which is nice. So, we’re all sort of quietly enjoying it,” the brothers say.

One of Robert and James’ favourite parts of the film was seeing the respect and admiration so many fellow artists and international stars have for their father, including Celine Dion and Sia. For the brothers, who supported and toured with their father for 12 years, it reminded them strongly of being on the road together.

“I was there when [dad] met Celine, and that was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen”, James recalls. “We were in Canada and we were getting on a plane to go somewhere and, literally, Celine Dion ran across the airport screaming ‘John.’ This is the first time that they’d met, and she’s sprinting across the airport with her husband, and she fangirled over our dad.”

Jimmy Barnes

Image: Jimmy Barnes in ‘Finding the Voice’ Credit: Sony

As the film finishes up its record-breaking run, would Farnham consider a feature film based on his life, given the recent successes of films based on singers? Robert and James say they think there is definitely room for one, but nothing is planned at this stage.

“There is so much more to tell. There’s decades that were left out and so many bits and pieces. For us it was like, ‘oh, I can’t believe they left that out.’ They left this out, they left that out, but there’s only so much you could put in. I’d definitely like to see something like that, but anything’s possible.”

Though the incredible reception to the film exceeded all expectations, perhaps the biggest highlight of its release for the Farnham family has been not only its huge audience turnout, but seeing the support from fans, which has extended across generations and overwhelmed and humbled their father.

“I’ve just enjoyed seeing how many people love dad. That blows my mind, and it’s just not an older generation. It’s every single generation and it still trips me out,” the brothers say.

As he continues his onerous road to recovery, will Farnham ever tour again or release new material? Robert and James insist the door is open to both possibilities, but it will be up to the singer himself to decide if that is what he wants.

“Anything’s possible. We’re not in a position to say he won’t or he will because we don’t speak for him. I think he’d like to, and he can definitely still sing.”

John Farnham: Finding the Voice is available on Blu-ray, DVD & digitally now.

From Variety Australia.