Night We Called It a Day
Everyone in the film industry of every country is always looking for a good story to put on screen. And, whenever national film production becomes lacklustre, the cry goes up, "You can't invent a good story? Well, read the newspapers! Delve into history! That's where the greatest stories are."
The story of Frank Sinatra's Australian concerts of the '70s must have seemed like terrific material for a movie. He insulted the press. He and his cronies, blackballed by the union movement, were holed up in their hotel rooms without service or power. It's a story about celebrity, media, Australia versus America, a seachange in pop culture from the bland middle-of-the-road to harder rock.
Yet – and this is a lesson that Australian filmmakers are still learning – it is never enough to simply have an intriguing real-life incident, or even an eventful biography. There has to be a point to presenting and retelling the story. And a point is what The Night We Called It a Day so sorely lacks.
It is hard to grasp the spin that director Paul Goldman and writers Michael Thomas and Peter Clifton have put on this tale. They completely downplay the American-Australian culture clash, for example – unaccountably avoiding all reference to the Vietnam War until a fleeting glimpse, near the end, of Nixon's impeachment on television.
It seems to be a story about a celebrity's privilege versus the democratic spirit of ordinary people. But, once Bob Hawke (David Field) enters the fray, proceedings quickly devolve into undergraduate political parody. And when it comes to the ballsy journalist, Hilary (Portia De Rossi), who started the entire ruckus, the film seems eager to give credence to Sinatra's worst, most misogynistic comments about her.
Since true-life stories rarely fit formulaic movie conventions, a fiction has to be woven around the facts. Unfortunately, this fiction is pretty lame. Rod (Joel Edgerton) is a larrikin who, against all odds, wins Sinatra and keeps the show on the road. At his side is Australian cinema's favourite wide-eyed, morally pure virgin-figure, Rose Byrne (isn't she getting tired of this typecasting?). The complications here could have been derived from a mediocre '50s comedy.
The genre chosen for this project is its biggest problem. By attempting to inch towards sweet, romantic comedy, the film has to somehow come out liking everybody, giving every character a positive gloss. So even Sinatra is redeemed, thanks to his companion, Barbara (Melanie Griffith). But if he's such a great guy, after all, what the hell has the whole film been about?
There are moments in the staging and cutting when one senses Goldman's skill as a director, long nurtured in shorts and music videos. Unfortunately, as in his debut Australian Rules (2002), he needs a stronger focus on theme and overall structure. Curiously, both his features to date end in the same, limp way, with an underwhelming romantic idyll.
There is one good reason to check out The Night We Called It a Day: Dennis Hopper. He would not be many people's first choice to play Sinatra, but he turns out to be perfect. In effect, Hopper uses all the associations that have accrued to his own screen persona – all at once charming, perverse, seductive, threatening, introverted, and drop-dead cool – and translates them to the Sinatra myth.
The film never gets past Sinatra's celebrity façade – he's always saying "Ring a ding" and "Match me" – but the spectacle is still fun.
© Adrian Martin August 2003