Director: Gillian Armstrong
Stars: Jo Kennedy, Ross O’Donovan
First viewing, via DVD
Critic Pauline Kael once declared that the label ‘Made in Australia’ “is almost like a Seal of Good Housekeeping on a film. If a young man goes out on a date, it is safe to take a girl to an Australian film”. Kael was clearly not describing The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, but rather the period flicks that constituted much of the Australian New Wave, like Caddie, The Picture Show Man, The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant, Gallipoli, We of the Never Never, and so on. Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career is another film of that vintage, albeit with a feminist restlessness befitting its source material under its finely burnished exterior.
With her 1982 sophomore feature Starstruck, Armstrong trades big dresses for big hair, lace for shiny leggings, and Good Housekeeping for amiable pop-punk. As the director recalled, “I didn’t want to make another period picture about a woman fighting for her identity… I wanted to do something completely different” (David Stratton’s The Avocado Plantation, p. 147). But while the films appear as dissimilar as apples and oranges on first glance, Starstruck’s lead character Jackie is restless and hungry for fame and fortune in much the same way Career’s Sybylla hungers for her autonomy. And like Career, Starstruck is very much a woman’s story, consolidating a preoccupation that would pervade Armstrong’s whole career, as noted in my piece on The Last Days of Chez Nous.
Jackie (Jo Kennedy) is an ingénue songstress who lives and works at her mother’s bar under Sydney Harbour Bridge. Her cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) has a vested interest in her success, and engineers a stunt that thrusts her into the media spotlight. She comes to the attention of producer Terry (John O’May) who casts her on his talent show, but success comes with artistic compromise as well as a toll on her boyfriend, bandmates, family and the family business.
One of the ongoing pleasures of this site is seeing how each week’s film bounces off of the previous week’s, and there are interesting parallels between Starstruck and last week’s offering The Time Guardian. Both films endured a difficult production process, both are hybrid movies made with tax incentives merging an Australian setting to a predominantly American genre, and both share that strange, endearing dissonance that happen when American genre tropes brush up against Australian accents and locales (Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House and Bondi Pavillion all figure prominently). While Australia has produced a solid number of film musicals over the years, some lucrative – Moulin Rouge, Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires – and some curiosities – One Night the Moon, Stunt Rock, The Return of Captain Invincible – the genre remains something of a novelty in local film. In Starstruck’s musical numbers, Armstrong combines the grammar and artifice of old school Hollywood musicals with the burgeoning MTV music video aesthetic – Australian director Russell Mulcahy’s clip for ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ launched that institution the year before – whilst simultaneously deflating the genre’s trappings with some strategically placed homegrown dinky-ness and dorkiness.
While Jackie is a punk chick, she’s punk in the poppy, discotheque Deborah Harry vein rather than, say, the Sid Vicious vein. Given the Australian context, that pop/disco leaning’s not too surprising: after all, Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert helped bolster ABBA’s posthumous fortunes, and The Village People’s movie Can’t Stop the Music found its greatest success down under (and there’s a scene in Starstruck that would be very at home in the latter). As indicated above, there’s an umbilical cord stretching from My Brilliant Career’s Sybylla to Jackie, with both young women restless and yearning for more, albeit in different eras and contexts. Jackie is Sybylla dizzy on a whole lot of sugar and red cordial, and Jo Kennedy gives an energetic and enjoyable performance. Ross O’Donovan is also fun, if broad, as her wheeler & dealer younger cousin.
In summary: Starstruck is silly, breezy, earthy, spunky, and very likeable.
Next week: Geoffrey Wright punches you in the face with his car in Metal Skin (1994).