Friday, September 10, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Aussie Melody

Australians have a tongue-in-cheek style and tradition of musical cinema uniquely their own. Over the years, they have enjoyed such international successes as Gillian Armstrong's charming Starstruck (1982) and 2001's Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge!, directed by Aussie Baz Luhrmann. But the Land Down Under has also sprung upon the world such travesties as 1982's Gilbert & Sullivan-derived The Pirate Movie and Welcome to Woop Woop (1997), a bizarre homage to the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein (which was directed by Stephan Elliott, falling from the heights of his prior achievement, the now classic Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Even though these two debacles frequently feature, respectively, the yummy Christopher Atkins and Johnathon Schaech in little more than their undies, this is hardly enough to recommend them.

Bran Nue Dae, opening today in LA and New York City, represents Australia's latest foray into movie musicals. It is a generally enjoyable but not very significant adaptation of a long-running stage production, which made its debut at the 1990 Perth Festival. Inspired by the teenage experiences of half-Aborigine musician Jimmy Chi and his band, Kuckles (who wrote the musical and the songs for the film adaptation), it subsequently toured Australia and has received a tremendous, enduring reception.


The storyline is reminiscent of, if slightly more political than, what we've seen in Grease or Hairspray: teenager Willie (Rocky McKenzie, in his first professional role), a native of the port town of Broome, Australia, is in love with Rosie (the pretty Jessica Mauboy, also making her acting debut). However, Willie's mother has dreams of her son becoming a priest, so he is abruptly sent to distant Perth and the seminary run by the imperious Father Benedictus (a fun, singing-and-dancing turn by Geoffrey Rush). Willie soon rebels in the name of freedom and love, and sets out on foot for Broome in hopes of being reunited with Rosie. Along the way, he meets up with an old, indigenous man (who may well be his father) and a well-intentioned hippie couple. Willie also confronts the racism his people have often endured, all the while with Fr. Benedictus in hot pursuit.

Needless to say, the plot of Bran Nue Dae is slight. The songs and musical numbers, though, are good — with "Nothing I Would Rather Be (Than an Aborigine)" a particular standout — despite occasionally obvious lip-synching. Director Rachel Perkins keeps the proceedings humming along nicely (the film runs a brisk 88 minutes), and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) makes the barren Australian outback look gorgeous. The film's cast includes Magda Szubanski, best known in the US for playing Mrs. Hoggett (the farmer's wife) in the lovable Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, as a lonely, amusingly over-amorous roadhouse attendee.


Bran Nue Dae tries to make serious points about the historical mistreatment of Australia's indigenous people, but the film's light tone is often at odds with this. A press note states: "The Catholic Church, and in particular the German Pallottine missionaries, had an enormous influence on the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northwest." This may be true but it is barely apparent in the movie. The over-zealous attitude of Rush's priest is more indicative of caricature than character, and hard to take seriously. Bran Nue Dae is broadly drawn, but in the end is still a substantial improvement over The Pirate Movie!

Reverend's Rating: B-

UPDATE: Bran Nue Dae is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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