The other day I was recalling the appearance of Hey Dad…!’s Robert Hughes in a television advertisement for toilet paper, which was filmed at the men’s lavatory in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House. Happily for me, this then caused my thoughts to turn not to the imbroglio that Hughes is currently smack in the centre of but, rather, to 1982 Australian ‘comedy musical’ Starstruck, critically important scenes of which also take place under the giant imitation sails.
Immediately upon its release, Starstruck seized my imagination, despite, or because of, the fact that its plot is tiny. Jackie (Jo Kennedy), an eighteen-year-old barmaid with fiery red hair and unconventional taste in dress, wants to be a pop star, and her cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan), a fourteen-year-old would-be manager, wants only to make her one. Jackie and Angus reside in a pub called the Harbourview Hotel (it is still there, so do bother looking for it) in The Rocks that is on such prime real estate that I doubt they could ever have had living quarters that exceeded it, no matter how much fame and fortune we can assume their characters acquire after the film’s end.
The action includes Angus masterminding Jackie’s involvement in a tightrope-walking stunt that makes the front page of an afternoon tabloid; Jackie then performing below expectations in a spot on television’s The Wow! Show, which is supposed to hold its young audience in a Countdown-like thrall but which resembles a strange, if enticing, hybrid of The Mike Walsh Show and Safeway New Faces; and Angus coming to manhood by lengthily making out with an ice cream vendor (a wordless but sparky Kaarin Fairfax, pre her long relationship with ‘Australia’s Bard’, Paul Kelly).
All this is without even mentioning the way in which The Swingers pop up out of nowhere a couple of times to perform. This was, of course, decades before Phil Judd’s recent disgrace, but even back in the autumn and winter of 1982, ‘Counting the Beat’ seemed a long time ago. (It always strikes an awkward note when, for the sake of convenience, a film or TV show has to present a musical act as being more popular than it is; as with the generally brilliant show Paper Dolls, the writers of which expected us to believe that an arrogant teen model at the top of her game was crazy for John Waite, both the man and his music.)
Starstruck seemed to be everywhere in 1982, an example of how if something gets a lot of publicity, you assume it must be a massive success. Its hit single, ‘Body and Soul’, was all over the radio, giving us some much-needed breathing space from Quarterflash; and Ross O’Donovan and, in particular, Jo Kennedy, cropped up in many places. They co-hosted Countdown one night, having to – embarrassingly for them, I’m sure – pretend that they were their characters from the movie. Kennedy, in fact, always seemed to be doing Starstruck publicity only under sufferance, whether appearing on WROK Rock (a music show on Channel Ten that was simulcast with 2SM; the theme song exhorted you to ‘listen to our picture show on TV and your radio’, meaning that you could turn your television down and instead listen to the program on an AM station through a tinny transistor); or talking to – an, as ever, slightly mystified – Donnie Sutherland on Sounds, on an episode of the show that, for some reason, came to the viewer directly from Sydney’s Luna Park. Kennedy was being interviewed on the roller-coaster, by her own request, and talked as much as Sutherland would permit about her punk band, Some Enchanted Earwig.
Anyhow, Starstruck’s big finish concerns Jackie and her band, in a feat again engineered by the warlockishly inventive Angus, crashing a New Year’s Eve talent show at the Sydney Opera House, which Jackie, rightly, wins. Career-boosting properties of this victory aside, she can now save the pub, which is under threat from the evil brewery (personified by Brian Blain, who played kindly outer-suburban mogul Gordon Hamilton in Sons and Daughters). Jackie is presented with one of those monster-proportioned cheques, something for which I have always lusted, and announces that it’s a gift to the Harbourview from her, although, now that I think about it, this was hard cheese on the other members of the band.
In any case, this sequence was actually filmed at the Seymour Centre rather than the Opera House, but the most salient fact for me is that in 1984 I happened to meet several teenagers who’d been extras in the Starstruck finale. They weren’t even impressed by the fact they had done this; I, on the other hand, would have given anything to have been in their sandshoes. The only time I’d ever been an extra was when I’d pretended to be in the audience of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus in a scene from the film Molly, which featured a singing dog of fleeting celebrity. Amazingly, I’ve never seen Molly, although now I wish I had, having just read in David Stratton’s The Avocado Plantation that ‘Garry McDonald plays the villain in a variety of disguises (including circus clown and nun) and gives such an intense performance that at times it seems as if he is in a horror film, not a children’s picture’ and that even its executive producer has characterised the film as ‘a hideous mess’.
What has always made me feel most melancholy when thinking about Starstruck, aside from the fact that I don’t meet nearly enough people who appreciate it as I feel it deserves to be appreciated – or who, for that matter, have even seen it – is the degree to which Jo Kennedy and Ross O’Donovan have now disappeared from front of stage. Kennedy did maintain a reasonably consistent presence as an actor and singer through the eighties, when she, completely unsurprisingly, given her ‘alternative’ aspirations, played a junkie at least once (in Wrong World) and, more unsurprisingly still, starred opposite Nique Needles (in Tender Hooks). I urge anyone who is interested to go to YouTube and view the video of Kennedy’s 1986 single ‘Is That Me?’, which seems to be an attack on media notions of femininity and in which she comprehensively proves the undanceability of her own song. Ross O’Donovan, on the other hand, has only two credits other than Starstruck, one of which was as ‘Strapper’ in Phar Lap. In fact, the last I heard of him was, with savage irony, someone telling me they’d seen him working as an usher at the Valhalla Glebe cinema.
And, even putting Jo and Ross to one side for the moment, whatever happened to the Australian rock movie musical? If there’s one thing I like to see, it’s an onslaught of glitter mixed with the commonplace, as realised spectacularly not only in Starstruck but in 1976’s Oz, in which flamboyant clothier Glin, The Good Fairy, gives the be-lipglossed Dorothy a pair of red sparkly stack-heel sandals so that she can attend the farewell concert of rock star ‘The Wizard’, who is retiring because, as Glin notes, ‘it’s quite the thing to retire at twenty-five these days’. The Wizard manages to be even more flamboyant than Glin, ensuring that we’re off to platform boot central. For me, the magnificence of Oz is summed up by the fact that Graham Matters plays not only The Wizard but also a tram conductor. I guess that, like everything, it’s a question of money but I so wish it weren’t the case that films like these, which are daffy and also loud in volume, seem to be a thing of yesteryear.