Poi E: The Story of Our Song review

The Patea Maori Club sings 'Poi E' (supplied)
The Patea Maori Club sings 'Poi E' (supplied)

Chosen to open the New Zealand International Film Festival this year, the slow-build hype on this long-gestating local documentary about the number one hit song 'Poi E' promised an unforgettable experience.  

And so it is.  

Miss Poi E: The Story of Our Song at your peril, it will deservedly settle into its rightful place in our cultural heritage along with the song itself.

In 1984, 'Poi E' reached number one, and remained in the charts for 34 weeks. It outsold 'Thriller', for goodness' sake. It's been in the top 10 in New Zealand every decade for the past 30 years. 

But more importantly, more than any of those impressive statistics, 'Poi E' was the first number one song written and released entirely in Te Reo Māori. And this film is as much the story of Māori and their language, as it is about a pop song. 

While the star of the show must be the late Dalvanius Prime of course, and this film is mostly told through him, there are so many stars here.

Not just the obvious ones, like Taika Waititi, Stan Walker and the Topp Twins. In fact, full respect, they are merely the backdrop for the cast of characters we're introduced to in the Patea Maori Club, and their friends, families and supporters.

Disarming and charming, hilarious and moving, their narration of this story is both wildly entertaining and indelibly memorable. And above all, 100 percent Kiwi. 

Director Tearepa Kahi tells his story with a mix of intuitively curated archival footage and recreations, augmented by home movies and of course by the ample interviews. 

The use of archive from old TVNZ news stories to classic episodes of chart show Ready to Roll or RTR as it became known is used to perfection. A teenager of the '80s myself, it was terrifying in its familiarity, from the clothes to the streets to the cars to the people. And of course, to the music.

This is the story of our song, but it's also the story of the '80s urban drift from small town New Zealand to the city, from the marae to the mall, of freezing works closures and the inexorable cultural disconnect.

It's Patea's story. And like their song, this film belongs to them.

'Poi E' was never just a Māori song; it was a New Zealand song, our song. But watching this film, this middle-aged, middle-class Pākehā film critic had never wanted to be Māori so much in all her life.  

Five stars.

    Poi E: The Story of Our Song :: Director: Tearepa Kahi  :: Rating: G :: Running Time: 96 minutes

Reviewed by Kate Rodger / Newshub.