Poi E: The Story of Our Song
‘Poi E’, a simple song with a catchy beat released 32 years ago, has become New Zealand’s unofficial national anthem. With humour, energy and emotion, the movie Poi E is the story of how that iconic song gave pride to generations of New Zealanders. From Taika Waititi giving Stan Walker his quirky take on life in the 1980s to Pātea Māori Club members’ straight-talking and funny memories of the song’s visionary originator Dalvanius Prime, director Tearepa Kahi (Mt Zion) captures a unique story that taps into the heart of the nation.
Poi E is the latest chapter in director/writer Tearepa Kahi’s exploration of New Zealand’s musical history. His first film, Mt Zion, was a fictional story inspired by his musician father and his whānau in the 1980s.
This film is the true story of the visionary musician and leader Maui Dalvanius Prime, the entrepreneur responsible for the iconic New Zealand song ‘Poi E’ becoming a huge hit in the 1980s. Upbeat, catchy and danceable, it remains a favourite more than 30 years later. It could be called the country’s unofficial national anthem - it’s the song Kiwis use to celebrate success at major events. And every New Zealander feels they can sing it (the chorus at least).
‘Poi E’, composed by Dalvanius with Māori language expert Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi and performed by the Patea Māori Club, remains the only song in Te Reo Māori to reach No 1 in the charts, 32 years since its 1984 release.
‘Poi E’ topped the charts for four weeks and was the biggest-selling single in New Zealand for 1984. It has been in the Top 10 in New Zealand every decade for the past 30 years. After featuring in the jubilant finale of Taika Waititi’s blockbuster film Boy, ‘Poi E’ reached No 3 again in 2010.
Kahi says the song ‘Poi E’ is significant because “it was the first pop song that used a drum machine, spacey noises, sound effects and put Te Reo Māori to that music. It was the first time you saw modern and traditional come together and when that fusion happened a huge feeling just leaped across the country. That song represents a really important time marker for when Māori and Pākehā started doing the bop together.
“It might be a difficult song to sing, but it’s an easy song to feel. And all of that celebration and euphoria that happened the first time we heard that song still happens every time we hear it now.”
Through lively archival footage, home movies and hilarious interviews with existing members, the film traces how the performers of ‘Poi E’, the Patea Maori Club, found themselves on an unexpected roller-coaster ride as the song rocked the charts. They performed it around in the world, including a Royal Gala performance for the Queen in 1985. Today, the group includes three generations of performers and they maintain standards by practising every Monday night in their Patea clubrooms. They are still in demand.
Poi E tells of Dalvanius, a covers band singer and entertainer on the Australian and South-East Asian nightclub circuit who was out of touch with his Māori heritage, arriving back home in Patea, Taranaki, to nurse his ailing mother in the early 1980s.
‘Poi E’ is sometimes credited with saving the Taranaki town of Patea by lifting morale after the 1982 closure of the meat processing factory, the town’s main industry and employer of the majority of Māori in the area. The film places the creation of the song against this backdrop, combined with the dislocation of Māori youth growing up in the cities, cut off from their tribal origins. Dalvanius’ vision, dream and inspiration was to use pop music to reach out to those disaffected youth and bring them back to their language and culture. In a powerful sequence, Kahi intercuts poet Apirana Taylor reading his gritty, truth-telling poem “Sad Joke on a Marae” with the social upheavals of the 1980s.
It is a story told in Dalvanius’ own voice - sometimes passionate, sometimes funny, sometimes emotional, always entertaining - largely from an audio interview conducted by author Chris Bourke and another set of radio interviews by veteran broadcaster Henare Te Ua.
Dalvanius tells of his own inadequacy in Te Reo Māori, particularly his heartbreak at not being able to understand his mother’s dying words. That can be seen as a motivator for his wanting young Māori to learn Te Reo through music they could relate to.
