The past decade has seen the revival of the American musical. At the start of the new millennia, we had the long-awaited picturization of Bob Fosse’s vaudevillian stage play, Chicago. Then came the much maligned The Phantom of the Opera, which was shamefully underrated. And then in 2007 we were treated to a visual candy barrel with Tim Burton’s haunting adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Now here we are in a new decade, and musicals are still going strong.
I loved this movie. Bran Nue Dae is an absolutely pointless film with an over-the-top plot and useless characters. But it’s just so much fun. How could anybody not like this film? Rocky McKenzie is Willie, an aborigine boy in the late 1960s who is made to leave his home town of Broome to go to boarding school in Perth. The school is a Catholic School that trains its students to be priests. Willie is highly favoured by the school’s headmaster, Father Benedictus (an eccentric “villain” played wonderfully by Geoffrey Rush), until he is caught stealing Coca-Cola from the school’s kitchen. When Father Benedictus tries to punish Willie, he runs away on a journey back home to Broome. But Father Benedictus is hot on his heels, and Willie must then team up with some want-to-be hippies and an alcoholic old man to reach his goal.
This is a film much in the style of 1976’s Bugsy Malone, a film that I absolutely adored. The story is pretty week and the plot has no point whatsoever. But it’s just a wild, fun roller-coaster of a movie. The songs and comedic and catchy (especially a number called “Nothing I Would Rather Be” which takes place in the school’s chapel), and the film moves along at a swift but pleasurable pace. It’s a pretty corny movie, but then again, why shouldn’t it be? It’s a musical, and a pretty good one at that. Every scene is filled with an exciting dance number, a tender romance, or some loopy and hilarious joke of some sort. Of course, the story can’t hold up to much scrutiny, but it’s not supposed to. This film isn’t interested in deep spiritual ideas or commentary on the human condition. It exists for no other reason but to entertain you, which I’m sure it will.
While I was watching this, I wasn’t thinking about the convenience that almost everybody in this movie is heading to Broome, or that most of the characters (except maybe for the old man) are pretty shallow, or that for some reason when one person starts singing and dancing, everyone else somehow knows exactly what to do and organizes themselves into neat little dancing lines. I was just taken along for the ride, and I was loving every minute of it. I loved watching numerous Aborigines dancing on Church pews and somersaulting over the altar. I loved watching Geoffrey Rush attempt to do dance steps while disciplining people in a rather ridiculous German accent. I loved watching all these corny and ridiculous stereotypes interact before my eyes. And by the way, this film is filled with stereotypes. Stereotypes of Germans, Aborigines, old men, prostitutes, Priests, preachers, and hippies. Even so, this is far form a stereotypical film. It’s one of the most original I’ve seen in a long time. There isn’t one scene here that you would find in another film in the same context. It’s goofy and weird and illogical, but who cares? We’re having a great time.
Now, this isn’t one of those musicals where the singing and dancing flow seamlessly together with the dialogue. In fact, sometimes when the characters suddenly start singing it’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The musical numbers are in no way subtle. They stick out like a sore thumb. But does it really matter. Did we come to see this for an opera of some sort? No! We came to see Aborigines dance and Geoffrey Rush try to fake a German accent (which although pitiful and rather dumb sounding, is rather endearing). And if we came expecting just that, you’ll be more than impressed. However, if for some reason you want this film to explore some deep meanings, search elsewhere. This is not for you. At no point in this rather short movie was I bored. I was always waiting to see what happens next and what crazy misadventure young Willie will encounter. This movie entertains. That’s what it does. It entertained me like I haven’t been entertained in a while. Now I’m not saying I don’t like serious films. I probably even prefer them to this sort of thing. But every once in a while, I just want to be entertained. And that’s what I got from Bran Nue Dae.
From a technical standpoint, the film is also pretty impressive. I am extremely fond of the photography in this film. Every shot has a meaning to it. There is one particular scene in which two lovers are swimming with each other under water. It’s so perfect and simple. There isn’t a flaw in that scene. The colours in the movie are rich and the shots memorable. Cinematographer Andrew Lesney (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong) has outdone himself this time. The overall colour scheme of the film seems to be yellow, orange and blue, and it works exceptionally well. It’s a shame that this film won’t get much notice up here in America. I find it extremely unfortunate that we must search clear over to Australia to find descent entertainment these days. American films from Hollywood are becoming more dumb and generic every year, while the independent and foreign films make a come-back. Unfortunately, the general public will hardly see any of these alternatives, but instead will continue to go to these mind-numbing, Hollywood CGI fests. Last year’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, only received a fraction of the recognition it deserved. Well, enough of these sentiments.
I was very impressed by this gem of a musical. In a decade full of new and exciting musicals, Bran Nue Dae is one of the most original and creative. The songs are catchy and the characters witty and the photography striking. I liked this movie a lot, and I wish it the best of luck when the awards season comes around later this year.
Film Australia Presents an Aboriginal Film
Cast: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, Missy Higgins, Geoffrey Rush, Deborah Mailman, Tom Budge, Ningail Lawford. Directed by Rachel Perkins
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug use. Release Date: 10 September 2010