branuedaeHappy New Year, everybody.  Let’s get started.

As far as I can tell, my colleague, Luke, over at Cinetology hasn’t reviewed the new Australia movie Bran Nue Dae as yet, so I hope I’m not creating a demarcation dispute by offering up some views on the show, which I saw with the family yesterday.  I figure that, given it is a musical, Johnny’s can say a few words…

I had genuinely high hopes for this show, loved the idea of an Australia musical, an Australian film that might break through the usual parameters of Australian film-making, that might find a big audience, an international audience, in the way that Strictly Ballroom did back in the 90s, but I genuinely can’t see it happening.  What a friggin’ disappointment.  The film is full of people with oodles of musical ability, not least the colossal Dan Sultan, and by and large their talents are wasted in a half-arsed production that tells its story badly and seriously buggers up nearly every song in the repotoire.

The film has all the ingredients to be a blockbuster but it sabotages itself at nearly every key point.  So the cast is great, the songs are more than passable (and some of them are terrific), the basic idea is the stuff such musicals are made of, the director is sympathetic and talented, and yet somehow it all conspires to be less than the sum of its parts.

Take the opening song.  Or rather, the first full, set-piece song in the show.  For a PG movie, this is really badly judged.  Seeds That You Might Sow might’ve been a clever, funny girl-tells-boy-to-piss-off song but with lines about condoms and “plugging your hole” it descends into embarrassment.  Seriously, I don’t know if the producers had in mind the American market at all — and with all that gospel ballast in there, it seems like a reasonable expectation that the US would be receptive to a feel-good movie like this — but this track is going to have them walking out in droves. It’s not even cheeky-funny: it is just, as I say, badly judged.

A short time after that we get a much better effort with Ernie Dingo, sitting around a fire under a bridge with a bunch of other hard-drinking down-and-outs, when he delivers the affecting Feel Like Going Back Home.  He sings it really well (I presume it’s him singing) and the instrumentation and production of this blues/country number is beautiful.  It was one of the highlights for me.

A couple of the other musical segments are opportunities lost.  Missy Higgins is given a nice song to sing while swimming in a lagoon, but we don’t get nearly enough of it.

But surely the weirdest artistic choice was what was done with the Chooky Dancers, the bunch of Yolungu guys from Arnhem Land who mix traditional dance with the theme music from Zorba the Greek.  Their performance was a YouTube sensation, garnering millions of views from around the world and it was a great idea to put them in the movie.  Why, then, relegate their performance to the back of a moving pick-up truck and film it in such close-up that you barely see the dance itself?  Damned if I know, but it sure was an odd thing to do.  You might as well have left it out.

Overall, the staging of the songs — by which I mean the choreography — is substandard.  Again, the material is potentially great, but these “big” production numbers are badly underplayed and lacking in imagination.  Was it the budget that stopped them putting some real time and effort into it or was it something else?

Look, the project isn’t a complete waste of time: the audience we were in with seemed to enjoy it well enough, but it still strikes me as a missed opportunity.  Apart from the musical shortcomings mentioned above, the biggest problem with it is that the story is given no time to develop, the narrative arc is truncated, and the pay-off at the end is therefore greatly diminished.  This also means that the cast of characters, the key ones of whom had some real comic-dramatic potential, are left two-dimensional.  One dimensional.  But I’ll leave Luke to talk more about that aspect of things.  The thing that I came out thinking was: amateur hour.