It was mid-1992. Paul Keating was the prime minister, the Queen had visited in February, the Mabo decision had just been brought down by the High Court, a federal election wasn’t too far away, and two Australians in the prime of their lives were about to make film history.
In Sydney, 29-year-old Mark Anthony Luhrmann – better known as Baz – was eagerly awaiting the August release of his first film, Strictly Ballroom, little knowing that the following year he would be stage-managing parts of Keating’s re-election campaign launch at the Bankstown Sports Club.
In Melbourne, 33-year-old Geoffrey Wright was nervously preparing the November release of his debut feature, Romper Stomper, not entirely unaware of the controversy he was about to unleash. As he now puts it, “It wasn’t our aim to cause a stir for its own sake. We wanted to tell a story about catastrophically dangerous, damaged and unfulfilled lives in the ’burbs.”
Luhrmann had grown up in Herons Creek, a small country town on NSW’s north coast, and graduated from NIDA in 1985 with a degree in acting. Along the way, he’d played small roles in A Country Practice and John Duigan’s Winter of Our Dreams and directed a few operas to considerable acclaim (most notably La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House in 1990).
Wright was born in Coburg and raised in Pascoe Vale South, both in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and completed a diploma of arts at the Swinburne Film and Television School in 1979. His graduate film there was Arrivederci Roma, a 20-minute short shot in black and white. After that, in 1989, came the mini-feature Lover Boy, with Noah Taylor, Gillian Jones and Ben Mendelsohn (who was to become the first choice for the lead in Romper Stomper until he failed the shaved-head audition – it didn’t look right on him – and was replaced by Russell Crowe).
The budding filmmakers both understood that Australia was in a state of flux. A few years earlier, in 1988, the bicentennial celebrations had brought the idea of nationhood into a sharper focus. The Hawke and Keating governments of the time had made republicanism part of official Labor Party policy, and they’d also embarked on programs designed to build wider awareness of and strengthen support for Australia’s multicultural character. Carmen Lawrence had become Australia’s first female premier in 1990, followed soon afterwards by Joan Kirner.
In 1991, after Hawke got the shove, Keating took over as prime minister, and it was far from business as usual. During the Queen’s visit to Parliament House, the new PM famously breached royal protocol by gently placing his hand on her back – as chivalrous blokes were then wont to do – inciting monarchist ire and amusement from everyone else. He also delivered a string of memorable prevarications that even managed to make politics entertaining.
The economic downturn of the time became “the recession we had to have”; asked by Opposition leader John Hewson why, if he was so confident about winning the forthcoming election, he wouldn’t call it earlier, he hilariously replied, “The answer is, mate: because I want to do you slowly.” To which Hewson graciously laughed, along with the rest of the House.
Away from Canberra, it was also a time of change. In January 1992, the first Big Day Out was held in Sydney. In July, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet won the Miles Franklin Award with its robust meditation on the Australian way. In the same month, Bananas in Pyjamas was launched on the ABC. That year artists Brett Whiteley and Sidney Nolan and photographer Max Dupain all passed away, along with expatriate songsmith Peter Allen and mining magnate Lang Hancock.
Meanwhile, John Farnham’s 25th anniversary celebration aired on Network 10, Deborah Conway won the ARIA Award for Best Female Artist on the back of her String of Pearls album, while former Neighbours star Kylie Minogue further enhanced her status as a global pop phenomenon, releasing her first greatest hits album. And in October, the Keating government awarded Yothu Yindi a $30,000 grant to travel to New York to perform at the United Nations for the launch of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People.
Australian cinema was also alive and well. Within a few years, there’d be Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (both 1994), Babe (1995), Shine (1996), and The Castle (1997). But in the meantime, 1992 saw the release of Mark Joffe’s Spotswood, a hugely enjoyable workplace comedy written by Andrew Knight and Max Dann and featuring Toni Collette in her first major role; Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, smartly written by Helen Garner; industrious maverick Paul Cox’s The Nun and the Bandit; and Brian McKenzie’s Stan and George’s New Life, a touching romantic comedy about two Melbourne lonely hearts. Not to forget two top-shelf documentaries, one made by Dennis O’Rourke (The Good Woman of Bangkok), the other by Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly (Black Harvest), bravely screened at a time long before documentaries threw off their “uncommercial” tag.
