Cast & Crew
A woman attempts to become a big singer with the help of her friends.
Mark Van Buuren
As part of the Australian New Wave of filmmakers and actors to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Armstrong was eager to prove her versatility. So while she waited for the right second script to come along, she went back to happily making documentaries (she'd already made several). Then she heard about a film that two producers, David Elfick and Richard Brennan, were trying to get made. She got hold of the script and was taken with its offbeat, spirited tone, and its story that called for many full-fledged musical numbers. Thus was born her second feature, Starstruck (1982).
The story was an age-old "let's put on a show!" tale straight out of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but with a 1980s twist, about two kids who try to save their mother's pub by going for the big time. The characters are 18-year-old Jackie (Jo Kennedy), and her 14-year-old cousin Angus (Ross O'Donovan). Both were unknowns, and were cast after what the production notes called "the most extensive talent search ever conducted in Australia."
The cast underwent two months of vigorous rehearsal, with voice, singing and dance training -- and in the case of Jo Kennedy, tightrope-walking as preparation for one particular scene. Armstrong found that the intense dance rehearsals helped unite the cast in such a positive way that she went on to incorporate dancing into her future films' rehearsals, even if those films didn't call for dancing. "[It's] one of my biggest tips in filmmaking," she later said. "Dancing is the most fantastic way of bringing actors together... Before we started shooting there were a number of actors and extras who learned dances twice a week for two months. In that instance, the group of people in the bar in Starstruck were so relaxed they felt they had known each other for a long time. It was fantastic and I think it really helped the film."
Starstruck shot for ten weeks all over Sydney, showing off many of the city's beauties. Armstrong and her cinematographer Russell Boyd had fun with the throwback musical sequences, in some cases imitating 1930s Busby Berkeley camera angles, and incorporating an all-male parody of an Esther Williams water ballet. That combined with Luciana Arrighi's flamboyantly funny new-wave costumes helped result in a lively, colorful-looking movie. Arrighi would soon transition to become an art director and would win an Oscar for her work on Howards End (1992).
Starstruck earned $1.5 million in Australia (which wasn't bad), but very little in America, where it had trouble landing many screens. Critics were generally positive, however, with many noting the influence of classic backstage musicals and also comparing it to A Hard Day's Night (1964) in tone and spirit. The Los Angeles Times called it "a radiant surprise," and The Hollywood Reporter declared, "it dazzles... Congenial and sparkling and vastly entertaining."
The New York Times called it "silly through and through, but it's also full of happy, musical surprises." The paper specifically praised the costumes and "masterful decor," singling out set decorator Brian Thomson: "It is Mr. Thomson, presumably, who was responsible for giving Jackie an inflatable sandbox in her beach-wallpapered bedroom, or for giving her little cousin Angus Elvis Presley bedsheets."
Armstrong later semi-joked that when Starstruck came out, the same people who had tried to label her as merely a director of "women achievers" now said, "Oh, now she's done this film with another redhead; she only likes redheads who are trying to achieve." But Armstrong did succeed in continuing to prove her versatility; her next feature was the studio production Mrs. Soffel (1984), starring Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton.
Look for Geoffrey Rush in one of his earliest appearances, as a floor manager.
By Jeremy Arnold
Michaela Boland and Michael Bodey, Aussiewood
Raffaele Caputo and Geoff Burton, Second Take: Australian Film-makers Talk
Peter Malone, Myth and Meaning: Australian Film Directors in Their Own Words
Starstruck on DVD
Director Gillian Armstrong, her producers and cameraman participate fully in Blue Underground's thorough extras. Uninformed American fans will be surprised by the story behind a film that was practically a stylistic template for the first years of music videos on MTV -- which it predated by at least six months.
The Harbor View Hotel and bar on the Sydney waterfront is home to frustrated teenaged cousins with ambitions of glittering showbiz success. Flighty redhead Jackie Mullins (Jo Kennedy) is intent on becoming a singing sensation, while the precocious 14 year-old Angus (Ross O'Donovan) is a writer of silly lyrics and promoter extraordinaire. He shoves Jackie into the teenybopper TV show of Terry Lambert (John O'May) with a dangerous tightrope publicity stunt, and then tries to find a way to insinuate her into a gala New Year's show that promises a $25,000 main prize.
