This film is the closest that Australia has yet come to producing a successful high concept film. As I understand it, high concept means being able to sum up the main theme and story of the film in a single sentence. In this case it is the nineteen sixties and a talented group of indigenous sisters overcomes small town racial prejudice and successfully make it to Vietnam to sing soul music and entertain American and Australian troops.
Out of these basic elements of comedy, drama and music, director Wayne Blair has created a film that resonates strongly with audiences in Australia. It is highly amusing and entertaining despite the fact we have seen most of its storyline involving the trials and tribulations of a group of underdogs trying to make it in the world of show business, many times before. The Commitments is a previous example of this type of film. Like the characters in that film and others like it, the group/band in this film argue and bickers and almost falls apart; its members fall in and out of love with themselves and others; has a seemingly inept manager who nevertheless redeems himself by doing his best for the group, before everything is resolved happily, more or less, at the end.
Based on a play based on a true story, the film has realistic settings and strongly believable characters. Shot on locations near Albury NSW and in Ho Chi Minh City, the screenplay opens out the events of the play, commencing with a truly awful No Talent Quest at a country pub, then moving to wartime Saigon at the climax, thereby creating a realistic sense of risk and danger for the whole proceedings. It offers likable performances from two of Australia’s best known indigenous performers Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy as two of the would be soul sisters, though Chris O’Dowd’s totally laid back Irish road manager and promoter shambling his way to success, is the film’s funniest character.
Thanks presumably to the financial involvement of Newline Films and the Weinstein brothers, this relatively low budget Australian film does not look so low budget, and will assist in gaining it wider distribution in the US. In particular, the Vietnamese street scenes , which must have cost the most, give an edge to the comic conflicts, and an element of originality to some of the well worn material.
It is a few years since any Australian comedy or musical has had wide success at the Australian box office with a cross section of the local audience. The last film that seems to have achieved this was the comedy documentary Kenny, and the last musicals Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom, the latter another musical drama where an underdog makes good. While there may be no such thing as a formula for success at the Australian box office, local producers may well be forgiven for thinking they have found one