The high spirited “Bran Nue Dae” is one of short list of Australian musical features. Think Gillian Armstrong’s ebullient 1982 “Starstruck” and quasi musicals like “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert“, Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom.”
Based on the 1990 Aussie stage musical, Rachel Perkins’s film adaptation makes up in candy-colored charisma for it’s stereotypical characters and largely forgettable songs. It’s 1969. Church-going Aboriginal Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) has been in love, all his life, with his local sweetie Rosie (“Australian Idol’s” Jessica Mauboy) who sings in the church choir at his mother’s evangelical church. Willie and Rosie sneak out to spy on the goings on in the forbidden (to good kids) roadhouse. Rosie spots Elvis wannabee Lester (Dan Sultan) and he spots her, romancing her on the spot. Swiveling his hips as he tears out a song, Lester romances impressionable Rosie, promising her musical stardom. Willie watches appalled as Rosie joins the dirty dancing crew in the bar.
Worried about his soul, his mother Theresa (Ningali Lawford) sends Willie back to his strict Catholic boarding school in Perth. Father Benedictus (a hammy Geoffrey Rush) identifies with Willie, considered him Prefect and Number 1 boy. He urges him to better himself, instead of living the worthless life of the lay-about Aborigines in his beloved hometown of Broome. But all Willie can do is dream of Rosie, seen alternately as an angel and a seductive fallen angel in his repeated fantasies.
Fed up with his strict school, Willie sets off for Perth, with Father Benedictus in pursuit. At a homeless campfire, he meets up with his fabled bad boy Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) a cheery drifter.Dingo, reprising his stage role, is the life of the piece.
Tadpole fakes an accident, scamming a trip with a couple of hippies (Missy Higgins and Tom Budge). As the painted van wends it’s way to Broome, while Willie and his uncle bond.Earth mother Annie (singer/songwriter Missy Higgins), welcomes the pair, her chance to experience Aboriginal culture, but defensive German student Slippery (Tom Budge) is less enchanted. He’s on a road trip to reunite with his long lost father. Deborah Mailman is delightful as Roadhouse Betty, a drunken man-chasing local, with a jealous husband.
Mauboy and Dan Sultan both have terrific voices. Sultan’s “Seeds You Might Sow” is a standout. Rocky McKenzie is endearing in a sort of mild-mannered Richard Beymar (West Side Story) way. Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings) candy colored shots raise the film considerably.
The gleefully subversive “There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine, and to watch you take my precious land away” probably qualifies as the show stopper ( it’s reprised) but the choreography is relatively tame and uninspired. A farcical tie up of surprise identities (a la “Tom Jones” ) adds some fun to a well-meaning musical with a satirical approach to the history of Australia’s shameful treatment of his indigenous peoples. The film manages to look at the underlying issues of rascism and deliver a positive message. No Mean feat. A definite crowd pleaser at SBFF.
Opens Sept 10-The Grove, Sept 17-Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine; Regency’s Rancho Niguel 8, Laguna Niguel.