Bran Nue Dae: Australian Musical Starring Geoffrey Rush

By Michael T. Dennis

“Bran Nue Dae” is much more than just an Australian answer to the American teen musical craze, headlined by “High School Musical” and “Glee.” The catchy tunes and adolescent drama act as a front for a story that explores socio-cultural circumstance and questions of home, faith, and identity.
Western Australia, circa 1969, is the appropriately-remote setting for “Bran Nue Dae,” which builds from a very specific story to a more general, meaningful allegory. Willie is a typical adolescent Aborigine, awkwardly pursuing the beautiful Rosie, while still trying to please his overbearing mother, whose religious fervor sends Willie away from his rural shack and into the big city.
He's charged with studying to become a priest, a vocation that he's not too keen on, especially given the pressure to rescue his people from poverty and establish the black man's place in a culture on the verge of racial tolerance.
Soon after arriving in the seminary, though, Willie runs away to escape the oppressive force of Father Benedictus (played with delightful cartoonish villainy by Geoffrey Rush). The rest of “Bran Nue Dae” concerns Willie's attempts to get home in time to reclaim his girl and shield his mother from the shame of having a son who's a failure.
Much of the 88-minute movie follows Willie's journey home, which takes shape as a musical adventure across the Outback. Befriended by a homeless Aborigine man and accompanied by a pair of German hippies on a spiritual quest, Willie learns about life and love just in time to apply his new knowledge of the world back home.
The music alone makes “Bran Nue Dae” worthwhile. The film is adapted from a stage musical of the same name, which premiered in Australia in the early-1990s and has since played across the country to great acclaim. This new version includes a healthy blend of original cast members along with newcomers and veteran character actors more at home on-screen than on-stage.
Director Rachel Perkins is known for her work in Aborigine cinema, but the creative force behind “Bran Nue Dae” is writer Jimmy Chi. Both the stage play and screenplay are based on Chi's boyhood experiences. He also wrote the music with his band, Kuckles. The group provides a slate of traditional Australian music that, to the American ear, sounds like a pleasant mix of bluegrass, folk and early rock & roll.
Besides an authentic sounds and catchy melodies, the songs also have a cultural awareness evident in the satirical lyrics. While some of the songs serve to pass the time or glean a character's hopes and dreams, others make the point that being an Aborigine is about a lot more than singing and dancing. There's a mature darkness beneath the bright, stylized surface that keeps “Bran Nue Dae” interesting even in its weaker moments.
The score of the stage version of three dozen songs has been pared down to an even 12, which leaves time for dialogue and visual storytelling that is thoroughly cinematic. Seldom does the movie look like filmed theater, partially owing to its location shooting in Perth, Broome and the stark Australian wilderness.
Comedy isn't the strength of “Bran Nue Dae”–the jokes beg for a better comic handling. A few scattered scenes make it difficult to distinguish between slapstick and dramatic action until a resolution comes along and clarifies the situation. But as a road movie, the characters are soon back on the move with the lessons of the last stop explained and laid to rest.
Once the road movie ends, and Willie must jump into action to put things right at home, “Bran Nue Dae” changes from a measured coming-of-age story to a trite retelling of “The Odyssey.” Willie makes a strange Odysseus, facing the trials of homecoming with a mix of adult confidence and childish pleading.
Things fall into place much too quickly, like square pegs slotting into round holes with not enough attention paid to explaining how the transformations occur. Characters from throughout the story converge at the site of a seaside church revival, and the testimony of all kinds of believers ties up loose ends.
The neat-and-tidy ending means a soft landing for a movie with a jittery narrative style and the brisk pace of a musical spectacle.  That said, “Bran Nue Dae” is a rare film that should appeal equally to musical fans as well as viewers accustomed to dialogue-driven stories.
Willie—Rocky McKenzie
Rosie—Jessica Mauboy
Uncle Tadpole—Ernie Dingo
Annie—'Missy' Higging
Father Benedictus—Geoffrey Rush
Roxanne—Deborah Mailman
Slippery—Tom Budge
Roadhouse Betty—Magda Szubanski
Robyn Kershaw Productions and Mayfan
Distributed by Freestyle Releasing
Directed by Rachel Perkins
Written by Reg Cribb, Rachel Perkins, and Jimmy Chi
Producers, Glennie Allan, Tatts Bishop, Andrea Distefano, Graeme Isaac, Robyn Kershaw, Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street, and David Whealy
Original Music, Cezary Skubiszewski
Cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie
Editor, Rochelle Oshlack
Casting, Robyn Kershaw
Production Designer, Felicity Abbott
Art Director, Sophie Nash