However, it was evident by the time New Year’s Eve rolled around – and it’s still true – that, at least as far as the local film business goes, Strictly Ballroom, made on a relatively low $3 million budget, and Romper Stomper, made for roughly half that, would be the films everyone remembered from 1992, albeit for very different reasons. Luhrmann’s is the kind of feel-good film that you can take your grandchildren to and feel assured that you’ll all have a grand time. Wright’s is the kind more likely to find you cowering under your seats than dancing in the aisles.
Developed from a 30-minute play that Luhrmann devised and staged at NIDA in 1984, Strictly Ballroom had been shot in May 1991, mainly in Sydney, although it ventured south for the filming of the final sequence at Melbourne’s Sports and Entertainment Centre. Set in the world of ballroom dancing, it charts the course taken by its youthful protagonist (Paul Mercurio) to find the right dance partner – played by Tara Morice, she turns out to be a young Spanish-Australian – and to win the Grand Prix at the Pan-Pacific Championships.
As Luhrmann has often pointed out, the film is a merging of the David and Goliath parable with the Cinderella fable. But it’s also a Romeo-and-Juliet story with a happy ending. Its style is distinctively Australian, its depiction of the conservative forces that threaten to keep the young lovers apart akin to Barry Humphries’ satirising of characters who have no capacity to see their absurdity or to rise above it. But it’s also, in the winning way of the classic musical, about a community finding a way of coming together.
However, at the same time as Strictly Ballroom is a familiar tale, even a modern-day fairytale, about a young rebel finding a new way – “I’m sick of dancing somebody else’s steps all of the time,” he says – it’s also an uplifting allegory about an individual taking a stand against a white, patriarchal Australia preoccupied with its Anglo-Saxon traditions.
The title refers us to the so-called right way of doing things – that which can be called “strictly ballroom” – but the rest of the film provides an irresistible illustration of how limiting such a notion can be. As Luhrmann puts it, “To me, the film is not about ballroom dancing. It’s about overcoming oppression, whatever nature that oppression takes.”
Wright’s film was shot in the depths of the winter of 1991, on gritty 16mm which was then blown up to 35mm for general release. The setting is, mostly, rundown inner-suburban Melbourne, a land of unsightly graffiti and shattered dreams. The gruelling opening sequence, in which a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads led by the charismatic Hando (Crowe) attack a group of Vietnamese kids having some innocent after-dark fun, takes place at Footscray station (which was played by the Richmond one because Footscray has no underground walkway).
It’s not hard to see why Romper Stomper became so controversial. Not unlike Justin Kurzel’s later, and even more unsettling Snowtown (2011), Romper Stomper doesn’t provide an easy guide to what we’re supposed to make of the gang members and their barbaric ways. There’s nobody around to tell us what we’re supposed to think. The film tosses us in at the deep end and invites us to sink or find a way to swim.
“This is not your country,” Hando tells the kids as his gang goes about its brutal business. One violent rampage follows another, and we don’t ever get close to the characters, although Hando’s lieutenant (Daniel Pollock, who took his life shortly before the film’s release) does seem capable of change. The film creates a depressing world in which that hardly seems possible and from which there is no emergency exit. Wright gives us the underbelly of multiculturalism, thrusting our faces in the repulsive racism that is as much a part of Australia as the optimism about the possibilities of change that pervades Strictly Ballroom.
Both perspectives remain pertinent today. In Wright’s words, “The two films don’t just reflect the zeitgeist of their times, but something that still endures, the desperate ambitions of people in the Australian ’burbs trying to control their destiny. One destiny is a dream, the other a nightmare.”
A few months before its release, Strictly Ballroom had received a rousing reception when it premiered in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes International Film Festival, had won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and was already being lauded by the critics. David Stratton was an early admirer, adopting the customary business-speak for his Variety review, where he described the film as “a bright, breezy and immensely likeable musical comedy (that) looks set to waltz away with a sizeable box office return when it opens Down Under”.
