VCA Digital Archive: the Aussie musical short film

Still from Sweet Dreaming, by Katherine Escane. 2016.
Still from Sweet Dreaming, by Katherine Escane. 2016.

The VCA Digital Archive is a living audiovisual record of student films that date back to 1966. The articles in this series respond thematically to the depth and breadth of the collection, which will be available for research from mid-2019. Enjoy!

By Ryan Smedley

Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical, based on the classic 1994 Australian film, premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company in late 2017, had a sell-out season, earned positive critical reviews, and has since moved to Melbourne to begin a new season. New Australian musicals rarely attain this kind of enormous success. Why? In Australia, we have a habit of laughing at ourselves, and not taking ourselves too seriously.

Muriel’s Wedding actually invites us to laugh at the character of Muriel, as well as sympathise with her. The show combines this desire to laugh at someone with unmistakably Australian traits, with an aspirational dreamer who we care for, as she fantasises of escaping Porpoise Spit. The musical form is perhaps the most appropriate method of storytelling for this character type, as it corresponds with their desire to escape; the songs suspend reality to allow the central characters to be transported to a brighter place without the burdens of their unhappiness.

What precursors are there in Australia to this monolith musical Muriel? While browsing the VCA’s Digital Archive, I was struck by the number of films containing women finding newfound confidence through song.

Titsiana Booberini. Robert Luketic. 1996. Musical Comedy.

Robert Luketic is one of the VCA’s most notable alumni. But before he made blockbusters such as Legally Blonde, he created a gem of a graduating film called Titsiana Booberini (1996) that got screened at international film festivals and brought him considerable acclaim. There are some familiar faces in Titsiana. In fact, Roz Hammond and Sophie Lee appeared in the film version of Muriel’s Wedding only a couple of years earlier, in 1994.

Working in a supermarket (at a Franklin’s no less. “No Frills”? Now there’s a 90s throwback), Titsiana is disliked by her colleagues, has a crush on her supervisor and dreams of escaping from her dead-end job. Every time she breaks into song, customers and colleagues join her in stylised choreography and harmonies, as she dreams of her “someone special”.

The film has an undeniable charm, bolstered by very strong performances. It employs a film grain technique along with a colour filter to imitate the glamour of old Hollywood films. Like Muriel, Titsiana is clearly an outsider, and by the end of the film, she has developed into a more confident version of herself.

But it is also very much of its time. Titsiana, having been introduced to some beauty products while stacking shelves, undergoes a transformation – bold makeup, flashy hair, and the removal of her moustache. She proclaims in the finale:

No more of being timid 

‘Cause I set myself free 

I’m gonna shine 

I’ve got my pride.

She gains her self-confidence not through retaining her individuality, but by having a makeover. The film has its tongue placed firmly in its cheek at least, meaning it’s up to the audience to decide how seriously we should take it.

The Great Pretender. Kate Begley. 1999. Comedy.

The Great Pretender, written and directed by Kate Begley in 1999, follows Laura, a lonely high-school student having a poor time at a school dance. The cast mimes along to jazz standards from the mid-20th century, such as Everybody Loves a Lover and White Sports Coat.

It’s very amusing watching these young bubbly high school students open their mouths and hearing Nina Simone’s earthy tones emerge. Laura’s fantasy sequences involve stylised choreography from the chorus too, but in this film she is out of step with everyone else, standing on the sidelines crooning Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

Laura, having done her research, decides to purchase breast padding to quell her anxiety and blend in with her peers. In the film’s climax, after her dance partner realises and exclaims publicly that Laura has “Falsies!”, she simply smiles, and breaks into singing and dancing to the song The Great Pretender. This time, the chorus joins her choreography as she leads the dance.

This represents an advance since the previous film: Laura gains her confidence after she accepts what makes her different, and realises that changing herself to fit in with the other girls is unnecessary. She embraces her individuality.

With a relatively minimalistic production design compared to many other musicals, the point is well-made in a delightful way.

Sweet Dreaming. Katherine Escane. 2016. Musical.

Sweet Dreaming is another female-centric film produced far more recently, written and directed by Katie Escane in 2016. It is set in the titular sweet shop where the owner, Penny, receives advice from her customers on a business dilemma, while she also contemplates a budding romance with her female business partner, Charlie.

This film has an original score with upbeat songs and ballads that were recorded with 18 musicians. The juxtaposition of a lesbian romance set against the backdrop of a vintage 1950s setting creates a layer of surreality in the piece. It certainly took a long time after the 1950s before the hetero-normativity of musical theatre began to be challenged with stories like this one.

Despite some of the vocals sounding a bit under-rehearsed, the film is enjoyable to watch for its sheer ambition. Perhaps future musicals, or musical short films, could go further in their representations of characters with more diverse sexual identities?

We already have Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway; maybe there are future Australian musicals that could explore such topics too? Certainly, the implied decision in Sweet Dreaming of Penny choosing to accept her sexuality is another example of a female character claiming her individuality as a source of dignity and pride.

Muriel transforms her state of mind rather than transforming her personality. She’s a dag at the start of the musical, and a dag at the end of the musical. She’s just happy to be herself. This is a value and a theme that can gladly underlie new musical theatre in this country.

And fortunately, institutions like the VCA continue to stride forward with creating new musical theatre in the form of short films – a medium that students of VCA Film and Television continue to explore and develop.

Ryan Smedley is a performer, writer, budding archivist and music theatre historian based in Melbourne. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Music Theatre) from Federation University Australia, and is nearing completion on a Masters of Information Management from RMIT University. Ryan’s original musical cabaret, ‘The Aspie Hour’, has played to sell-out crowds in Melbourne, and recently won the Green Room Award for Best Writing in a Cabaret. He is passionate about the creation and the preservation of original Australian musical theatre.

The VCA Digital Archive series of articles was commissioned as part of a grant from the University of Melbourne, Student Services Amenities Fee. University of Melbourne staff and students and some industry people dipped into the FTV archive and watched films based on themes. The idea was to use the archive as stimulus to curate and create. Some responses are completely creative, others are reviews, others are word art pieces.

The full collection is available for research.