Ten Types of Australian Film

Garry Gillard

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Chapter 7: The Musical

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. As Neale writes, “In varying measures and combinations, music, song and dance have been its only essential ingredients”.1 There’s even a single film (as with the western) which recurs in discussions of the musical as the classic example: Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952).

So where is the Australian Singin’ in the Rain? And has anyone today heard of Star Struck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982)?2 Or Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens (Jim Sharman, 1972)? Why there are so few mainstream “musicals” in Australian cinema? One might speculate that one reason is that the great periods of the musical are generally in the past—(although Chicago [Rob Marshall, 2002] was an enormously successful film in 2003, winning six Oscars, including Best Film). Another reason perhaps is the huge cost in mounting and filming large-scale stage productions with a large number of dancers. The budget for Chicago, to continue with this example, was US$45 million. A third is the general character of Australian films, which (as I’ve often had occasion to write earlier) have usually tended towards being on a a smaller scale, towards a more naturalistic style, and towards more human interest and social-problem subjects and domestic settings. That is, until Baz Luhrmann arrived on the Australian cinematic scene with his so-called “red curtain” productions. (Three of his films commence with the animated opening of red curtains, signalling that the film is like something you might see on stage.) We’ll come to those very soon.

The musical took off in America with the advent of sound (of course), and following the success of what is usually regarded as the first feature-length musical, The Jazz Singer (Alan Croslan, 1927) (despite being basically a silent movie with singing and talking inserts). It appears that the first film in Australia in which a character was heard to play and sing was one of the pioneering McDonagh sisters’ films, The Cheaters. As Pike and Cooper relate:

Although completed as a silent film early in 1929, The Cheaters was so long delayed in the McDonaghs’ search for a release that they attempted to improve its commercial chances by adapting it into a partial talkie. Additional scenes were filmed in March 1930 in Melbourne, using a sound-on-disc system. The talkie scenes, none of which remain in the surviving copy of the film, included a fancydress party sequence and a romantic interlude in which Paula at the piano sings a song to Lee.3

Other Australian producers followed the trend with a number of films in the 1930s in which music was in important consideration. One of the first talkies, Showgirl’s Luck (Norman Dawn, 1931), was also one of the few true musicals to be made in Australia. Dawn was an American who had come out to direct (one of our few epics!), For the Term of his Natural Life (1927), stayed for The Adorable Outcast (1928) and returned for this film, which, as he himself wrote, “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”.4 Other musical films of the period were Show Business (A. R. Harwood, 1938), described as a “musical comedy”, 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.

Then there are no more musical films until the “rock musicals” of the 1970s and 1980s. First came Jim Sharman’s Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens (1972), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975; not an Australian film, having been produced in England for 20th Century Fox, but mentioned here because it was directed by important Australian creative artist Sharman, based on his stage show). Oz (Chris Lofven, 1976) was based on The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), but with significant Australian variations, not least the title! And there is Star Struck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982)—one of the few examples of a pure “musical” in Australian cinema. There is at least one film recording a stage show which incorporated music: Betty Blokk-buster Follies (Peter Batey, 1976), the creation of Reg Livermore, with the Baxter Funt band and the Reginas vocal trio. This is basically a recording of Livermore’s stage show.

Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz Luhrmann’s first film—which will be discussed in detail at the end of this chapter—is a “dance film”—as opposed to a “musical”. But a later Luhrmann creation, for which we have to wait almost ten years, is at last a genuine musical: Moulin Rouge (2001). Another kind of “dance film” is Don Quixote (Rudolf Nureyev, Robert Helpmann, 1973): a film version of a ballet in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet. Though not a recording of a performance on stage—the film was shot in an aircraft hangar—the intention is similar to that of Betty Blokk-buster Follies (although “culturally” far removed): it’s a record of work which existed previously in another medium.

And another kind of musical—because it’s dramatic, rather than comedic—though still in the realm of “popular” as opposed to “classical” music is the Paul Kelly family film, One Night the Moon. The singing in this film is diegetically motivated, while in another film with a not dissimilar theme, The Tracker, the songs are performed offscreen by Archie Roach, although they’re arguably as important to the intention of the film as if they were sung onscreen as Paul Kelly and Kelton Pell do in the earlier film. In fact, the director, Rolf de Heer, went to the trouble to prepare a print of his film without the musical element of the soundtrack, so that Roach could perform the songs live at the world premiere of the film, at the Adelaide Festival, 2002.

