Musical comedy triple bill: The Night We Called It a Day (2003), Thunderstruck (2004), BoyTown (2006)

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Last week, Down Under Flix kicked off a month on comedies from the noughties and thereabouts, highlighting a triptych of Australian romantic comedies. This week’s featured trio are linked by a shared focus on music, milking comedy from real-world entertainment lore, rock ‘n’ roll hagiography, and satirical jabs at manufactured pop music.

2003-the-night-we-called-it-a-day-copiar

Director: Paul Goldman

Stars: Joel Edgerton, Dennis Hopper, Rose Byrne, Melanie Griffith, Portia de Rossi, David Hemmings, David Field

First viewing, via DVD

Trailer

In his book Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this… True stories from a life in the screen trade, director Bruce Beresford calls The Night We Called It a Day “a great title but it must be the worst directed Australian film ever” (p. 99). Fortunately that’s not the case, though I harboured some concerns going in. Prior to making the film, Goldman served as cinematographer on Ghosts … of the Civil Dead and directed Australian Rules, two dark dramas not necessarily indicative of a skill set for helming a breezy comedy about Frank Sinatra’s altercations with the media and trade unions on his 1974 Australian tour.

Rod Blue from Woolloomooloo (Felony‘s Joel Edgerton) is a scrappy promoter who scores the dream gig of organising Frank Sinatra’s (Dennis Hopper) Down Under tour. However, on insulting a reporter (Sirens‘ Portia de Rossi) who accuses him of spitting on her, Sinatra falls afoul of Australian parochialism and tall poppy syndrome. This leads to workers ranging from the orchestra pit through to hotel staff refusing to serve Sinatra, effectively disabling the tour. Rod and his assistant Audrey (Rose Byrne) must negotiate with the media and unions to alleviate tensions while appeasing a disgruntled Sinatra and his girlfriend Barbara (Melanie Griffith).

Although the musical is a semi-popular Australian film genre (see Moulin Rouge, The Sapphires, Bran Nue Dae, Starstruck, One Night the Moon, and so on), biopics about Australian musicians are rare beasts: The Slim Dusty Movie springs to mind but not much else, though there have been miniseries about the likes of Johnny O’Keefe and, more recently, INXS and Molly Meldrum. The Night We Called It a Day adopts a different approach, focusing on a visiting entertainer and events that occurred over a short period. However, like the recent, maligned miniseries about Paul Hogan, there’s an obstacle impeding the viewer’s (or at least this viewer’s) suspension of disbelief: the lead actor does not resemble the person he’s playing. Frank Sinatra and Dennis Hopper are both certified icons and legendary talents, and therein lies the problem: Hopper gives a fine performance and captures a certain Sinatra-esque attitude and swagger, but never convinces as Sinatra. The actor’s delivery and persona are so recognisable, and the combined iconography of Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and Speed so formidable (not to mention his previous foray into Australian film, the eccentric Mad Dog Morgan), that while viewers unfamiliar with that iconography may be able to enjoy his performance, those familiar with Hopper’s larger than life persona will likely find it hard to shake that baggage.

Of the rest of the cast, fellow import Griffith blends in better as Sinatra’s future bride, as does David Hemmings – no stranger to Australian cinema, having starred in Ozploitation flicks Thirst and Harlequin in the 1970s and directed The Survivor and Race for the Yankee Zephyr here in the early 1980s – as his manager. Of the local cast, future exports Edgerton and Byrne are solid, The Time Guardian’s Tom Burlinson belts out the Sinatra tunes for Hopper on the soundtrack, and another Ghosts … of the Civil Dead alumni, David Field, gives a fun performance as union leader and future Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Australia’s brushes with international public condescension can sting at times. One thinks of Ava Gardner supposedly dissing Melbourne as “the end of the world”, or the Margot Robie Vanity Fair interview that depicted her Australian upbringing as something from an episode of Skippy, or reality TV star Donald Trump’s recent telephone bludgeoning of PM Malcolm Turnbull. For a country of sturdy stock, we’re often thin-skinned about these things. The Night We Called It a Day offers an amusing snapshot of this, providing a time capsule of a pre-globalization moment where a youthful country (at least in post-colonization form) was small and insular yet proud and mighty enough to stop a visiting giant in his tracks.

thunderstruck

Director: Darren Ashton

Stars: Damon Gameau, Stephen Curry, Ryan Johnson, Callan Mulvey, Sam Worthington, Kestie Morassi

First viewing, via DVD

Trailer

According to Wikipedia, the term “bromance” didn’t enter the widespread cultural lexicon until 2005. While Darren Ashton’s film Thunderstruck, released in 2004, predates the bromantic boom, there’s a marked bromantic thread here and in several other noughties comedies discussed this month, including the next film Boytown and last week’s I Love You Too.