The story is told with humour, insight and compassion, and is a powerful emotional journey for the audience. Original Patea Māori Club members recall their first hearing ‘Poi E’, their first performances – on stage and in the recording studio - and what it was like working with Dalvanius, or “Butch”, as they knew him.
Alongside the revelations of the Patea whānau and locals are interviews with some of the country’s top musicians – The Topp Twins, Don McGlashan, Annie Crummer, Hinewehi Mohi and Moana Maniapoto - about the influence of ‘Poi E’ on their lives and careers. Stan Walker, who has never known a time without ‘Poi E’, shares the screen with filmmaker Taika Waititi in a hilarious cameo in which Taika attempts to explain life in the 1980s and analogue round-the-dial telephones to Stan. And they do the bop.
Kahi’s hope for the film is “to share the many trials and tribulations and the mountain Dalvanius climbed in bringing this song to the airwaves and to the mainstream of New Zealand at that time. We look back fondly on it now and when it’s time to celebrate we’re happy to sing a chorus and party along to it, but what Dalvanius and the Patea Māori Club did to put that song on the charts gives us a lot of lessons in terms of what we want to do today - whatever our dreams might be.
“This is a story about not giving up, about believing in something bigger and about finding a way through difficulties. Those are some of the things I hope this song can now symbolise for a much wider audience.”
Written and directed by Tearepa Kahi, writer/director of 2013 box office success Mt Zion, Poi E uses compelling, funny and often moving interviews from people who were there at the time, plus archival footage and audio material, some revealed for the first time, like the first ever recording of ‘Poi E’, and all of the film shot (the ‘rushes’) for the original music video. It also contains a 2015 re-creation of the iconic music video featuring many of the original performers, including the man who brought break dancing to New Zealand, Joe Moana.
The film is produced by Tearepa Kahi, Reikura Kahi and Alexander Behse through their company Jawbone Pictures and the Patea Film Collective with the support of the Dalvanius Prime Estate and the Patea Maori Club, represented by co-producer Tuteri Dal Rangihaeata. It is funded by NZ Film Commission, Te Māngai Paho and NZ On Air and is distributed by Sony Pictures NZ. Director of photography is Fred Renata (Mt Zion) with Jos Wheeler, production designer Savage and costume designer Gavin McLean are also from the Mt Zion team; music supervisor is Jan Hellriegel and Kahi was editor with Francis Glenday.
Tuteri Dal Rangihaeata, Dalvanius Prime’s nephew and namesake, was involved from the very beginning of the project, which originated as an idea for a television programme, but he says Kahi saw its potential as a feature film. “He told us it was a bigger story than we thought,” says Rangihaeata, “and he was right.
“Other than ‘Poi E’ going to Number One, I believe this film will be the biggest event that has happened, not only for the family, but for the community in Patea,” he says.
“It started the whānau thinking about things they’ve never thought about before because they were just in the action, doing it. So, through a lot of reflection, they’re still learning about it and putting the experience into context, but I think they are very honoured that they’ve had the chance.
“This film is bringing back memories of all those hard times that they went through. And when Uncle Dal returned from Aussie with his top hat and fancy vest – it was this guy with a dream to help a community.”
Kahi says one of the things he learned in making this film is “this song wasn’t manufactured, like a lot of today’s music is. It actually came from a real place and from real people. This story is about a person who is going through a huge identity shift, dealing with the passing of his mother and adjusting to returning home from the bright lights overseas. And it’s these people who are suffering economically and wondering what’s the next step because the job that their families have done for the last 40 years is over.
“If these people had been any different, if Dalvanius had gone with another kapa haka group, this song wouldn’t be the same. If these lyrics didn’t come from Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi from Tokomaru Bay, this song wouldn’t be the same.
“So for me, it’s been getting to understand each of these places and all of the people involved that gives this song its place. It’s not just a story about a chart-topper, the first Te Reo Māori song that hit number one. It’s actually a story about what happened when all those people came together to create some magic.”