There have been several significant recent Australian films, among those which are thought of as “musical”, in which, although music is inherent to the form and the narrative, no-one really sings: Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994). In the first one, there is “only” dancing (to music), while in the other two the “singing” is mimed. It’s odd that these are the only Australian “musical” films of which many people would now be aware—until, at last, we come to Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). And even in that case, the musical numbers were not written expressly for the film but are covers of existing popular music.

There are some other films which should be mentioned here in the general musical context, films which thematise or integrate music but mainly belong to another genre. Cosi (Mark Joffe, 1996) is a one-song musical film, despite its title being taken from that of a Mozart opera, but the cast’s singing in the concluding ensemble piece is so importantly integrated in the plot that I’ll mention it. Music is even more tangential in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1983), despite a musical instrument giving the film its title. It’s worth taking the opportunity to make the point here, one which I didn’t make in the chapter on the woman’s film, that both Campion’s film and Amy are concerned with females who do not speak, and in both of them music is an alternative form of expression.

A handful of Australian films tell the stories of fictional musicians. In Dingo (Rolf de Heer, 1992), Colin Friels plays the part of a trumpeter, rather uncomfortably it seems to me, as real life trumpet legend Miles Davis also appears in the film. Nikki Bennett, a real-life singer, plays a fictional singer also called Nikki who is managed by Salvatore Coco’s character Joey Grasso in Walk The Talk (Shirley Barrett, 2000). The story is, however, loosely based on that of real-life singer Fairlie Arrow. Some of the background to Alex Proyas’s Garage Days (Alex Proyas, 2002) is also apparently real-life, in that director and co-writer Proyas did spend some time with garage bands in a former life. But the band which is the entire focus of the film is fictional; not so the setting of the climax: a real rock concert at Homebush, where the fictional band actually got to (pretend to) play in front of an audience of thousands.

Then there are the biopics based on the lives of real musicians. Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996) changed the life of its subject, Perth pianist David Helfgott (not to mention that of its director), when the film won an Oscar for Best Actor for Geoffrey Rush. Helfgott played at the Academy Award ceremony in 1997. The film also won nine AFIs and a BAFTA (again for Rush). By contrast, the story of a much more significant musician in Australian composer and musicologist Percy Grainger, Passion (Peter Duncan, 1999), did not make nearly so big a splash. The documentary-drama The Slim Dusty Movie (Rob Stewart, 1984) probably did better. Though not the mockumentary Bigger than Tina (Neil Foley, 1999). For real documentaries on music and musicians, see: Facing the Music (documentary, Bob Connolly & Robin Anderson, 2001) in the classical music area; and the film which may only be remembered now because it comes first in many alphabetical lists of Australian films: ABBA: The Movie (Lasse Hallstrom, 1978).

I conclude this chapter with a discussion of Strictly Ballroom, a popular film which, despite its apparent superficiality, works on many levels, and displays some generic complexity of relevance to this book. Strictly Ballroom’s story is based to some extent on director Luhrmann’s own life, in that his mother was a teacher of ballroom dancing, and he himself was a competitive dancer from a young age. Shirley Hastings (Pat Thompson) is not closely based on his mother, but is to some extent drawn from her. So the film, his first, is close to his heart.

Despite the exaggerated, hyperbolic style of all of his films (to date), Luhrmann seems nevertheless to take his metaphors seriously—and what he sees as the underlying meaning of the films. The “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love” credo of Moulin Rouge not only runs through the film as such, but is stressed by the director in his audio commentary on the DVD. And in his commentary on the audio track of the DVD release Strictly Ballroom (2002), he reiterates the idea that this is not just a story about a couple of ballroom dancers, but is an extended metaphor about artistic expression: about the notion that “art and rulebooks don’t mix”. The story is also apparently based on the true story of one Keith Bain who had a journey similar in some ways to that of Scott Hastings, in that he also wanted to dance his own revolutionary steps. Because they were not acceptable within the rules existing at the time, he “always came second” according to Luhrmann.

