Review: Bran Nue Dae (2009)

Bran Nue Dae ain’t quite the Aussie answer to Tommy – even if Jimmy Chi’s bouncing baby has discarded similar placentae in its nearly three decades of development. Chi, one of several Aborigines sowing his wild oats in Broome and asked to insulate his roots with Catholicism’s electrical inflexibility (see any number of texts for historical confirmation), wrote several fun and punchy tunes about living and resisting these conditions in the early 1980s. He performed the songs with his band, Knuckles. (Regrettably, VH1 still lacks the creative vision, much less the fist, to push beyond their white bread nostalgia and commission a Behind the Music segment on Knuckles. In considering Bran Nue Dae‘s roseate production history, one wonders if there was some behind-the-scenes, bottle-smashing fracas swept beneath the rug.) By decade’s end, Chi had constructed a musical around these songs, which opened in the 1990 Perth Festival and became such a national success that Chi was given the “State Living Treasure” honor by the West Australian Government in 2006. (Why my dim nation – the You Ess of Ay, perfervid in its belief that it remains numero uno – lacks the decency to afford similar titles to its cultural wunderkinds is a topic that another rabblerouser may wish to address at length.)

Thirtysomething years ago, I did not pop out of a uterus in Australia. I have yet to set foot in that magnificent continent (and, assuming anyone is foolhardy enough to give me a boatload of cash, I certainly hope to before my inevitable arm wrestling match — nay, a knuckle-twisting contest! — with the Grim Reaper!). So I feel compelled to report that, up until now, I was entirely ignorant about Jimmy Chi and Bran Nue Dae. Indeed, had you merely given me the first word, I may very well have confused you with a General Mills representative. And had not someone had the decency to send me a press invite to Rachel Perkins’s film adaptation of Chi’s musical, I may never have known about it. Clearly, there is some ancillary kismet in getting laureled State Living Treasure. (NEA, are you listening?) I must likewise confess that, having not experienced the musical, I am probably ill equipped to deliver an appropriately comparative summation of this “film by Rachel Perkins” to its native material. (It must be noted that Perkins has co-written the screenplay with Chi and the playwright Reg Cribb.)

With that disclosure out of the way, I can report that Perkins’s film is a pleasant, if somewhat clumsy adaptation. It feels like a fey Frankenstein monster composed of random components that have been cluttering up the laboratory closet a bit too long: part musical, part road movie, part coming-of-age drama, and part social satire. To some degree, watching this film is the cinematic equivalent of a yard sale where you end up unexpectedly buying a good deal of disused goods without feeling terribly guilty. (Guilt? The reverse here is true! You’re left wondering why these dusty little bibelots have been ignored for so long and you’re grateful to know that the abandoned items are now traveling to good homes. Hell, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably buying a lot of this stuff for friends and acquaintances, volunteering to varnish or paint the rattled or pockmarked after an evening of steady scotch.)

Perhaps I felt this way because the movie is set in 1969. Perhaps I was simply in the mood for a homespun movie put together by people who obviously had a lot of fun making this movie. Perhaps my recent move from one apartment to another led me to be in close kinship to the film’s peripatetic characters. A modest rundown then of things I grooved to: I very much enjoyed Perkins’s blocking tic of having actors joyously spiraling their way around reedy support beams during musical numbers. I was astonished to learn that Jessica Mauboy, who appears here as a very pleasant romantic interest, had not acted before and I was further alarmed to discover that she was a runner-up in Australian Idol. So whoever adeptly plucked the moonfaced Mauboy from an amateur pool deserves a great pat on the back, as her girl-next-door demeanor does help to atone for Rocky McKenzie’s modest limitations.

Yes, the film rests heavily on McKenzie’s shoulders. He is not quite up to the task, but he is, after all, playing an adolescent. McKenzie plays Willie, who is diffidently attracted to Rosie (the aforepraised Mauboy). He lives in Broome. He attends Catholic boarding school and contends with Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), who has terrible plans to civilize his students. (The word “civilize” is not mentioned, but it may as well be. Rush delivers as usual, his performance reminiscent of a man who has spent several weeks rereading Kipling.) Willie stands up to this domineering docent (“Thou Shalt Not Starve Either” is Willie’s rejoinder to the prohibition placed upon Benedictus’s arsenal of Coke and Cherry Ripe bars; said snack munitions used to woo stray strangers into doing Benedictus’s bidding) through the medium of an amusing song. Soon he escapes and is on the road, and on the lam from Benedictus. Willie meets up with his Uncle Tadpole in the streets. (Yes, it’s one of those problematic coincidental run-ins. But this movie is based on a musical.) Tadpole takes the rest of Willie’s money and spends it on booze. Vaguely guilt-ridden about this, he agrees to take Willie back to Broome.

The film’s early efforts to establish Tadpole as a paternal figure (the experienced older man guiding the shy stripling) aren’t terribly successful – in part because of the contrived run-in that I mildly kvetched about in a parenthetical statement, with some understanding of the developmental Cuisinart this movie no doubt girded through. But when this dynamic duo encounters two hippies traveling through the outback in a VW bus, the film likewise hits the gas. For the two manage to take advantage of their starry-eyed sentiments to hitch a ride back home. Conflict ensues, along with the unanticipated run-ins one expects from a road movie. Aboriginal football teams, bad Chinese restaurants, an older woman fond of drink who tries to make it with Willie under a tree with inflated condoms and is chased away by her jealous man just before consummation. All photographed with splashy bright hues and directed with a sanguine disposition.

Of course, with so many characters and subplots thrown into this madcap gumbo, the film’s final moments are as cluttered as the fifth act of Cymbeline (of course, if George Bernard Shaw were to rise from the grave to rewrite Bran Nue Dae, he would be rightly labeled an imperialist). But if I’m going to nitpick a film that mostly works a pleasant diversion, I may as well spend my time condemning a bowl of jellybeans.