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Punk Fluff With Spikes

Starstrack Directed by Gillian Armstrong At the Orson Welles

By Kathleen I. Kouril

THE film opens to the familiar beat of new wave pop and the sight (Yawn) of black vinyl spinning on a record player. But look again. What appears to be a spinning record is actually the perfect curve of a racetrack, filmed from far above, the spinning effect achieved by race cars circling in parallel formation. This cinematographic sleight-of-hand is just the first drop in a cascade of sensory jokes and puns that keep this sophisticated bit of flotsam bubbling along. The viewer can't help but go happily with the flow.

The Merlin behind the magic is Gillian Armstrong, the young Australian director who established a reputation for intelligent, graceful and feminist filmmaking with her critically acclaimed debut My Brilliant Carter. That film formed the foundation of the now-thriving Australian movie industry, along with Breaker Morant, Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

But Starstruck breaks the pattern. Armstrong has billed her latest work as "A totally different kind of Australian film," and she's no liar. She offers a precocious musical parody of quite a few of the icons of modern culture, including politicians, movie musicals, sexism in the music industry, the pretenses of bourgeous "punks," and even, egad, the current obsession with making movies about new wave musicians.

Starstruck boasts the evergreen plot of the girl next door who wants to become a star and save mom and pop's failing business at the same time. But in 1980's Sydney. Australia, the girl next door is a Toyah-coiffed punkette who's not averse to finding true love in a one-night stand, and the mom and pop business is the HarborView Motel, a working class pub with a vintage Fabulous Fifties interior that squeaks like your grandmother's plastic slipcovers.

This punkette is no Olivia Newton-John in spikes. The ingenue, Jackie Mullins, is played by a mysterious little dynamo named Jo Kennedy, who looks strikingly like Princess Di dressed by Bette Midler and has a powerful but musky soprano voice. Her hushed way of speaking is haunting as well. She leaves Ruby Keeler and all the namby-pamby ingenues before her in the dust.

Her looks are no coincidence but rather part of an elaborate send, up of what Australians love to hate-the British and the Americans. Jackie's heartless, penny-pinching pub-tending mother (Margo Lee) is a dead ringer for Margaret Thatcher. Clad in a garish polyester pants suit, she layers on the lipstick and tells Jackie, "Why don't you stop wearing those ridiculous clothes, you can't change who you are." American politicians fare no better in Armstrong's vision. One of the film's best moments features a maniacal sound booth engineer presiding over a chaotic television set and screaming. "I am in control here. I am in control."

Jackie is aided in her pursuit of stardom by her enterprising 14-year-old cousin Angus, played by Ross O'Donovan, an impish devil with Charlie Chaplin looks and an impeccable comic sense. Never to be found without his copy of Sexual Symbolism, at one point he accuses his grandmother of penis envy; his devotion to his cousin hints at the charmingly incestuous. So much for youthful innocence.

Angus has more schemes than Freddie Laker, and he decides to get publicity by strapping Jackie into a pair of enormous false breasts and getting her to walk a tightrope between two skyscrapers in the heart of Sydney's TV network district. Armstrong's comment on women and their exploitation in the entertainment world is well taken. Jackie's stunt attracts the attention of Terry Lambert, a poprock mogul, who books her and her band, the Wombats, to appear on television. His show, "Wow," is a scathing parody of Britain's "Top of the pops" an actual weekly music show that makes "American Bandstand" look positively avant garde.

THIS is a musical, so complications arise, every one an excuse for the cast to break into a Busby Berkeley-style number. Jackie shines in all of these, especially the infectiously up-beat and hummable "He's Got Body, He's Got Soul." No slouches either are the Wombatts, Jackie's back-up band, played by the real life members of The Swingers, whose anties conjure up early Beatles movies. But perhaps the best song and dance, or rather song and swim routine occurs when Jackie is invited to Tony Lambert's all male gay pool party. The result is an Esther Williams synchronized swim number composed entirely of gay men, not quite in drag, but almost.

Though intended as parody, a "piss-take" the Aussies would call it, of the old-fashioned movie musical. Starstruck is more than cotton candy. The difference lies in Armstrong's deadly satiric aim and her choice of targets. In attempting to make fun of the awkward staginess of giant musical production numbers, she produces routines which transcend that awkwardness, so that one can really imagine Julius and company breaking into song sporadically. Jo Kennedy and Ross O'Donovan play their characters not as stereotypical angry young punks, but as lonely eccentrics, breathing life into Jackie and Angus.

Runsell Boyd's cinematography puts more spin on the satire. There are none of the straight on glossy neon shots seen in most pop music films. Boyd photographs from oblique angles, drenches his scenes in sunlight and zooms in for bizarre close ups. The effect on the viewer is the visual equivalent of playing a record at the wrong speed.

By not taking itself seriously, Starstruck makes the current gult of new wave films look positively silly. From the stumbling lines and stagy acting of the Clash's Rude Boy to the slick but soulless Smithereens, the punk "message" film takes a deserved beating at the hands of its sendup. Having reached the likes of "Quincy," "60 Minutes" and Hollywood, New Wave is old hat, and somebody ought to be laughing at it.

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