1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Starstruck September 10, 2019
ackie (Jo Kennedy), the wild-haired, wildly dressed protagonist of Gillian Armstrong’s punky rock comedy Starstruck (1982), wants it all. “I want a band. I want amplifiers. I want, I want, I want,” she says early in the movie. We can’t be so sure how serious she is at first. The way Kennedy says the line — nearly toneless, slightly dejected — makes it seem like she read Grace Slick say it in Creem once and is just testing out how the
words sound in her mouth. But later, when we see Jackie perform at a neon-drenched nightclub where everyone dances synchronously, we come to a couple of conclusions. Jackie, who is a major talent, is dead serious about her desires. Her style, physical and bothered, almost, reminded me of the underrated Lene Lovich or a warmer Nina Hagen. Jackie is also probably saying that line with a hint of exhaustion only because, by now, she’s said it to herself so many times that it’s become something of a ritual. You might not be able to say you want, you want, you want with heft every time, but if you say it enough times, maybe you can speak superstardom into existence.
Starstruck is a movie that might make some of us wonder, with a dash of resentment, where this find of a movie has been all these years. Until recently, when it was re-released by Blue Underground, the film was essentially an Australian exclusive. Even then, it was an underloved exclusive — a commercial flatliner that over the years became the undervalued little sister to My Brilliant Career, Armstrong’s 1982 breakout. The feature’s undeserved tendency to slip through the cracks, though, shouldn’t be looked at as an indicator of its quality. The film has all the vim and vigor of a Hollywood Golden Age comedy musical, but it has the soundtrack to rival any underrated new wave album, and the visuals to give John Waters or Slava Tsukerman a reason to make a run for their money.
Starstruck admittedly doesn’t offer very much by way of substance. It repurposes the basic talent-show premise as seen on everything from Hairspray (1986) to Dirty Dancing (1987). In it, the 18-year-old Jackie schemes with her rascally 14-year-old cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) to get on a Corny Collins-esque TV program called “The Wow! Show.”
There’s a B plot (that inevitably becomes an A plot) involving Jackie’s family almost losing the pub it runs. But the movie is too enamored of its sounds and colors to pay too much attention to the inner-workings of its characters or the anxieties that trouble them. The ratio of plot and character development to mini music videos are about 10:1 to one. But here that isn’t such a bad thing. Whatever screenwriter Stephen MacLean gives us in narrative is crackling, bighearted — there’s enough pep here to fuel a couple more films. Kennedy and O’Donovan, who move to and from a relationship that seems by turns brother-sisterly and best friends-ish, have a heady, go-for-broke chemistry that has a Laurel and Hardy edge to it. And each one of the music sequences, which really increase around the time it seems like our heroine could actually become a star, is an unexpected tour-de-force in rainbowed, vibrating musical gusto. They’re like animated tableaux from a coloring book. There’s a joyous, infectious my-friends-and-I-made-this spirit to them, even though little about the film isn’t competently, deliberately made.
There isn’t a bad song on the soundtrack. Even without the supplementing visual cues, Starstruck is a lovably rambunctious new wave rock opera. There is one track that’s supposed to be bad; it’s also one of two ballads featured. But coming out of Kennedy’s red-lipsticked mouth, the track still commands our attention. When Jackie eventually does get on “The Wow! Show,” higher-ups strip her of her originality and try to make her into an unoriginal balladeer. What we experience should be akin to an onstage crime scene, like one of those disastrous Saturday Night Live (1975-present) performances from Ashley Simpson or Lana Del Rey.
Yet when watching Kennedy powering through the song, trying not to pick a fight with herself on stage, I thought of a different SNL moment: that fictional one in 2018’s A Star is Born where Lady Gaga sang about asses in front of millions after being unenthusiastically introduced by Alec Baldwin. According to the movie and her character’s husband, the song was a rotten fruit of a thing. And yet it was still among the movie’s most inexhaustible tracks. Called “Why’d You Do That,” it inadvertently made us want to ask the film’s writer and director, Bradley Cooper, why he’d painted the song as a bad one when it went down the ear so nicely.
It remains sort of dubious with A Star is Born whether we should like the butt song. But with Starstruck, even the lowest of musical moments are designed to be a bit fawned over. It winningly slathers on a kind of enthusiastic, childlike exuberance we can’t resist. Usually in movies, in life, less is more. But the sense of discovery that accompanies Starstruck’s fairly regular musical and visual magnificence makes us devour everything the movie has to offer as if it were a sheet cake. A-