This week's readings | Australasian music films


Main screening

Although there are many different kinds of musical, this is one kind of film which can be simply and clearly defined: it contains a narrative in which the story is at least partly advanced by expression in song and dance.

In my chapter for the week, I point out that there are relatively few "proper" Aussie musicals (like Star Struck, Gillian Armstrong, 1982) - but a larger number of films which are worth mentioning because of the fact that music is significantly integrated into the narrative, although not to the extent that it is in the compleat musical.

From what I've read about it (in Pike & Cooper), I should begin this week by showing you a clip from Showgirl's Luck (Norman Dawn, 1931): one of the few true musicals to be made in Australia, which "followed the accepted formula of the typical American musical of the period. ... It had the usual simple straight line plot upon which was hung as many musical numbers as could be worked in".

Other musical films of the 1930s are Show Business (A. R. Harwood, 1938), described as a "musical comedy". And The Broken Melody (Ken G. Hall, 1938), which includes a complete operetta written especially by noted Australian composer Alfred Hill. And Come Up Smiling [Ants In His Pants] (William Freshman, 1939), which includes several song and dance routines.

There are no Australian musical films before the 1930s, because there was no sound; and none after, because there were then virtually no Australian films at all until 1970.

To begin with, here's a moment from Showgirl's Luck (Norman Dawn, 1931) - unfortunately not a musical moment - and a couple from His Royal Highness (F. W. Thring, 1932) and from Harmony Row (F. W. Thring, 1933), both starring well-known comedian of the day George Wallace. (History of Australian Cinema DVD clips "Showgirl'sLuck" 1.42.25 - 1.42.40, and "RoyalHighness" 1.51.34 - 1.52.22)

The earliest clip (and the clips this week are in chronological order) I can readily show you from the Renaissance is from 1975, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975; original musical play, music and lyrics by Richard O'Brien; screenplay by Jim Sharman and Richard O'Brien). This is not regarded as an Australian film, despite being directed by the brilliant Australian, Jim Sharman (who also directed the films Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens, 1972, Summer Of Secrets, 1976, and The Night the Prowler, 1979, as well as many stage productions.)

If you've never seen it before, I'd like to be able to present to you to one of the greatest cult experiences of all time, "The Time Warp", introduced by Riff Raff (Richard O'Brien). But I'll actually show the entrance of Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry). Many of you may be seeing (part of) The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the very first time (and may not be impressed), but there are fans who have seen it literally hundreds of times: it's one of the greatest fan phenomena of all time. (clip "FrankNFurter" 23.20 - 26.40).

Oz: A Rock and Roll Road Movie (Chris Lofven, 1976) is clearly (one of the films) based on one of the greatest of all musicals, The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) but is a disappointingly inferior imitation (although there are no munchkins, thank goodness!). "Dorothy [Joy Dunstan] is now a groupie in search of the king of rock performers, the Wizard [Graham Matters]; the Straw Man is a vague and gentle surfie [Bruce Spence], the Tin Man a country car mechanic [Michael Carman], and the Lion a timid and self-pitying bikie [Gary Waddell] dressed in fearsome black leather." (Pike & Cooper) Each of these three characters has a double role, as in the Judy Garland film, also playing a member of the band seen in the movie, Wally and the Falcons.

I'll spare you that trio, and show you the excerpt in which Dorothy meets the Good Fairy, Glin (Robin Ramsay) - a man, get it? She has just killed the equivalent of the Wicked Witch of the West, receives the red shoes, hears about the Wizard for the first time, and is told to follow the Highway (= Yellow Brick Road). Altho it drives the story, much of the music in this film is non-diegetic, as in this clip. (clip "GoodFairy" 11.21 - 16.50)

The next clip I'll show you is from Star Struck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982), as one of the few examples of a pure musical in Australian cinema. Directed by the 30-year-old Gill Armstrong (now the grande dame of Australian directors), the movie is a lot of fun.

In this sequence, from near the beginning of the film, Jackie (Jo Kennedy) and Angus (Ross O'Donovan) discuss their dreams of stardom - as you do in a backstage musical - perhaps the most common kind of musical. The message is that if you dream of owning(/being) a Volkswagen, you'll end up owning(/being) a Volkswagen, while if you dream of owning(/being) a Jag, you'll end up ... it's a simple philosophy. When they arrive at the Lizard Lounge, we see that everyone is having a good time ... as choreographed. (clip "VW" 2:16 - 5:28)

Now we come to a couple of those films in which music is significant to the plot and the theme of the film, although not the main means by which the story is carried forward.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) actually begins with one of the three main characters engaged in her business - which is miming to songs originally sung by "gay icons" among others. As it is the occupation of all three: Bernadette (Terence Stamp), Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pearce), it's to be expected that we should see them performing at different points in the story. And because it is the story of the journey that gets them to the various performances, it can quite properly be seen as a variation on the sub-genre of the "backstage musical" (which is about all the rehearsals and machinations and love affairs involved in getting a show on the Broadway stage, for example).

I could show you the most complex example - also one of the most outrageous in terms of costume: the impromptu performance of "I Will Survive" for an audience of Aboriginal people (accompanied by didgeridu). One of the points being made here is the acceptance of the drag queens by the outback Aboriginal audience: the implied contrast is with the white homophobic poofter-bashers elsewhere in the film.

What I shall show is the ending of the film, mainly to make a connexion with the next clip. As the bus, Priscilla, drives off to a happy ending, Felicia mimes to ABBA's "Mamma mia", which morphs into Mitzi and Felicia performing the song as Anni-Frid and Agnetha. The song is at least superficially about parenthood, and the cuts are to Mitzi/Tick's (Hugo Weaving) son, but the final meaning is apparently that everyone is in their proper place. (clip "departure" 1.33.22 - 1.36.18)

Muriel's Wedding (P. J. Hogan, 1994): The clip illustrates the way dance and song (although mimed) can be used to move the story forward. Muriel and Rhonda are on holiday on Hibiscus Island when they meet Tania who is on her honeymoon *without* her husband Chook but with her bridesmaids, including Nicole. Tania's group have formerly looked down on Rhonda and Muriel, but Rhonda turns the situation around. The song "Waterloo" becomes a statement of the triumph of our heroines and the defeat, ie. Waterloo, of Tania and Nicole. Here, once again, are Anni-Frid and Agnetha. (clip "Waterloo" 24.05 - 26.32)
Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996) is a biopic, the life story of a still living, performing musician, so you would expect music to feature. Perhaps the most important musical moment is (character) David Helfgott's (played at this point by Noah Taylor) performance of the "Rach 3", Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, as, in the film at least, it seems to be a turning-point and part of the cause of the main character's mental breakdown. (clip "Rach3" 1.00.27 - 1.03.25 glasses)

As Geoffrey Rush won the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, AND the Oscar in 1996 for Best Actor, perhaps I should show you a moment from later in the film when he is listening to music rather than playing it. (clip "trampoline" 1.25.00 - 1.26.08)

Garage Days (Alex Proyas, 2002): in the climactic scene the band appears at the real Homebake Festival, and ... they suck - they have "enormous suckage factor" - like the band in Thunderstruck (Darren Ashton, 2003). (clip "Homebake" 1:30:33 - 1.34.30)
Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001): at last we come to a real dinkum musical. The odd thing about this one is that, although the performers actually sing the songs, none of the music was actually written for this show, just re-arranged.
New: 1 April, 2004 | Now: 19 December, 2010