Down Under Flix was created to show love, shine light, and where necessary throw shade on obscure, forgotten, neglected, or under-appreciated Australian films, but I find myself increasingly struggling with the question of what constitutes an obscure, forgotten, neglected, or under-appreciated local film. Obviously some films are clearly immune from this category: Crocodile Dundee, for instance, does not and will never need my help. However, Breaker Morant, on the surface a critically revered and widely liked Australian classic, has by its own director’s admission barely made a dime. What, then, of films like Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires? Both films were liked by critics and audiences. Bran Nue Dae scored 6 Australian Film Institute Award nominations including Best Film and scored Best Supporting Actress for Deborah Mailman, while The Sapphires swept the board winning 11 gongs, including Best Film, Director, Actor, and Actress (Mailman again). Bran Nue Dae earned almost $7.7 million at the local box office and ranks 42nd on the list of most successful Australian releases, while The Sapphires earned over $14.5 million and ranks 19th on that list. Having said that, last year Star Wars: The Last Jedi earned $45 million at the Australian box office – over twice as much as Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires combined – with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Beauty and the Beast on its tail with $37.5 and $36.3 million respectively. In other cold, hard words, while Bran Nue Dae might have been popular, five times more Australians went to see a Disney live action remake of an animated film they’d probably already seen.
As tempting as it is to play the part of indignant curator of local film culture, I’ll confess that I was very late to the party on both Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires. But I’m glad I made the party and I hope others do too.
Director: Rachel Perkins
Starring: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush, Ernie Dingo, Tom Budge, Missy Higgins, Deborah Mailman
Bran Nue Dae is an ensemble musical comedy with the hapless Willy Johnson (Rocky McKenzie) at its centre. Willy is a young Indigenous man from Broome torn between his love for childhood friend Rosie (current Eurovision competitor Jessica Mauboy) and his studies to be a priest under the stewardship of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush). Realising he’s an ill fit for this vocation, Willy runs away from the seminary and undertakes a road trip back to Broome, joining up with his dissolute uncle (Ernie Dingo), a pair of hippies (Tom Budge and Missy Higgins), and a woman of the night (Deborah Mailman) along the way, with Father Benedictus in pursuit.
Director Rachel Perkins’ feature debut Radiance (reviewed here) painted a modern, moving portrait of three contemporary Indigenous women, a portrait divorced from many of the tropes typically associated with Aboriginal stories and characters on film. Her subsequent One Night the Moon (reviewed here) was a period musical grappling with historical race relations. Bran Nue Dae exists somewhere between these two films: it’s a period musical (set in the 1960s) about the experiences of Indigenous Australians, but also a buoyant, affirmative celebration of Aboriginal life and culture, its modus operandi nicely encapsulated in a signature song lyric: “There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine”. The film is visually gorgeous: under the lens of regular Peter Jackson DP Andrew Lesnie, the red of the dirt, the blue of the water and sky, and the green of the bush all pop. Similarly vibrant is the film’s varied cast, ranging from Oscar winner Rush to pop stars Mauboy and Higgins to the film’s MVP, Ernie Dingo, who kills it after a long stretch away from film acting. The film’s theatricality can be excessive at times (as befitting both a musical and a stage adaptation), but Bran Nue Dae is never, ever not fun.
Director: Wayne Blair
Cast: Deborah Mailman, Chris O’Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens
The Sapphires, inspired by true events, is another 1960s-set musical focused on Indigenous Australian protagonists. Songbird sisters Gail, Julie and Cynthia (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, and Miranda Tapsell) live in an Aboriginal community on the outskirts of a predominantly white small town (think The Fringe Dwellers). After losing a local talent show despite being far and away the best performers, recently sacked entrepreneur-in-the-making Dave (Chris O’Dowd) is persuaded to get them an audition for a gig entertaining American troops in Vietnam. Along with their childhood friend Kay (Shari Sebbens) they ace their audition and embark on a tour of Vietnam.
There are multiple similarities between Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires, some of them already mentioned: both are period musicals with 1960s settings, both are based on stage shows, and both feature Indigenous casts (including shared cast members Mailman and Mauboy) and directors (Wayne Blair here, with another notable Indigenous director, Samson & Delilah‘s Warwick Thornton, serving as cinematographer). While The Sapphires is more sincere and grounded than the kitschy Bran Nue Dae, it’s likewise a terrific piece of polished, mainstream liberal humanist entertainment. The film touches on serious matters such as the Stolen Generation (via Kay, who was abducted as a child and raised by a white family) and both Australian and American race relations, but it’s also consistently witty and accompanied by a buoyant soundtrack of classic soul tunes. Mailman, who provided colourful but ultimately minor support in Bran Nue Dae, does strong work as the “mama bear” of the group, nailing Gail’s accumulated street toughs but also conveying warmth and vulnerability. Likewise great is UK comedy star O’Dowd, providing much better value-add than most of the imported stars who end up headlining Australian films (looking at you Michael Vartan, Steve Railsback, Kirk Douglas, etc). Since winning a deserved Best Director AFI Award for The Sapphires, Blair has helmed a thriller with Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek, episodes of Redfern Now and Cleverman, and a much-publicised television version of Dirty Dancing, the latter suggesting he may expand on the skill set exhibited in The Sapphires as a go-to guy for jukebox screen musicals.
Next time: Down Under Flix returns to Aussiewood with two recent films by Fred Schepisi, Last Orders (2001) and Words and Pictures (2013).