Starstruck may not be everyone's idea of hip but it expresses adolescent showbiz exuberance better than anything since the days of Richard Lester and The Beatles. It bears remembering that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney held up their often flimsy musical vehicles by sheer will and force of talent. That same spirit permeates Gillian Armstrong's film, much of which has the glow of unrepeatable magic. Young Ross O'Donovan is a powerhouse of nerve and creative ambition, and Australian punk singer Jo Kennedy completely embodies the energetically obsessed drives of a pop fanatic. If nothing else, the movie will make one's blood circulate faster just by virtue of its non-stop action: Kennedy's Jackie Mullins spends most of the film two inches off the floor, in the middle of an endless succession of teeny-bopper dance steps.
Armstrong directs her camera with visual invention to match the film's elevated design sense, showing much more versatility than her previous costume stories might suggest. The art direction, costumes and overall design are superb, from the homey-nuthouse feel of Pearl Mullins' (Margo Lee) harbor bar to the improvised glam-punk nonsense costumes worn by Jackie and her friends. Her new boyfriend Robbie (Ned Lander) has a retro Elvis look (but not the attitude) while Angus tries out a royal blue hairstyle. Costume whiz Luciana Arrighi contrives to have Jackie Mullins begin one number like Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, emerging from within a floppy-eared red kangaroo costume.
Kennedy is consistently rigged out in costumes that only someone with a really strong personality would dare wear - clownish bustiers, a bizarro stiff non-skirt that looks like a giant vinyl record. The film delights in showing adults reacting to the nutty Jackie and Angus with amused tolerance.
The film's design sense is most active in the heavily stylized musical numbers, which are fully choreographed for the camera in the style of Busby Berkeley. American musicals had deteriorated to the camp level of Grease and the disco swill of Allan Carr, which hadn't a clue as to what made a musical work beyond billboarding big stars. Starstruck conceives of each musical number as its own little universe, and choreographer David Atkins makes his non-professional dancers shine with simple motions and repeated steps that encourage body language. The camera does the rest.
Although she sings like a champ, Jo Kennedy need do little but bounce around the screen to convince us she's the most energetic thing alive. Amid all the color and enthusiasm, it's difficult not to identify with her young teen fans and bop right along with her.
Stephen MacLean's sharp dialogue finds plenty of edge in Angus' unstoppable optimism and Jackie's moody outbursts. Parents might be fooled by the PG rating, as the film has a couple of seconds of topless nudity and a few crude statements, as when Jackie observes that if guitars are phallic symbols, professional guitarists masturbate for a living. A mild gay subtext slips in when Jackie discovers that her first celebrity crush likes to party with a pool-ful of singing, dancing boyfriends.
Starstruck never generated a wide audience but has retained a steady cult appeal. I know animators and art-school types that still cherish their soundtrack albums, and Kennedy remains an exotic heartthrob. In the US the film was best known on cable television and more or less disappeared from sight in the late 1980s, along with a many other Aussie pictures that were more successful. Have you seen High Tide or The Quiet Earth lately?
Blue Underground follows up on its special edition of Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career with a fine DVD rendition of Starstruck, beautifully transferred in an enhanced 1:85 screen ratio. The image brings out much more detail than older flat transfers and the audio is available in DTS and Dolby 5.1 as well as 2.0. Disc One has a domestic trailer and one for the US campaign. There's also a helpful extra feature allowing access to individual musical scenes.
On his full-length audio commentary, producer Richard Brennan explains the film's genesis and talks at length on the state of the Australian film industry at the time. He also details a longer original cut of the picture, mentioning an earlier appearance of the Starstruck title song in a dream sequence, a couple of glimpses of which can be seen in one of the trailers.
Disc Two has input by a second producer, David Elfick, cameraman Russell Boyd and Ms. Armstrong herself. They have a jolly good time explaining how all of the elements of the film came together. Jo Kennedy and Ross O'Donovan just appeared out of the blue through auditions, a miracle in itself. The filmmakers underestimated the difficulty in finding good new music and were fortunate when a local band called The Swingers, after appearing uninterested during inquiries, came up with most of the score. Armstrong amusingly describes Kennedy as (at the time) a self-acknowledged 'fashion fascist' who thought her romantic lead Ned Lander dull and un-cool. She didn't realize what Starstruck accomplished until well after the fact.
Writer Stephen MacLean is interviewed on a Thai beach having his legs massaged as if he were a legendary talent; his attitude is hopefully an inside joke or a put-on. Along with the deadpan Australian sense of humor, some of the accented dialogue in Starstruck will be unintelligible to American ears. The only real criticism of the disc is the absence of English subtitles to follow what's being said (although there are closed captions).
The deleted and alternate scenes menu offers some contrasty work print clips, a few bits here and there that don't add up to much additional time. This 95 minute version appears to be the only official cut of Starstruck still standing.
For more information about Starstruck, visit Blue Underground. To order Starstruck, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Starstruck on DVD
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1982
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1982