Judge Brett Cullum still wears leg warmers. Seriously.
Our review of StarStruck (2009), published June 30th, 2010, is also available.
Jackie: I want a band. I want amplifiers. I want, I want, I want.
Starstruck is easily one of the best musicals of the '80s, but few people even know it even exists. It's a 1982 movie from Australia directed by Gillian Armstrong, who had just come off a big period piece called My Brilliant Career. You can find a standard "Mickey and Judy" plot married with a The Rocky Horror Picture Show sensibility in this New Wave fantasy. Starstruck is a whole lot of fun, and it's a joy from start to finish. Blue Underground provides us with a wonderfully realized collectors edition of an undiscovered gem from a land down under.
Facts of the Case
Jackie Mullins (Jo Kennedy) is a feisty red-headed "wanna-be" pop chanteuse who dreams of a career singing with a band. She's helped by the support of her manager, who happens to be her fourteen year-old cousin Angus (Russ O'Donovan). They live together in the Waterview Hotel and Pub in Sydney. It's a family business that neither teen wants to be trapped in forever, but they do have an unconventional and loving relationship with the relatives who live and work with them. Jackie and Angus will do anything to get noticed—tightrope walk half naked between two buildings, hijack a club's open mic night, whatever it takes to get their big break. A pop countdown show hosted by teen icon Terry Lambert (John O'May) is running a contest to perform at the Sydney Opera House on New Year's Eve with first prize netting a $25,000 grand prize. The Waterview is in trouble after someone runs off with all the money in the safe, and now the contest is Angus and Jackie's only hope to make their dreams come true and save their family. Can the two kids find a way to make it big and save their home?
Starstruck has an amazing amount of high gloss energy, and it feels like an early '80s answer to A Hard Day's Night. It perfectly captures the radiant teen energy of the era, and was in production well before MTV reared its massive head and changed the music scene forever. It glows with a hip magic that could only exist at one point in time, but its exuberance and giddy highs still work today. You can see its legacy writ large over later Australian efforts like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom, and Moulin Rouge!. American musicals had lost all their joy and innovation, relying instead on stunt-casting Olivia Newton John again, but here we have an import that signaled the legacy of the grand traditions of MGM would be carried out overseas. Busby Berkley couldn't have done it any better.
Originally the film was written by Stephen MacLean as a project for The Rocky Horror Picture Show alum "Little Nell" Campbell (also known as "Columbia," the tap dancing lover of "Eddie"). The script made the rounds of the Australian film industry, and ended up in the hands of Gillian Armstrong, who was best known for making costume dramas that would have made excellent double features with a Merchant/Ivory production. She saw a chance to make something different, and shake things up a bit. An open-call casting process resulted in the discovery of two relative unknowns in Jo Kennedy and Russ O'Donovan. Kennedy had been primarily a mainstay of the punk scene, while O'Donovan had some experience on television. None of the actors were pros, and most of them would remain unknown outside of their home country. Still, Jo Kennedy and Russ O'Donovan, along with the rest of the players, provide raw energy professionals could never hope to find. It reminded me a lot of the magic of something like Purple Rain where real actors would have killed the project. The entire show rests on the charisma and naive dreams of two kids who want to be pop idols, and you can't get that from an actor. Be on the lookout for a "blink and you miss him" appearance by Geoffery Rush (Shine), who makes his screen debut as the stage manager of the pop show.
The cast and crew had no idea what went into making a musical, and the hardest decision was to find a band that would help shape the pop songs featured in the movie. Several Australian bands tried out for the gig, including INXS and Men At Work. Ironically Gillian Armstrong and company passed on those then-unknown bands in favor of a New Wave outfit known as The Swingers. The guys in the group were quick writers who instantly won favor for their unusual take on the film's major numbers. They created a whole pack of memorable songs, like the title song "Starstruck," "Gimme Love," "Body and Soul," and "The Monkey in Me." They may have never gained the international notoriety of INXS, but their songs sound a lot like the classics of the New Wave revolution that was about to sweep across the world. Fans of '80s music will be in heaven as Starstruck moves from one giddy number to the next with synthesizers and guitars blazing.
The musical numbers are staged inventively, and rely on the energy of the performers more than their dance prowess. As the actors weren't professionals, most of them never had any formal dance training. But don't think that keeps the production numbers from being top-notch extravaganzas. There's even a pool sequence to the song "Tough" that outdoes the wretched "YMCA" number from Can't Stop the Music by being more slick and more subversively gay. And trust me, outdoing the Village People for campy excess is no small feat. The thing is Starstruck knows how to pull off large crowd dance numbers in a way that makes them fun, exciting, and fresh even today. With just some simple playful moves they capture the essence of good dancing without ever having to rely on technique or form. It looks like a ball!
