Bran Nue Dae
Dammit, Missy. Why did you do this?!?

Theatrical Release Date: 09/24/2010
Director: Rachel Perkins
Cast: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, Missy Higgins, Geoffrey Rush, Deborah Mailman, Tom Budge, Madge Szubanksi, Ningali Lawford

I know it’s going to come as quite a shock to loyal readers and those who know me but I’m actually going to recommend that anyone thinking of watching the Australian musical sensation known as “Bran Nue Dae” stop, take a breath, and do almost anything else.

I have a fascination – nay, an obsession, with the land down under. Even before making multiple trips to the continent and being exposed to its normally charming films, I’ve always taken a shine to all things Aussie. Well, now that almost blind obedience has been shaken by a musical I fully expected to fall in love with.

Based on a popular stage musical from the early 1990s, it’s the story of Willie (Rocky McKenzie), an Aboriginal teen from Broome – a multicultural town in Western Australia. He’s in love with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), and after running away from a Catholic boarding school in Perth under the strict instruction of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush playing German), he meets a homeless Aboriginal (Ernie Dingo) and the pair set off to hitch their way back to Broome. They find transport with a couple of hippies (Tom Budge and Missy Higgins) and they sing and dance all the way back, while Benedictus makes chase to bring Willie back to school.

McKenzie had never acted before and it shows painfully. His singing voice doesn’t exactly make up for things either and pairing him up against the former Australian Idol contestant Mauboy didn’t help matters. The other actors can’t really be faulted for their insanely over-the-top performances as I’m sure it’s what director Rachel Perkins asked of them. And while her Aboriginal descent may have helped with understanding the cultural discussion on display, Perkins doesn’t seem to understand that certain exuberant approaches may work on stage but not so much on screen.

The choreography is almost childish, and it’s clear many of those involved lack the training or musical theater experience to even make it look very coordinated. Almost every song elicited a cringing response as they feel forced into the flow of the story. I’m sure it doesn’t help that the music is generally a rockabilly/folk sort of thing that still works in Australia but hasn’t quite translated to my ears but even still, the lyrics in most songs were so trivial or immature that my poor brain was screaming for me to exit the theater.

Now, I realize that some of the songs were an obvious message from the Aboriginal community; and after reading the production notes, specifically the music was a response to political protests in the 1980s. That doesn’t change the fact that trying to make this entertaining on film simply falls apart.

The film has won audience awards at two festivals (Melbourne and Toronto) so there are definitely people who get into the groove of Perkins’ adaptation. Sadly, I’m not one of them and this is one of the least enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a theater all year. This is made doubly hurtful because I’ve been listening to Missy Higgins’ music for a few years and hoped her inclusion would at least make things bearable; and while she makes things better, it’s just not enough.

I’m not even sure if I’m being too kind, mixing in my fondness for Australian products and Higgins’ voice. “Bran Nue Dae” fails to reconcile its upbeat spirit with the political/cultural undertones, makes its songs feel forced and ends up being a sloppy mess; a 1 out of 5, if you see one musical this year, DON’T let it be this one.

If you’ve got a hankering for good films set in Australia, try “Animal Kingdom“, or hit the DVD shelves for “Rabbit-Proof Fence”, “The Castle”, “The Dish”, “Chopper” – the list goes on and on … but it won’t include “Bran Nue Dae”.