The metaphor is worked out through conventional story-lines, the most obvious of which, perhaps, is the “ugly duckling” story of Fran (Tara Morice), who only has to take off her glasses and fix her hair (and her skin) and she is transformed into something which allows the character to leave the more naturalistic aspect of the film and enter the heightened style of its performance part.

For it’s noticeable that there are (at least) two stylistic regimes. Where the two main characters are establishing their relationship and information is being conveyed through dialogue (rather than movement), the style is more “realistic”, more naturalised. A good example of this—because it shows the skill of the film-makers—is the scene in which Fran takes off her glasses (never to put them on again). This is such a cliché that much depends on it being done in such a way that audiences do not react negatively to so obvious a reference to the world of fairy-tale: both the dialogue and the photography play down the gesture.

Another conventional element in the narrative is the young hero overcoming obstacles to establish himself as accepted in the wider world: a coming-of-age or rite-of-passage scenario. That this is important in the structure of Strictly Ballroom is shown by the multiplication of Scott’s father-figures. As his actual father is such a loser, the narrative requires that he has several other adult males to overcome: his dance teacher, Les Kendall (Peter Whitford), Federation President Barry Fife (Bill Hunter), and Fran’s father Rico (Antonio Vargas—himself a dance teacher in real life: he wears his own clothes—already a costume—in the film).

The film-makers had a budget of about three million dollars, which was about average for an Australian film in 1992, but not really enough for Luhrmann’s ambitions for the film. For one thing, the Kendall Dance Studio is a set. Despite Australian cinema being a “location-based industry” (which tends to keep costs down), as Catherine Martin (production designer and Luhrmann’s partner in life) points out, Les Kendall’s studio was in fact built inside a (film) studio. Also a set—surprisingly—is the shop front behind which the Spanish family lives. It looks so authentic that apparently a real shop inspector came and demanded to see the papers relating to the business!—such a good story it just might be true.

And then there is the competition which opens and closes the film. This was shot at a real dance festival to which the production had to make a financial contribution to be allowed to film at the venue during the event. Baz Luhrmann enjoys telling the story that they could only film the fictional contestants during the lunch break, or at least in a very limited time, and they only had the one opportunity because of the limited budget. This is the reason for one of the obvious continuity errors in the film. The climactic dance scene begins with Doug clapping alone, followed by Rico and Ya Ya (the grandmother: Armonia Benedito), and then the whole crowd. The different clapping groups and the dancers were each filmed in different takes and there was no way in post-production that the editor, Jill Bilcock, could get all the different shots of clapping to be in time with each other and with the music. Those were all the takes they had: so it’s possible to be aware that the clapping you hear is not in time with the clapping you see. The final dance, with everyone on the floor, includes all the real people that still remained (many left because they were interested in the dance festival, not the filming) acting as extras—almost certainly unpaid.

A couple of surprising facts emerging from the film-makers’ commentary concern two of the relatively expensive items, one a costume and one a piece of music. They felt that Doris Day singing “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps” was such an essential choice that they were prepared to pay the copyright owners quite a large fee for the rights. The costume which cost so much was the coat first worn by Rico and then Scott. It was a genuine “suit of lights” as worn by real matadors and imported from Spain. Although an essential costume—almost a prop—it’s surprising that a copy made in Australia would not have served the purpose. It’s also surprising to find out that a final expensive item was the train which goes past the Spanish backyard—apparently they could not just hope that one came past at a suitable time, so the film-makers had to pay to get the rail authority to lay one on.

What emerges out of all these disparate elements: what type of film is Strictly Ballroom? It’s a romance (like all Luhrmann’s films so far) and a comedy, but is it a musical, as it’s often called? It is, strictly speaking, not a “musical”—because no-one at all is seen to sing—and this is definitional, as was established at the beginning of the chapter. It is, however, a “musical film”, in that music is deeply integrated into the narrative. It’s a dance film—and of course music is required for dance—or at least for ballroom dancing.