Gillian Armstrong brought together some inventive designers for the physical trappings of Starstruck. Brian Thomson had done production design for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and he created a unique world full of surprising elements and textures. Starstruck looked and felt unlike anything that had come before it. Part of that unique feeling sprang out of the glorious New Wave costumes from Luciana Arrighi and Terry Ryan, which were true to the period and will have you longing for a return of the Cyndi Lauper thrift store era when girls couldn't wear enough neon. Jo Kennedy pulled off some rather daring outfits, ranging from a full red kangaroo get-up to a vinyl skirt in the shape of a record. Skinny ties, slicked pompadours, and lots of lace turn excess into an understatement of seismic proportions. The outfits and sets glitter as hard as the dance numbers.
All of these elements add up to that little something extra that makes all the difference—star quality. Starstruck recycles a tried and true musical convention with its "lets put on a show" plot and makes it all feel revolutionary and uniquely rock and roll without ever undermining the grand traditions of the movie musical. Gillian Armstrong constructs a pop confection with plenty of edge without sacrificing the inevitable smile that will creep across your face as her red-headed heroine and boy sidekick triumph with only pluck and ambition to get them by. Here is living proof that New Wave was full of energy and haphazard charm instead of soulless robotic synthesizer lines and cruelly large shoulder pads. It's a Valentine to anyone who ever actually considered getting a Flock of Seagulls hair-do, or to those who just thought it looked cool.
Blue Underground ups the ante again with a sublime treatment of this little-known cult flick that hasn't been seen in good condition since its theatrical run. VHS editions were fullscreen and hard to find; there was also a rare laserdisc edition that presented the film in widescreen but with a mono soundtrack. The transfer here looks beautiful, even though the print source still has some nicks and scratches. There is some grain, but details are startling and clear. I saw faces of dancers I had never seen before, so a lot of the murkier sequences in the clubs and at night have been enhanced. Colors are bright, and they pop when called for. The sound mix is finally a full surround mix, which helps add punch to the musical format. You can chose an aggressive 6.1 DTS track or a 5.1 Dolby EX experience. There's also a simple stereo mix as well.
Supplemental material is spread out between the main disc and an extra one. On the proper first one we have a commentary from producer Richard Brennan, theatrical trailers, and galleries. The commentary is a little dry, and seems to be not screen-specific, as many sequences pass when Richard mentions they are coming up. It is a port from a previous Australian DVD, but on the whole it's a very informative track. The trailers are a must-see, since they contain an alternate deleted sequence where the song "Starstruck" appears in a dream. The second disc features interviews with director Gillian Armstrong, producer David Elfick, and cinematographer Russell Boyd, all in a documentary called Puttin' On a Show. There is a random interview with screenwriter Stephen MacLean while he is getting his legs massaged on a beach in Thailand. Between all of these chances to hear from the major players, you get a definitive history of Starstruck. It's an embarrassment of riches. Also included are extended takes and deleted sequences. The best of the batch is the longer version of the Swingers doing "Gimme Love," where we get to see that originally the song did not start until after Jackie and Angus entered the club. That makes sense, because there is an editing mistake in the final cut where we see them dancing to the song before they reach the club.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's thick Australian accents are not helped by the absence of subtitles. There are closed captions, but I would have liked the chance to easily see exactly what the characters were saying. It's a minor quibble, but it would have been thoughtful. If there's one aspect where Starstruck may lose some viewers, it's in understanding the characters when they start using Aussie slang and thick regional accents. I certainly lost quite a few lines even with the exceptional sound transfer.
Blue Underground has made me a fan with their excellent treatment of a seminal New Wave film. Starstruck is the DVD you never thought you wanted, but is easily a must-own for kids of the '80s and champions of lively musicals. Put it in your player right after something as manufactured as Grease, and you'll realize how much a musical rests on the joy it conveys. It's one reason people love the genre so damn much. I want to know why the Australians are so good at them. Is there something in their national make-up that lends them to flights of fancy set to a good, catchy chorus? Starstruck is a delightful romp that marches to the beat of its own drummer, dresser, and dancer. It's a New Wave film with soul that will leave you smiling.
Starstruck is free to go on disturbing the peace with its wild stunts and wacky sense of fashion. The Aussies have another reason to be proud, and Blue Underground has delivered once again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Commentary by Producer Richard Brennan
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