10 Aussie ‘80s Films That Attempted to Jazz Up Things with an Inappropriate Rock Soundtrack

December 30, 2019
The 1980s were a great decade for many in Australian cinema – tax lawyers, production designers who specialised in historical re-enactments, Nique Needles fans. Most of all, it was the heyday for people who liked local films stuffed with inappropriate rock songs.

Saturday Night Fever showed how beneficial a hit soundtrack could be for a movie – Australian producers followed suit, plastering their output with tracks aimed firmly at the Countdown audience. Sometimes this worked out well. Other times, not so much.

Stephen Vagg came up with his top ten from this nutty decade. (Note: this list is not meant to be exhaustive, so back off, Dogs in Space fans.)

1) Ginger Meggs (1982)

I can understand the logic – just. “We’ve got a beloved old time-y comic book to adapt but we want to make it appeal to the Youth of Today. So, let’s set it in what looks like the 1940s but add… rock music!!”

I remember loving the Ginger Meggs comic book as a kid, and really liking this film adaptation when I saw it at the cinema (I was slap bang in the middle of the demographic at the time) – though I didn’t enjoy it as much as Fatty Finn (1980), which I caught on VHS.

Watching Ginger Meggs today, I’m less enamoured: the cast remains impressive (the kids are great and Garry McDonald and Drew Forsythe were born to act in big screen adaptations of comic books) but the mixing of styles is just so weird – bright pop visuals, a period setting of the 1940s that feels like the 1930s, and music that mixes songs from both eras with early ‘80s rock (as Lee Gambin pointed out to me once, the lyrics spell out the subtext). Fatty Finn holds up far better. Still, your kids might like it. And it will remind viewers of a certain age of a time when Mark Spain was in every second Australian film.

A soundtrack was released.

2) The Pirate Movie (1982)

Some films you look at and just go “wow they must have had a lot of cocaine on that set”. For the record, I have never heard any story about any of the cast and crew of The Pirate Movie taking drugs… it just looks like the sort of movie where everyone did (to be fair, there’s a lot of ‘80s Australian film and TV you could say that about).

The concept of this did-I-just-see-that? classic was to take Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Pirates of Penzance, give it the rock treatment and cast then-teen idols Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins in the leads. The result is pure cinematic insanity, full of double entendres, meta commentary, half-decent dance numbers and quarter-decent new songs, sword fights, Star Wars gags, erratic acting and more camp than a later-era episode of Number 96. 10BA didn’t get much more 10BA than this – it was sold to a major US studio, cost a fortune, had a troubled production (Richard Franklin of all people was meant to direct and was replaced by Ken Annakin) and flopped at the box office… though was still more widely seen than most Oz movies.

I’ve got residual affection for this movie because I saw it on TV when I was eight, which was the perfect age as this is ideal fodder for under tens – there are pirates, bright colours, sword fights, and a lot of silliness. It does not hold up terribly well for anyone over ten unless you are a major, major Chris Atkins fan, but if you’re under ten, give it a shot.

There was a soundtrack album which spawned a hit (ish) song – “How Can I Live Without Her” from Atkins.

3) The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)

There’s a group of Aussie films that I would classify as “quasi-Rocky Horror Picture Show movies” – nutty genre pastiches made by film buffs keen to shove in as many cinematic influences as they can in the one running time. They would include early Jim Sharman works, Pandemonium (1987), films from the team of Chris Kiley and Barry Peak, and this movie, directed by Philippe Mora with some songs by Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink – Graham Kennedy as the Australian Prime Minister, singing from Alan Arkin, Michael Pate and Christopher Lee (Lee’s voice is superb BTW), Kate Fitzpatrick in a pie fight, a storyline that predicts The Incredibles. People have argued this was ahead of its time but no one’s exactly making stuff like it now – or, indeed, ever.

Something with this sort of storyline should have been a natural for kids but I remember not liking it when I was little – it felt too old, too serious, too dimly lit, not enough action. Watching it now, I can appreciate it a little more, but the musical element seems undercooked (it didn’t need to be a musical), and Kate Fitzpatrick feels miscast. It has its fans.

