Set in 1969 Western Australia, it’s the story of Willy (Rocky McKenzie), an Aboriginal lad whose mum has this idea that he’s going to make something of his life — become a priest. That’s why she sends him to boarding school in far off Perth. The German-accented headmaster, Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush, a hoot), agrees.
But back in Broome, Willy has other thoughts — impure thoughts. Mostly about Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), his sexy, curvy not-quite-girlfriend. Willy is just about to get up the nerve to act on his impulses when A) she is seduced by a guitar player into a lead singing gig in a bar band and B) Willy’s shipped back to school.
We’ve tasted a little sample of the music of this world up til now — a hearty hymn in church, a little dirty dancing and honky tonk crooning. But it’s only when we check in on the stern surroundings of school that the magical realism kicks in. When they aren’t being paddled as punishment, the boys are facing racial condescension from Father Benedictus and his staff. And they’ve had enough.
“There’s nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine,” they sing and dance. And that’s Willy cue to run away, back to Broome and home and Rosie.
Director Rachel Jenkins opens up this 1990 Aussie stage musical sensation when she takes it on the road. Willy stumbles across a hobo who happens to be his Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), who sings a little country blues (he sounds like Merle Haggard) — “Listen to the news, talkn’ ’bout the blues of our people.’”
Tadpole introduces Willy to traveling on the bum — conning their way cross country with a couple of unsuspecting hippies, who do a folk-flavored number or two.
Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” cinematographer gives this journey a glossy sheen — glorious, gaudy moonlit nights in between golden sun-burnt days.
McKenzie’s an appealing lead and sets off tentative sparks with the sultry Mauboy. Dingo and a way over-the-top Rush are the comic highlights here. It’s not so much a sharp, riotously funny film as a rambling, silly one — with toe-tapping tunes (Rosie covers “Stand By Your Man”) and impishly out of place production numbers. Aboriginal football players douse themselves in paint and break into a Greek folk dance — that sort of thing.
Yeah, it probably plays better in Australia, where the very idea of a musical in this setting with this racial backdrop is a stitch. It’s a little racy for our “High School Musical” set. But “Bran Nue Dae” (say it out loud) will play anywhere fans like a musical so cute you want to pinch its cheeks.
See for Yourself
Bran Nue Dae
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Jessica Mauboy
Director: Rachel Jenkins
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
Industry rating:. PG-13 for sexual content and drug use.