When a quintet of teenage friends and rockers see AC/DC live in the 1990s, they make a pact that whoever dies first will be buried alongside the late Bon Scott’s grave at Fremantle Cemetery in Perth. Twelve years later, Ronnie (Macbeth‘s Sam Worthington), now a successful music producer, is killed by lightning on a golf course. Though their friendships have splintered over time and their paths are disparate, Sonny (Damon Gameau) recruits the remainder of the quintet – Ben (The Cup‘s Stephen Curry), Lloyd (Ryan Johnson), and Sam (Callan Mulvey) – to help fulfill this promise.

Like The Night We Called It a Day, Thunderstruck indulges in some idolatry for a legendary musical act, but the focus here is squarely on the four protagonists rather than Angus, Malcolm, Bon and co. AC/DC iconography and music permeate the film, but with the band ultimately serving as a Macguffin – a catalyst for the dramedy rather than an active presence in it – the film’s success ultimately rides on the chemistry of its leads. Gameau is probably best known these days for the documentary That Sugar Film, but he’s been doing terrific work since 2002’s The Tracker and shows both dramatic and comedic chops here. Curry and Johnson (both of whom appear again elsewhere in this month’s lineup) and Mulvey round out the quartet nicely, and a pre-Hollywood Sam Worthington shows up briefly as the departed. Two intertextual side notes: in one scene Gameau plays cricket with Easter Eggs, smashing them to smithereens across a supermarket aisle in a fitting precursor to his work on That Sugar Film; and this was Worthington’s second film with AC/DC music both on the soundtrack and in the title: the first was 2002’s fun period gangster romp Dirty Deeds. His next film is Avatar: Back in Black.

Thunderstruck’s by no means requisite viewing, but it’s a fun little flick with a certified soundtrack, and is probably a lot more accessible than the last rock ‘n’ roll road movie covered on Down Under Flix.

boytown1sh

Director: Kevin Carlin

Stars: Glenn Robbins, Mick Molloy, Bob Franklin, Wayne Hope, Gary Eck, Lachy Hulme

First viewing, via DVD (also on Ozflix)

Trailer

In Thunderstruck,the dissolution of Ronnie and Sonny’s friendship hinges on Ronnie selling his soul to commercial pop over rock ‘n’ roll, eventually finding success as an impresario and executive but losing his musical integrity. Boytown also takes swipes – 90 minutes’ worth – at manufactured corporate pop music, specifically boy bands. But there’s no AC/DC on the soundtrack against which to measure the group Boytown’s meager musical accomplishments, nor any suggestion of the erosion of musical integrity. The group simply was, is, and always will be lame. But very amiably so…

Australian boy band Boytown was a major act in the 1980s, but the group subsequently fizzled and its members went their separate ways. Now grappling with middle age and autumnal regrets, schoolteacher and former Boytown lead singer Benny G (Glenn Robbins, or Uncle Arthur to readers of my vintage) has a hankering for the glory days and sets to work reuniting the group (Bob Franklin, Wayne Hope, Gary Eck), despite minor resistance from Tommy Boy (Mick Molloy, another Macbeth alumni). Eventually reunited, the band’s attempts to capture the current youth demographic fail spectacularly, but they convince label head Marty Boomstein (Lachy Hulme, also Macbeth) to give them one more shot, and strike gold after calibrating their work towards their former, now-middle-aged fans.

Echoing last week’s I Love You Too, which was scripted by and co-starred comedian and TV personality Peter Helliar, BoyTown is written by comedian and co-star Molloy, working alongside brother and writing partner Richard Molloy (the team behind the successful lawn bowls comedy Crackerjack). Moreover, like I Love You Too, the film’s directed by a veteran television director, Kevin Carlin, who gives BoyTown a slick, professional sheen. Much of the comedic mileage in Boytown comes from the humorous incongruity and juxtaposition between the blandly engineered pop music, the pandering and parodic lyrics, and the performers belting out the tunes, most of whom have cultivated recognisable comic personas over time. While it’s all fairly surface level and the fruit hangs low, the cast make for a likable ensemble and the film has fun with its pointed, if easy, jabs at the synthetic music and entertainment industry. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid is that the music feels like plastic, manufactured pop product, which, depending on your tolerance for that musical genre, might be a source of mirth or equivalent to nails on a chalkboard.

Next week: A tag team review of another noughties comedy parodying a topical entertainment fad, Nick Giannopoulos’s The Wannabes (2003).

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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