At several significant moments, the action is driven by dance—thus requiring that the film must be seen as adhering to this genre. For example, when Scott’s first partner Liz (Gia Carides) is trying to reject him after his first instance of dancing “his own steps”, he literally blocks her leaving the dance studio, and in fact engages her in a dance—so that everything is momentarily restored to the status quo (or “status quo vadis” as Barry Fife calls it!)—until he once again dances “his own steps”, and she again demonstratively leaves the partnership.

More significantly, Scott engages Fran in dance as a way of expressing his feelings for and relationship with her, as opposed to doing so in words. This occurs on a number of occasions. Perhaps the most important of these is the one at the State Championships, when they dance a rumba backstage behind the red curtain—leading to their relationship coming under observation from and being revealed to a number of the other characters.

A moment where music is completely integrated with the plot is the one when Barry Fife’s partner, Charm (Kris McQuade) literally pulls the plug so that Scott and Fran have no music to dance to. Liz intervenes, puts the electrical plug back in, and the music for the final scene returns.

It’s in this final scene that the “dance of love” is consummated in the form of a kiss on the dance floor—once again in sync with the music, which swells with the appropriate vocal line at precisely the right moment. This is a perfect moment—a “utopian” moment in Richard Dyer’s terms—a sequence where the story and the genre through which it is told become one, in one of those films “which try to dissolve the distinction between narrative and [musical] numbers, thus implying that the world of narrative is also (already) utopian”.5

Having established something of the origins of this work, in both particular and general (or generic) senses, I shall now consider what it’s all in aid of—in other words, what is the work’s ideology, or thematic structure—depending on the critical vocabulary you wish to invoke. I’ve already suggested the central concern of the film, as far its writers are concerned—Baz Luhrmann, and also, we must assume, his close friend and co-writer, Craig Pearce also—the main theme is that of the individual artist overcoming personal and institutional obstacles in order to be able to give expression to his or her vision. This is of course worked out through Scott’s story. It’s also placed in a somewhat larger context by the use of the motto, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived”, so that living fully for one’s art is in turn a metaphor for living fully as such.

This theme is worked out through the depiction of Rico and his family, who have to work within a different set of constraints to maintain their art form—in this case the pasa doble and its relationship with Spanish culture, symbolised by the bullfight as well as the dance and accompanying music—and clapping! In another subplot, Scott’s father Doug (Barry Otto) is also able to achieve a sort of vindication—through his more successful son—after he has in fact had to give way, earlier in his life, to the sort of pressure over which his son triumphs: at last he is able to reveal the whole truth. Fran is also able to express herself, although in her case it’s not so clearly her (father’s) dance steps as such which symbolise her personal success—she also gets her man.

In this thematic structure the Federation in general and Barry Fife in particular are seen to enforce the fearful half-lived life—while Doug Hastings is its particular emblem for most of the film’s length. Luhrmann directs our attention to the evil force of Federation and Fife in the scene in the servery, lit in an infernal red. As Fife fulminates, a cook reaches across him, directly in front of the camera to grab a great handful of guts—clearly an invocation of Hell (as opposed, one hopes, to any realistic indication of what the dance festival patrons were going to have for dinner).

I’ll turn now to a different thematic strand, one noted by cultural commentators more than by reviewers. Strictly Ballroom is one of a number of films to emerge in Australia in the 1990s related to the government policy of multiculturalism—which has to do with the tolerance—indeed the celebration—of ethnic difference. For the purposes of the principal theme, Scott could have derived his novel ballroom steps from anywhere from classical ballet to break-dancing—or Egyptian hieroglyphs—but he gets them from representatives of another culture, one of Australia’s many immigrant groups. You might like to speculate as to why the film-makers chose this particular cultural group and this particular dance, with its extreme expression of masculinity, for the film, rather than a dance-form which puts the emphasis on the group rather than the (male) individual. The commentary on the DVD is not only from the director and his partner and production designer, Catherine Martin, but also from the choreographer, John “Cha Cha” O’Connell, who explains the symbolism of the pasa doble, at least as he sees it, in which the man represents the bull (rather than the matador) and the woman represents the cape!