Like Pirate Movie, this was a box office disappointment that became a cult favourite and has to be seen to be believed – and also like that movie it stands as a warning to producers who want to make musicals without first testing the material via a stage version.

Soundtrack details are here.

You can see Christopher Lee sing “Name Your Poison” (probably the best moment in the movie) below.

4) Street Hero (1984)

Moving Out (1982) had been a much-acclaimed slice-of-social-realism which launched the feature careers of Vince Colosimo (star), Michael Pattinson (director) and Jan Sardi (writer). They all reunited in this bigger budgeted attempt at a broad audience picture – a  “slice-of-social-realism-with-music” type flick that was in vogue in Hollywood at the time, i.e. domestic violence victims with a dream (Flashdance, Staying Alive, Purple Rain). The big flaw of Street Hero is it goes off on a boxing subplot when it should be focused on music.

The film was packed to the brim with rock songs (music promoter Paul Dainty was executive producer) – although the musical vibe was a little old time-y: Dragon, Sharon O’Neill, Leo Sayer, Dear Enemy, Jon English, Daryl Braithwaite.

There’s a good movie in here struggling to get out but it didn’t get out. It had a high profile at the time among the Countdown viewing set, though – I remember there were ads for it everywhere.

Watch Vince bang some drums below.

5) The Coolangatta Gold (1984)

I’m in a minority here but I maintain the central dramatic situation of this movie is incredibly strong – a Cain and Abel sports story, with Nick Tate preferring son Colin Friels and ignoring his youngest, Joss McWilliam. Despite a big budget, solid cast and superb visuals, the film misfires, in part because the director fails to capture the excitement of iron men races on the big screen (to be fair, is this possible?), but mostly because the script gets distracted by subplots – McWilliams’ romance with a ballet dancer adds nothing to the central story (though it does supply a surprisingly hot sex scene), neither does his ambition to be a rock band manager and a karate champion as well as winning an iron man race. If you re-focused the love story and removed the karate and rock band stuff, I reckon you could remake this movie successfully, no kidding.

The rock band in the story includes Wilbur Wilde, who sings a version of Tim Finn’s “Fraction Too Much Friction”. Bill Conti did the score and Jon English performs on the soundtrack. The filmmakers had a lot of money to spend – check out the night club set. Ah, 10BA…

Below is a clip from the movie.

6) One Night Stand (1984)

You probably wouldn’t have heard of this movie but there was a bit of a splash when it came out because it was co-produced by Hoyts-Edgley, a short-lived production company then-flushed with funds from Man from Snowy River.

I’m not sure why they got behind this movie – the outbreak of nuclear war doesn’t exactly scream box office, and by that stage writer-director John Duigan had mostly made art house-y stuff. Maybe they figured it was a low budget risk worth taking (the bulk of the action is four people talking in the Sydney opera House… it would’ve made an ideal stage play) and the youth audience might be attracted to a story about four young adults. As box office insurance, Midnight Oil make an appearance, performing “Short Memory” at a concert – though in fairness, their music is entirely consistent with the film’s anti-nuclear theme.

The film has effective moments, particularly the end, and I always liked the throw-away mention of a previously unknown American military base on American soil being wiped out by a Russian missile. Maybe it’s unfair to put One Night Stand on this list – Midnight Oil’s appearance here feels organic. I do remember though that publicity tried to push the Midnight Oil angle a lot, as if to distract potential viewers from the nuclear war angle. It didn’t work – the public didn’t go, and the film isn’t particularly well remembered. Duigan had better luck attracting the youth market with The Year My Voice Broke (1987).

7) Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

The reputation of this movie probably lags behind the first, second and fourth films in the series, but there’s much to admire – just because a movie is on this list doesn’t mean I think it’s bad. It was more notably rock’n’roll-orientated than the other Mad Max films, with a cast including Tina Turner and Angry Anderson, and two Tina Turner songs on the soundtrack, one of which, “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, became a big hit. I do feel the addition of these pop songs dates the film more than others in the Mad Max series.

Among the feral kids on this one you can spot Justine Clarke, Rebekah Elmaloglou and Tushka Bergen!

