Honestly, if you're not at least tempted to hum along with the cheeky refrain "There's nothing I would rather be, than to be an A-bo-rig-i-ne, and watch you take my precious land a-waaaaay" in Rachel Perkins' adaptation of the Aussie musical theater hit "Bran Nue Dae," then please proceed immediately to the nearest doctor to have your pulse checked.
Because if the ol' ticker's still ticking, it's almost impossible not to be swept up by the exuberant fun of this singing, dancing, irony-laced ode to the repression, reeducation and resistance of Australia's indigenous tribal peoples circa 1969.
Now, if that doesn't sound like a foot-tapping story, have faith, which is also a lot of what this film is about. In Perkins, an activist indigenous filmmaker in her own right, the tale is in good hands, particularly since she and playwright Reg Cribb wrote the script with the musical's central creator, Jimmy Chi.
Perkins' lively and lightly reverential touch is helped along by Geoffrey Rush as a particularly persnickety priest forever hot under that clerical collar and a talented young cast led by Jessica Mauboy (a product of "Australian Idol") and newcomer Rocky McKenzie as star-crossed teenage sweethearts.
The story of "Bran Nue Dae" (pronounced Brand New Day) begins in the ethnically diverse port town of Broome, which gave birth to the music that carries the film. Known as the "Broome sound," it's a snappy fusion of country, folk, rock and reggae. Chi, along with his band, Knuckles, wrote a collection of Broome-sound songs first for their traveling show and then for the 1990 musical. Twelve of the stage production's 26 songs made it into the film.
As the film opens, Willie (McKenzie), a promising teenager, is about to be shipped off to Catholic boarding school in far-away Perth by his mom (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), who has visions of the priesthood for her son. But boarding school, under the rigid hand of Father Benedictus (Rush), does not suit Willie, and after a big rebellious production number, he runs away, determined to make it 3,000 miles back to Broome and Rosie (Mauboy), the love of his young life.
As is usually the case with road trips, it's as much about the journey as the destination. Willie's encounters on the run — most significantly with his long-lost Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), a roadhouse floozy (Magda Szubanski), a couple of hippies (including Aussie singing star Missy Higgins) and a traveling soccer team — provide all the fodder needed to explore the tensions between race, culture and class in the Aussie hinterlands.
Meanwhile, back in Broome, Rosie has fallen under the spell of a local rocker, a white Elvis look-alike named Lester (Dan Sultan), and spends her time singing at a roadhouse and dreaming of stardom. That teenage search for identity set to a pulsing beat, which has helped fuel the "High School Musical" and "Glee" craze here, is not only part of the appeal of the film, but it also helps keep things moving along when the narrative wobbles.
As much as "Bran Nue Dae" is Willie's coming-of-age story, religion — from its strictures to its saving graces — is at the heart of things too. It begins with Willie's mother, Teresa, a single mom struggling to build a better future for her son and counting on her faith and the church choir — led by Pastor Flakkon (musician and Broome native Stephen Baamba Albert) — to get her through.
Along with acclaimed cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose Oscar-winning work includes "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Perkins has given the film a warm, summery glow. And with Stephen Page, longtime artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, as choreographer, Willie and the rest of the cast are kicking up dust at every turn. Which, if you think about it, is really what a joyous musical about ethnic identity and rebellion should be about — kicking up dust and singing.