When you think of great Aussie musicals, some key films from the 1990s and 2000s come to mind: Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, Moulin Rouge!, Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires. These films are often framed as “reviving” the musical genre for Australian audiences, due in large part to their box-office success.
While certainly fantastic films, there is actually a long history of Aussie musicals that have been popular with cinema audiences since the 1930s.
There are 73 films that have been classified as a “musical” or containing musical elements by the National Film and Sound Archive. They include comedies, children’s and animated films, dramas, revues, backstage musicals, biopics, dance films, rock musicals, soundtrack films, television musicals and live concert films.
So where to begin? These are my top five Aussie musicals you may not have heard of but should definitely try to see.
These films represent just a snapshot of the rich history of musical cinema in Australia. They demonstrate how Australian cinema responds to international trends in musical cinema production, but also how it influences and innovates in the global musical genre.
These films are hard to get a hold of and only occasionally pop up on streaming services – if at all. However, you might catch them on DVD or at your local indie film festival or retrospective (there were several screenings of Starstruck when the NFSA released a digitally restored version in 2015).
1. Funny Things Happen Down Under
Olivia Newton-John’s 1965 debut feature, Funny Things Happen Down Under, directed by Joe McCormick, was an adaptation of the Terrible Ten children’s television show from 1959–60.
It’s Christmas time in the bush and a group of country children make a plan to save their woolshed, under threat because the sheep station has to be sold.
After they accidentally turn a goat’s wool multi-coloured because it drinks a strange concoction of Christmas pudding, flowers and fizzy water, they decide to feed it to the sheep to sell rainbow-coloured wool.
While certainly of its time (there is a scene that involves yellow face), the film has some great songs by Newton-John and New Zealand singer Howard Morrison, as well as an athletic final dance number around the shed called Click Go the Shears.
Directed by Chris Lofven, the 1976 film Oz (also known as Oz: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Road Movie, or 20th Century Oz on its release in the United States) is a version of The Wizard of Oz as a rock ‘n’ roll road movie set in the Australian outback.
Dorothy (Joy Dunstan) is hitchhiking to the city to see glam rocker The Wizard. Along the way she meets brainless surfie (Bruce “Stork” Spence) – the scarecrow – a mean mechanic (Michael Carman) – the tin man – and an overly confident bikie (Gary Waddell) – the lion.
Ross Wilson, the frontman of Daddy Cool and Mondo Rock, wrote and produced Oz’s musical score. The singles Livin’ in the Land of Oz by Wilson and Beating Around the Bush by Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons were both released in 1976 from the soundtrack.
Much like motorcycle road movie Easy Rider (1970), which had become a symbol of New Hollywood, Oz made a direct appeal to young audiences and the counterculture via a compilation soundtrack of contemporary popular music.
Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck (1982) is a backstage musical set in 1980s Sydney. Barmaid Jackie (Jo Kennedy) lives above her family pub The Harbour View Hotel in The Rocks in Sydney with her mum, Nanna, cousin Angus and their pet cockatoo.
Jackie dreams of being a star, falls for a guitarist and joins a band called The Wombats so they can enter a TV talent competition.
There’s also a fabulously camp Busby Berkeley-eque rooftop swimming pool number complete with co-ordinated lifeguards in speedos.
4. Dogs in Space
Rather than a traditional musical, Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space (1986) is set in the underground punk scene in late 1970s Melbourne. It follows rocker Sammy (played by Aussie icon Michael Hutchence) through performing, partying, falling in love – and taking lots and lots of drugs.
The film has some amazing cinematography with winding long takes of the cast at their crammed inner-city terrace house as it gets progressively trashed by party after party.
Sammy’s love story with girlfriend Anna (Saskia Post) ends in tragedy and the final song, Rooms for the Memory, effectively uses Hutchence’s brooding star presence and vocals to great effect.
5. One Night the Moon
Based on true events from 1932, One Night the Moon (2001), written by First Nations director Rachel Perkins, features Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly as the father of a girl (played by Memphis Kelly, his real daughter) who goes missing in the outback.
The girl’s mother (played by Kelly’s then wife and Memphis’ mother, Kaarin Fairfax) wants to employ an Aboriginal tracker (Kelton Pell) to help find the girl. Her father refuses, thus sealing the fate of his daughter through his prejudice.
With haunting songwriting and sweeping shots of the unforgiving landscape, this is a beautiful and moving story.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Phoebe Macrossan, University of the Sunshine Coast.
Phoebe Macrossan received funding from the University of the Sunshine Coast and assistance from the National Film and Sound Archive and the Australian Film Institute Research Collection for this research.