8) Rebel (1985)

Bob Herbert’s play No Names No Pack Drill was a solid success on stage with Mel Gibson (who appeared in a surprisingly large number of plays back in the day) and Noni Hazlehurst. This version jazzes up the material with bright production design and songs. And you know something? It wasn’t a bad idea – yes, the songs are anachronistic to the period, but so was the soundtrack to Grease (1978), and Debbie Byrne is fantastic value. Imported star Matt Dillon is less good though (was no American film star available who could sing and dance?) and the film doesn’t quite work. In hindsight they would have been better off doing a straight adaptation of the play – or, if they wanted to musicalise it, do that on stage first.

Details of the soundtrack are here.

A clip from the film below.

9) Running from the Guns (1987)

Geoff Burrowes made so much money on The Man from Snowy River (1982), he decided to move into mogul territory, forming his own production company, the Burrowes Group. It turned out an eclectic range of projects: a hugely popular mini-series (ANZACS), a backstage musical/drama (Backstage, see below), a sequel to Snowy River, a modern day Snowy River (Cool Change), a gritty punk era drama (Dogs in Space)… and this movie, an attempt to make an Aussie buddy action movie. It was a box office flop and critical reaction was harsh.

There was nothing wrong with the central idea, it’s just that the execution was dodgy – the plot is both thin and needlessly complicated, the stars don’t have anything interesting to play, the action scenes are underwhelming. In an attempt to get a bit of traction the producers added a bunch of rock songs to the soundtrack from artists such as Billy Thorpe, Elton John and Dear Enemy (who pop up on a lot of ‘80s Australian film soundtracks) but no one cared. (The soundtrack is here.)

It’s got to be said, Nikki Coghill is charming – this film marked a series of beguiling performances from her in flops (All the Way, The Time Guardian, Dark Age) confirming her status as the Unluckiest Female Actor in Australian Cinema.

The complete film is below.

10) Backstage (1988)

Laura Brannigan’s musical legacy lives on in Australia in a rather odd manner – her hit song “Gloria” is the theme song for the Alan Jones radio show. She came out here in the mid ‘80s to make this musical-drama-that’s-mostly-drama, playing an American pop star who comes to Australia to appear in a play. She falls in love with a nationalistic theatre critic who then teaches her to act (!), enabling her to make success on Broadway (!!) in a production of The Seagull (!!!).

The movie’s heart lies with backstage musicals of the 1930s with its snappy theatrical producers, bitchy gossip columnists, backstage romance and contrived character development – and the filmmakers would have been better off going the whole hog and doing a full copy of such movies, packing Backstage with songs and dances and subplots but, fatally, the movie takes itself too seriously and focuses far too heavily on its star.

Brannigan is hopelessly exposed – her acting abilities are limited (to put it kindly) yet she hardly ever sings (only three songs) and is forced to do numerous scenes giving her great slabs of dialogue, even several scenes of Chekov. There’s nowhere to hide with Chekov! In hindsight, once she was cast (it’s all very well to say she shouldn’t have been cast, but finance is finance) they should’ve reworked the story accordingly, had her character appear in a musical not a stage play, cut her dialogue to the minimum, and had her sing at least eight songs. Most films on this list have too many songs – this one doesn’t have enough.

No one says many positive things about Backstage but I should add that the support cast is strong, Michael Aitkens is a solid leading man, and it has a love of theatre that is very endearing (something present in many works by producer Frank Howson).

The method used to raise finance for the movie was discussed in an episode of Four Corners and possibly led to the end of the 10BA system.

Here’s a clip of Laura Branigan singing from the film.

Information about the soundtrack is here.

If you want the whole movie, good luck getting through it, here it is.

Honourable mention: Starstruck (1982)

Few movies capture the Sydney early ‘80s pub scene – well, what I imagine it was like, I’m not that old – better than this musical comedy. I didn’t include it on my top ten basically because, like Dogs in Space (1987), the music comes out of the story and situations organically and doesn’t feel shoved in. The film’s always had a cult which has lingered on – it was adapted for stage only recently. Details for the soundtrack are here.)

Here’s the final number.

If you want to know more about these films and others of its ilk, I can’t suggest strongly enough the Oz Movies website at https://www.ozmovies.com.au/


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