Pauline Kael, the great American film critic, was decidedly lukewarm on Australian cinema. In an interview with Cinema Papers, she elaborated that “Most Australian films are terribly well done”, but “There is a security in a certain kind of film for an audience, and ‘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 Alvin Purple (Tim Burstall, 1973) or Turkey Shoot (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1982), but rather the period films that comprised the Australian New Wave in the public imagination, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), The Picture Show Man (John Power, 1977), The Mango Tree (Kevin James Dobson, 1977), and The Getting of Wisdom (Bruce Beresford, 1977). Of My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979), Kael called the film “very beautifully shot” and “beautifully-crafted”, but “essentially taxidermy”.1
In 1982, the same year as the Kael interview quoted above, director Gillian Armstrong’s sophomore feature Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982) traded My Brilliant Career’s big dresses for big hair, fine lace for shiny leggings, and “good housekeeping” for amiable pop-punk. This lateral move was strategic on Armstrong’s part. 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”.2 Yet while My Brilliant Career and Starstruck appear as dissimilar as apples and oranges at first glance, their wildly different costumes are cut from the same cloth. Under its finely burnished heritage film exterior, there’s a feminist restlessness to My Brilliant Career befitting its Miles Franklin source material, and Starstruck’s protagonist Jackie (played by Jo Kennedy) is similarly restless; she hungers for fame and fortune in much the same way My Brilliant Career’s Sybylla (Judy Davis) hungers for autonomy.
Jackie is an ingénue songstress who lives and works at her mother’s bar under Sydney Harbour Bridge (literally). Her scrappy, wheeler & dealer cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) has a vested interest in her success, and engineers a stunt that thrusts Jackie into the media spotlight. She comes to the attention of producer Terry (John O’May), who casts her on his talent show. However, success comes with artistic compromise and takes a toll on Jackie, her boyfriend, bandmates, and family.
Australia has produced a surprisingly solid number of movie musicals over the years, some lucrative—such as Moulin Rouge! (Baz Lurhmann, 2001), Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009), and The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012)—and some curiosities—such as the sombre One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001) and the delightful Stunt Rock (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1978)—but the genre remains something of a novelty in Antipodean cinema. In Starstruck’s musical numbers, Armstrong combines the grammar and artifice of old school Hollywood musicals with the burgeoning MTV music video aesthetic—another Australian director, Russell Mulcahy, launched that institution the previous year with his clip for The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’—but also deflates the genre’s trappings with some strategically placed home-grown dinky-ness and dorkiness. Starstruck is one of many 1980s Australian films fusing an Australian setting to a predominantly American genre—see also, at the lower end of that hierarchy, superhero musical The Return of Captain Invincible (Philippe Mora, 1983), pulp adventure Sky Pirates (Colin Eggleston, 1986), and science-fiction thriller The Time Guardian (Brian Hannant, 1987)—and there’s a strange, endearing dissonance that happen when American genre tropes brush up against Australian accents and locales (here, Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and Bondi Pavillion all figure prominently). Mercifully, Starstruck fares much better than the abovementioned titles: where those hybrid films are overall awkward, leaden affairs, Armstrong’s film is breezy, earthy and very likeable.
A key part of Starstruck’s likeability is Jackie, along with Jo Kennedy’s performance in the role. Jackie is My Brilliant Career’s Sybylla dizzy on a whole lot of sugar and red cordial, and Kennedy delivers an energetic turn as this spunky ingénue. Jackie’s a punk chick, but punk in a poppy, discotheque, Deborah Harry vein rather than, say, the Sid Vicious vein. Given the Australian context, that pop/disco leaning is not surprising: after all, Muriel’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) helped bolster ABBA’s legacy fortunes, and The Village People’s movie Can’t Stop the Music (Nancy Walker, 1980) found its greatest success down under, inspiring a scene in Starstruck—I won’t divulge, but you can’t miss it—not to mention another local comedy, You Can’t Stop the Murders (Anthony Mir, 2003), over two decades later.
Australian cinema, like any national cinema, has had its phases and crazes—the heritage film phase, the broad ocker comedy phase, the self-flagellating social realist phase, and so on—but it has always been more elastic than its greatest detractors, such as Kael, would suggest. Moreover, local directors have consistently and refreshingly zigged when expected to zag, and Starstruck, equal parts silly and sincere, remains a delightful defiance of expectations.
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Starstruck (1982 Australia 105 mins)
Prod. Co: Australian Film Commission, Palm Beach Pictures Prod: Richard Brennan, David Elfick Dir: Gillian Armstrong Scr: Stephen MacLean Phot: Russell Boyd Ed: Nicholas Beauman Prod. Des: Brian Thomson Mus: Jeff Burstin, Joe Camilleri, Tony Faehse, Paul Kelly, Sean Kelly
Cast: Jo Kennedy, Ross O’Donovan, John O’May, Margo Lee, Max Cullen, Pat Evison, Dennis Miller, Norman Erskine, Melissa Jaffer, Geoffrey Rush
- Sue Matthews, “Pauline Kael and the Australian Cinema: Interview,” Cinema Papers, October 1982, https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2017/10/12/pauline-kael-interview/ ↩
- David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry (Chippendale: Pan Macmillan, 1990), p. 147. ↩