Film Daze Recommends: Gillian Armstrong’s 80s Musical ‘Starstruck’ is a Fever Dream

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“I want, I want, I want…”

That seems to be the theme of Sydney teenager Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy), an aspiring performer. Becoming the next big thing isn’t easy — but Jackie has plenty of spunk and spirit, and catchy synth riffs and guitar licks to back her up. The 1982 musical comedy extravaganza Starstruck is an outburst of vibrant punk-rock energy, a showcase of Jackie’s voracious appetite for success and excess.

Starstruck is director Gillian Armstrong’s follow-up feature to the critically acclaimed My Brilliant Career, and while this delightfully quirky and colorful 80s period piece is vastly different from My Brilliant Career’s rural 19th-century setting, both feature brilliantly vibrant female protagonists. Armstrong has a gift for illuminating female artists in her stories, and there is no doubt that Jackie has true talent. In her first performance, she sings aglow in red lighting to a pulsating beat, putting the audience under her enchanting spell. Her music moves everyone to dance, and most importantly, she looks like she’s having the time of her life on stage as a natural-born-performer coming into her own; the camera spins 360 degrees around her, whirling and twirling as we watch her star being born.

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This performance earns Jackie a new backing band, The Wombats, a new boyfriend, Robbie (Ned Lander), and puts her well on her way to ascending to stardom, or at least to slight local notoriety. While Jackie is the soon-to-be superstar, Ross O’Donovan steals the show as her younger cousin Angus, her manager/agent/confidante/co-conspirator who tries to drum up a reputation for her and masterminds publicity stunts such as announcing she will walk a tightrope between skyscrapers in the nude. Angus tries in vain to explain the importance of elusive “star quality” to skeptical elders, and despite their family not always being receptive, he and Jackie have no qualms about committing themselves wholeheartedly what others dismiss as frivolous.

This performance earns Jackie a new backing band, The Wombats, a new boyfriend, Robbie (Ned Lander), and puts her well on her way to ascending to stardom, or at least to slight local notoriety. While Jackie is the soon-to-be superstar, Ross O’Donovan steals the show as her younger cousin Angus, her manager/agent/confidante/co-conspirator who tries to drum up a reputation for her and masterminds publicity stunts such as announcing she will walk a tightrope between skyscrapers in the nude. Angus tries in vain to explain the importance of elusive “star quality” to skeptical elders, and despite their family not always being receptive, he and Jackie have no qualms about committing themselves wholeheartedly what others dismiss as frivolous.

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It’s impossible not to fall in love with these charmers, who learn how to let loose and let out their inner wild animals, causing our hearts and eardrums to pound amidst the sea of rockstar antics and frantic music performances. The screenplay was written by Stephen Maclean, who worked as a child actor; Armstrong’s energetic direction and production design by Brian Thomson (who worked on The Rocky Horror Picture Show) perfectly capture all the wild and sequined splendor of showbiz. Songs written by Tim Finn are paired with sensuous choreography of kicklines and Busby Berkeley-like synchronized swimming. 

Starstruck is a bit of a grab-bag of visuals and ideas. It is also a bolt of lightning, a shock of electricity, a burst of bright neon — this film is an explosion of sound and color, the nightclub performers and neon lights create resplendent energy as jeering crowds demand rock n’roll. If John Waters turned new-wave or A Star is Born centered on an Australian bubblegum punk-pop star, you’d get this endlessly inventive and freewheeling madcap masterpiece.

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I don’t know why Starstruck has not amassed more of a cult following, but it is time that it gets some of the devotion it deserves. This hectic and eclectic musical is not perfectly polished; the plot is loose and sometimes downright silly in terms of what these teens get up to and get away with. But overly dreamy or not, it’s an effervescent piece of musical fantasy, and captures the sheer energy and intensity of amateur performers trying to put on a show whatever the cost. Bursting with bangers, high-rise coifs, and costumes, this film is big, bold, brash, and bouncing to its own beat. You’ll leave it humming along and feeling as if you’ve been sprinkled with glitter… which can look an awful lot like stardust.

Starstruck is available on The Criterion Channel.

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