If music be the food of love… Passion (1999) and Garage Days (2002)

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Director: Peter Duncan

Starring: Richard Roxburgh, Barbara Hershey, Claudia Karvan, Emily Woof, Simon Burke

Troubled pianists were, briefly, a big deal in Australian cinema. There was 1996’s Shine, Scott Hick’s impeccably made biopic of David Helfgott which scored Geoffrey Rush an Academy Award for Best Actor, and then there was 1999’s Passion, a lesser-known biopic of Australian-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger. Peter Duncan’s film chronicles the early stages of the artist’s international career, as the Hobbit-looking Grainger (played by Richard Roxburgh) finds fame but is handicapped in his life and romantic relationships by his predilection for self-flagellation and the “unnatural hold”, to quote the film, that his mother (Barbara Hershey) exerts over him.

Passion title

Duncan’s film strikes me as one of the last films bearing the overt influence of the Australian New Wave, given its period setting, European influence, choice of Australian marginalia as subject matter, and aesthetic approach. It’s also another Australian entry in the tortured genius biopic sub-genre ala Paradise Found, though here the character is actually Australian, albeit an Australian abroad. Like Mario Andreacchio’s film, subtlety isn’t really on Passion‘s mind; lest you’re ever in doubt about the film’s thesis, that Grainger’s love for his mother renders him a dysfunctional individual, the film circles, underlines, highlights, and hammers this point home at every opportunity. The script bears the mark of five authors – including novelist Peter Goldsworthy and author of all trades Don Watson – and feel overwritten: there’s no subtext, it’s all text.

But Passion works as an intriguing character portrait if not as a drama. There was a time I only knew Richard Roxburgh from his international/American films and took a considerable dislike to the actor, dismissing him either as a bland vanilla actor (Mission: Impossible 2, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) or a hammy over-actor (Moulin Rouge, Van Helsing), never quite wigging that he couldn’t be both those things. In recent years I’ve come to love the guy for his work in Australian films, and he’s strong here under the direction of regular collaborator Duncan (Children of the Revolution, Rake). There are also good supporting turns from friend of Australian cinema Hershey and MVP of Australian film Claudia Karvan, among others. The cast bring piss to Passion’s pictorially pleasant scenery and vinegar to its overly didactic script.

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Director: Alex Proyas

Starring: Kick Gurry, Pia Miranda, Chris Sadrinna, Russel Dykstra, Brett Stiller, Maya Strange, Andy Anderson, Martin Csokas

Alex Proyas’ Garage Days is a plucky, fitting companion to Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck and Darren Ashton’s Thunderstruck, executed with all the technical proficiency honed by the director on The Crow and Dark City. Set in Sydney’s ailing live music scene in the post-poker machine noughties, the film chronicles a struggling band and its inner circle – likable lead Freddy (Kick Gurry), his long-suffering girlfriend Tanya (Pia Miranda), criminal Lucy (Chris Sadrinna), manager Bruno (Russel Dykstra), troubled Joe (Brett Stiller) and his girlfriend Kate (Maya Strange) – as they grapple with their professional, interpersonal, and romantic difficulties.

Garage Days title

At the time of its release, Garage Days was viewed as a major departure from the genre film domain Proyas carved out with The Crow and Dark City, and on a surface level that’s kind of true: the film is colourful, incessantly perky, and bereft of The Crow‘s Gothic revenge tragedy and Dark City‘s high concept German expressionist sci-fi noir. But in other respects, Garage Days is not as big a departure as it outwardly appears. There’s something inherently arch and baroque and calculated about Proyas’ style, and that’s evident here too: while ostensibly set in the “real world”, Garage Days presents a heightened reality and does not purport to naturalism. I’ve lived in the Newtown area of Sydney’s inner west where much of the film was shot for the last three years, and the Newtown of Garage Days is the Newtown of imagination, perfectly tinted and artfully burnished, rather than the rather derelict, weathered setting I navigate every day.  Orson Welles once described a film set as the biggest train set a boy could ever have, and in Proyas’ case this applies to both a film set and, apparently, my neighbourhood.

End of my street

In addition, there are glimpses here of the absolute cuckoo abandon and energy that would manifest in even zanier ways in Proyas’ later OTT and widely maligned Gods of Egypt. Between that film, Garage Days, and even the critically liked but commercially underperforming Dark City, Proyas’ lot in life seems to be being unfashionably late to the party or unfashionably ahead of the curve. That’s not to say Garage Days is a misunderstood slam dunk: it has moments of cheese and it frequently errs to formula. Mike Retter, director of Youth on the March, took issue with the film in a Twitter exchange a while back, calling it “Standard, safe Rock n roll music with red cordial”. It’s a legitimate sentiment, but while the film may colour between the lines, it uses a striking palette and there’s plenty of invention on display between those lines, with a game cast to boot.

Also, it has a terrifically entertaining epilogue that is worth the rental alone.

Dance screengrabs

Next time: A double feature of John Hargreaves films with Hoodwink (1981) and Sky Pirates (1986).

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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