Bran Nue Dae
In ‘Bran Nue Dae,’ a road trip set to music
If you were underwhelmed by “Australia,’’ Baz Luhrmann’s arid, ardent tribute to the romantic epic, Aborigines, and the charismatic white people who employ them, you might have thought what I did: This movie needs a musical number. It’s possible that one reason it didn’t have one was that Luhrmann didn’t own the rights to the most apt songs. One of the country’s most popular entertainments is a show from the 1990s called “Bran Nue Dae.’’ It was set in 1969 and conceived as a celebration of Aboriginality during more than a century of government oppression. Its anthem was a tune whose chorus includes the lyric, “There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine and watch you take my precious land away.’’
Now the show is a movie of equally high-spirited cheek. The desert colors pop. The songs are catchy. The lip-synching, meanwhile, is always a little off, and the dancing is usually average at best. That homemade quality is part of the movie’s charm. Its feigned innocence makes it seem less burdened by history and anger, ready to shake them off. Really, the director Rachel Perkins wants to orchestrate a good time.
The film tells the story of Willie (Rocky McKenzie), a young Aborigine, who’s sent from his home in Broome, Western Australia, to a rural southern church. His mother (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) wants him at a better school and closer to God. He gets a lot of racial insult from the headmaster, a simpering priest, played with a stupendous lack of shame by Geoffrey Rush.
Willie escapes from his rural church school and embarks on a road trip home with two white hippies (Missy Higgins, Tom Budge) and an indigenous drunk (Ernie Dingo). Willie wants to get back to Broome and be with his lusty best friend Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), who’s just been made the singer in a band at the local soda saloon. One of the movie’s best, most rambunctious numbers is set there and features many randy men and women saying and gesturing a lot of suggestive stuff.
“Bran Nue Dae,’’ which was a huge smash in Australia, has the sloppy, exuberant absurdity of some Bollywood extravaganzas and, at a mere 80 minutes, less than half the running time and twice the dirty talk. You do miss the blinding polish of a Luhrmann. But the film does feature the sort of winking vulgarity that seems particularly Australian. In Australian comedies, no one seems to know that anything is obscene. That makes these songs extra pleasurable. The pop musician Jimmy Chi wrote them; “Bran Nue Dae’’ is based on his adolescence, and the movie owes more to the radio than the stage. When a handful of bushmen sing about “the blues of our people,’’ the blues sound a lot like vintage Peter Gabriel.
The movie concludes in an orgy of paternity gags and confessions, which is where the most interesting — albeit least convincing — political redresses occur. The filmmakers take great pride in the mixing of races, which was one of the inevitabilities Australia’s evil government programs had hoped to prevent. If only the women in the film were in on more jokes than they’re the objects of. Everyone here is a cartoon character, but the ladies are all either temptresses or lunatics. Willie is the movie’s one recognizably human character. That’s a problem, too. McKenzie had never acted before this film and, likable though he is, he’s also as inexpressive as his costars are exclamatory. He usually seems embarrassed by most of what he’s asked to do. That’s only fair, I suppose: Most of what he’s asked to react to is embarrassing. But that’s what’s called for under these silly circumstances: a professional’s imperviousness to embarrassment.