Enjoyable and forgettable in equal measure, the lovably cheesy Australian movie Bran Nue Dae is a must for children bitten by the musical-revival fever, for all who heart American Idol, and for anyone who came of age in the late 1960s -- and is willing to hear the beloved pop standards of their youth massacred for a new age. That's mighty inclusive for a tale of Aboriginal liberation, and though Bran Nue Dae is unlikely to make quite the splash in this country that it did back home, Native Americans and African-Americans will likely also warm to a saga of repression and nascent freedom that mirrors their own to an uncanny degree.
Adapted from a hit stage musical by director Rachel Perkins (herself an Indigenous Australian) with Reg Cribb and Jimmy Chi, Bran Nue Dae owes a big formal debt to Fame and Hairspray, and more than a little of its countercultural vibe to Hair.
The plot is to be expected: Willie (Rocky McKenzie), a timid mama's boy enjoying a mostly carefree beach-bum summer of 1969 in the Western Australian town of Broome (a hub in its day for cutting-edge multi-culti bands), loves luscious high-school girlfriend Rosie (Jessica Mauboy). Rosie loves him back, but she's fed up with waiting for Willie to pry himself loose from his devout Catholic mother (Ningali Lawford-Wolf). An aspiring singer, Rosie finds herself drawn to a slick opportunist (Dan Sultan) who promises to give her career the push it needs.
Naturally, it takes a journey across Australia -- a land littered with adversity, mad hippies and a mysterious hobo (Ernie Dingo) who introduces himself as Willie's Uncle Tadpole -- to boost the lad's self-confidence and ethnic pride to the point where he can return to reclaim the beloved on his own terms.
Cheerfully transparent and broad as a six-lane highway, Bran Nue Dae is stuffed with unevenly balanced performances. The asymmetrical talents and experience of the two leads undercut their chemistry: Mauboy, an Australian Idol runner-up with a ripe body and a pleasing vocal range, is as comfortable and radiant in front of the camera as her co-star McKenzie (a basketball star who was cast after a high school audition) is awkward and ill-at-ease whenever he's not in motion.
One doesn't expect much acting as such in a musical, but Geoffrey Rush -- a performer not exactly known for his restraint -- chews on every piece of furniture in sight as a German Catholic teacher-priest bent on relieving his dark-skinned charges of their "sins of ze flesh," the better to retool them into honorary whites.
You can spot the shock he's in for lumbering down the road a mile off, but never mind. Bran Nue Dae is redeemed by its primary-colors production design and ebullient musical numbers, which hammer home the inevitable life lessons but also introduce much-needed bursts of levity, joy and satire. In one delicious scene, boys in war paint prance their way through an "Aboriginal" number on the back of a truck. It's a cheeky poke in the ribs, that dance, not just for racists but also for liberals who insist on exoticizing Aboriginal culture.
Like many of his cast, co-writer Jimmy Chi, who was prominent in the town of Broome's burgeoning music scene in the 1970s and created the stage musical with his band Kuckles, is of mixed heritage -- Bardi Aboriginal, Scottish, Chinese and Japanese. All of which surely qualifies him to propose, in the wacky but satisfying denouement to this exuberant movie, that the answer to racial discrimination all over the world lies in a lot of rainbow nookie.