Never heard of “Brand New Day”? Join the club. Neither had I, so I had no idea what to expect. Maybe that’s just as well. This quirky, offbeat Australian musical-comedy likes to surprise. It also has a lot of energy and a pro-aboriginal theme.
Director Rachel Perkins gets her obvious passion for activism from her father, Charles Perkins, a well-known advocate for indigenous rights. “Brand New Day” was released in Australia in 2010 as “Bran Nue Dae,” adapted from a stage musical by Jimmy Chi. It was released in the U.S. later the same year and renamed for the DVD/Blu-ray release. Just 88 minutes long, “Brand New Day” still covers a lot of ground and feels honest, and not just because the people singing don’t sound as if they were hand-picked for their voices or enhanced in the studio. There’s a high-energy spontaneity and goofiness here that blends with honest emotions and some head-snapping comedic moments.
I’m not sure why it was nominated in the Best Children’s Feature Film category at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, because it got a PG-13 rating for sexual situations and drug use, and the opening tune has guys and girls singing about putting a condom on that meat before it can go into the hole. And while it failed to earn a win after six Australian Film Institute nominations, “Bran Nue Dae” did win Most Popular Feature Film at the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.
Aside from Geoffrey Rush (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The King’s Speech”), none of the cast will be familiar to American audiences. Rocky McKenzie plays Willie, an aboriginal mama’s boy with a crush on the more free-spirited Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), another aborigine living in the small coastal town of Broome. The two of them appear to have different destinies, shaped in part by their personalities. Willie will obey his mother (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) and board a bus for seminary school in the big city of Perth, and Rosie will be seduced by the chance to sing her way out of Broome by hooking up with a country-western rocker. That’s just the set-up, though. The main plot follows Willie after he leaves seminary school and tries to get to Broome before Father Benedictus (Rush), so he can properly explain to his mum. Along the way he meets a bunch of drunken hoboes and takes up with one who claims to be his uncle (Ernie Dingo as Uncle Tadpole)–yet another plot point that underscores just how turnip-truck naïve Willie is. And, since it’s 1969, he also runs into two German hippies (Tom Budge and Missy Higgins).
You never know when a song is going to break loose, and that’s part of the charm of this film. The songs themselves aren’t all that memorable, except for “Nothing I Would Rather Be [than an Aborigine],” a foot-tapping number that makes you wish you were tribal or indigenous yourself. Stylistically, though, the songs are all over the map. There’s some country-rock, some Bollywood, some bluesy jazz, and some sweet and traditional ballads, for example. It’s not your typical musical, in other words, and viewers who prefer a more cohesive soundtrack should be warned. I actually liked the unpredictability of the songs and performances, thinking that it fit right in with the whole free-and-easy tone of the film.
As for the script, it’s a pretty familiar episodic road-trip structure, however, and the coincidental and forced ending could be a dealbreaker for many people. It’s a little too kitchen-sink, with too many things thrown at you. I felt as if I were listening to the “Anvil Chorus” with deus ex machinas pounding away.
For a musical with romance at its core, “Brand New Day” features two characters who make for a sweet, but not passionately meant-to-be couple. Dingo and Rush infused their characters with more depth, and while the rest of the cast wasn’t bad, there weren’t any other standout performances besides those. Willie is also played a little too naïve and confused for my tastes, which makes him seem bland compared to the others.
Those are the film’s weaknesses, but you tend to forgive the flaws because of the high-energy innocence and optimism that this oddball comic musical exudes.
God save the Queen . . . and the aborigines!
“Brand New Day” comes to Blu-ray via an AVC-MPEG-4 transfer, and I saw no compression issues. Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, the film features as much detail in dusky outback scenes as in more colorful interiors or “hippie buses.” Edge delineation is also strong, and black levels seem sufficient except by design when exteriors demand a more rugged wasteland look.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that’s lively enough, though I wouldn’t go so far to call it a dynamic or immersive soundtrack. That’s because the rear effects speakers are fairly quiet until the musical numbers kick in.
What bonus features? All that’s here are trailers for other movies.
“Brand New Day” is a curiosity, to be sure. It will appeal to lovers of the odd, the unique, and the disenfranchised–people who love musicals so much that they’ll accept them on any terms. But “Brand New Day” is the quirkiest musical I’ve ever seen, and despite its flaws I enjoyed it.