As I have often, to my dismay, discovered, it is hard – if not impossible – for modern audiences to watch musicals.
No matter how great the film, the moment that a character switches from talking to singing brings on an avalanche of laughs and groans. The willing suspension of disbelief, it seems, is no longer routinely granted to this most expressive of cinematic forms.
When a film has not only songs and dances, but also a didactic political message and bursts of violent drama, you can bet your life that most contemporary viewers will spit the dummy not very long after the opening credits. This unfortunate likelihood explains the straight-to-video release in Australia of Sarafina!, a mind-boggling musical about apartheid in South Africa.
Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo) is a teenager. While she and her girlfriends dream hopelessly of glamour and celebrity, the boys in her class engage in acts of terrorist activism against white rule.
An inspirational and subversive teacher (Whoopi Goldberg) brings them all together to create and stage a school musical. More explicitly than in even old Hollywood musicals, the sequences of song function as almost desperate fantasy releases from an unbearably vicious world.
This film certainly has the courage of its melodramatic convictions. The white characters are strutting, tyrannical villains, while Whoopi and her students positively glow with righteous anger and energy.
The explicit lesson of the film is about the political awakening of Sarafina, her coming into a consciousness about harsh reality. But, as a musical, the film is also about the political power of dreams and supposedly mere entertainment.
Director Darrell James Roodt does not always seem certain about how to handle the volatile cocktail of diverse elements marshalled in Mbongeni Ngema's original stage play. But, ultimately, it's the kind of movie which transcends petty evaluations of how good or bad it may be.
By turns naïve and compelling, clumsy and poetic, Sarafina! is simply a film that must be seen – and preferably without the company of any groaning disbelievers.
MORE Roodt: Father Hood
© Adrian Martin April 1994