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers joined the chorus of admirers – “Luhrmann is a director with the style and snap to have these tired routines on their feet and kicking like a line of Rockettes” – as did I in my review for The Sunday Age: “Baz Luhrmann’s crowd-pleasing debut will dance its way into your heart [and] is also destined to be remembered as one of the best Australian films of the ’90s.” Well, I am sometimes right.
On the other hand, Romper Stomper hadn’t been invited to Cannes (although it was shown there at a market screening), had been pushed to the margins at Toronto – into the Midnight Madness section, alongside Man Bites Dog, the graphic Belgian serial-killer mockumentary – and wasn’t being embraced at all warmly by the critics, although it did have its admirers.
The unsigned Variety review didn’t like it at all, describing it as “A Clockwork Orange without the intellect” and labelling it as “in many ways genuinely appalling”. Declaring his discomfort with the film, Stratton refused to offer a rating in his reviewing of it with co-host Margaret Pomeranz on SBS’s The Movie Show. That abstention led to a confrontation with Wright during a cocktail party hosted by the Australian Film Commission at the Venice Film Festival, where the displeased director tossed a glass of wine over disapproving David. Being a film critic can sometimes be a risky business.
As Wright observes, the negative reactions became a publicity gift. “Alan Finney at Roadshow, who designed the PR campaign for the film, subsequently factored the hysteria into his plans, and he was right to do so.” In Rolling Stone, Travers took a different tack: “Ignore the prudes who think you shouldn’t make films about things that scare you,” he wrote. “This Aussie Reservoir Dogs opens up a brutal world that needs to be understood.” For my part, I warned that Romper Stomper is “not easy viewing”, that it’s “unlikely that anyone will mistake it for a Footscray tourist brochure”, and that “its intelligence and raw-edged stylistics make it a healthy antidote to the feel-good ‘mainstream’” – which is where one would go to find Strictly Ballroom.
The films offer competing views of how the world works, and they also competed against each other at the 1992 Australian Film Institute Awards. Luhrmann’s, which was given a 4K restoration this year by the National Film and Sound Archive and revived at Cannes and the Sydney Film Festival, was nominated for 13 and won eight (including for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay). Wright’s, which he adapted into a TV series in 2018, was nominated for nine and won three (including for Best Actor). All were thoroughly deserved.
Since 1992, the two filmmakers have continued along paths that were clearly marked out by their debuts. Luhrmann has become a jet-setting celebrity; Wright, a journeyman along the back roads. Luhrmann and his company, Bazmark, have spread their wings widely, across big-budget films (including Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and, now, Elvis), TV (The Get Down), advertising and fashion. Wright has continued along his uncompromisingly independent way with films such as Metal Skin (1994), Cherry Falls (2000) and Macbeth (2006). He’s currently working on Whispering Death, about a deaf mixed martial arts fighter seeking revenge for her sister’s murder, starring Anne Seymour, who is deaf. In his words, “It’s full-on, dude.”
But despite the contrasting directions in which their careers have taken them, history will remember them as the two Australian filmmakers who set screens alight with their 1992 debuts. Strictly Ballroom and Romper Stomper blew in on the turbulent winds of change that characterised the era and both were grappling with the turmoil, each in its own way.
Between then and now, it’s hard to find anyone who has changed their minds about what the films offer their audiences, or to identify any significant social shifts in the face Australia shows to the world. We’re still dreaming of multicultural harmony, debating whether to become a republic, and struggling with the ugly racism that remains a scar on our landscape, as well as worrying whether our former government’s strictly conservative agenda is now a thing of the past. Wright’s reflection on the subject puts it succinctly: “The films don’t just reflect the zeitgeist of decades ago. I think they’re both still in touch with something that endures in Australia.”
The restored Strictly Ballroom will screen at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, Carlton, from June 30 – July 3.
Tom Ryan was The Sunday Age film critic from 1989 to 2012. His books include Baz Luhrmann: Interviews, and he’s currently working on one about US filmmaker Alan J. Pakula.
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