Another way to read this film—and perhaps any musical—is to consider the structural oppositions apparent in it. In an article first published in 1978, Rick Altman proposed the notion (which he develops in his 1989 book) that the American film musical is best understood in terms of creating a structure the purpose of which is to resolve basic oppositions such as male/female, child/adult, beauty/riches.6 Not only these social phenomena can be resolved, but also such mutually exclusive terms, he suggests, as “order/liberty, progress/stability, work/entertainment, and so forth”. Further, these can be reconciled through the mythic function of the musical: through the device of marriage. Altman concludes that “we will not be far off the mark if we consider that the musical fashions a myth out of the American courtship ritual”.7 An analysis of this kind can profitably be applied to an understanding of Strictly Ballroom.

Drawing together what we know about the circumstances of the production, the type of film, and the thematic structure, what can we conclude about Strictly Ballroom? The film has been praised as postmodern pastiche and condemned (for many of the same features) as a tedious string of clichés, seen an exemplar of an Australian take on the rite-of-passage narrative, as well as a “kitsch comedy”’, an “Australian musical [which] can be seen to Australianize the form”—and a “multicultural musical”.8 Clearly, it can be read in many ways.

I am here mostly interested in what kind or type of film it is—in a generic reading. A film’s genre has widely been seen as stemming from the three-way relationship between film-makers, audience and the text itself.9 Following this line of thought I have paid rather more heed to the stated intentions of the film-makers than have other writers (who have concentrated more on the text as such)—partly because those statements are now available in a way they were not before (in the audio commentary). It is also partly because Luhrmann has said that he has now completed his “red curtain” trilogy. (Since fifth-century BC Athens creative artists have often been obsessive about producing things in groups of three.) So we can also now think about this film—not only in the context of the “dance musical” (or whatever)—but also in terms of how it fits into the oeuvre of its auteur, its writer/director. Perhaps there is a Baz Luhrmann genre? If there is, it’s certainly a mixed one.

You might wonder why I have chosen a “dance musical” or “musical film” on which to spend most time in this chapter, rather than an actual musical like Star Struck. I have done so for a number of reasons. One is to make the point that there have very few pure musicals on the Broadway/Hollywood model among Australian feature films—and none in the last twenty years. Moulin Rouge is a musical, but the songs were not written for the film. Nor were the songs in Priscilla and Muriel. Almost all of the films mentioned in this chapter are hybrids: they have musical elements to a greater or lesser degree, which to a greater or lesser degree are the means of expression of the films’ ideologies. In the case of Strictly Ballroom, the music was used in conjunction with dancing of different kinds to express the film-makers’ vision. This film was therefore as good as any other to use as an example of the hybridity of the Australian musical film. In addition, the film was very successful and continues to be well-known. It has recently been re-released on DVD with the commentary track cited above, and it is part of the work of a very significant Australian director. It demonstrates how a gifted cinematic artist can use a type of musical film to give expression to a personal worldview.


1 Steve Neale 2000, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London & New York: 105.

2 Although almost everyone writes about Starstruck as one word, I rely on the authority of Scott Murray (1995), who follows the film itself, which uses two.

3 Pike & Cooper 1998: 152.

4 Pike & Cooper 1998: 155.

5 Richard Dyer 1977, “Entertainment and utopia”, Movie, 24, Spring, repr. Rick Altman ed. 1981, Genre: The Musical, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London: 185.

6 Rick Altman 1981, “The American film musical: paradigmatic structure and mediatory function”, Genre: The Musical, Routledge, London: 197-207; first publ. Wide Angle, 2, January 1978: 10-17. Rick Altman 1989, The American Film Musical, Indiana University Press, Bloomington; and BFI, London.

7 Altman 1981: 207.

8 Rose Chaffey 2001, “Imagining the postmodern: subjectivity and Strictly Ballroom”, Australian Screen Education, 29, Winter: 183-187; Pat Gillespie 1993, “Strictly Ballroom” (review), Cinema Papers, 91, January: 52; extract repr. in Scott Murray ed. 1995, Australian Film 1978-1994: A Survey of Theatrical Features, Oxford University Press/AFI, Melbourne: 28; Jonathan Rayner 2000, Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester: 154; Tom O’Regan 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London: 1; O’Regan 1996: 20.

9 Tom Ryall 1978, Teachers’ Study Guide No. 2: The Gangster Film, BFI Education, London, provides an early example.

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