Dave Holmes first came to national attention when the lifelong music obsessive took a few days off his advertising job to participate in MTVs “Wanna Be A VJ” contest in 1998. Holmes placed second, but went on to work at the network for several years, becoming a popular on-air personality. From there, he segued into acting and hosting for a number of different projects, most notably Reno 911! and FX’s DVD On TV. Holmes has also found an appreciative online audience with his writing, tweeting frequently at @daveholmes and blogging at American Aquarium Drinker. He can currently be seen in the horror-comedy Hell Baby.
Asked to choose a film everyone should see, Holmes selected Starstruck, a 1982 Australian musical directed by Gillian Armstrong—her first narrative feature after My Brilliant Career—and starring a host of new wave-era Australian musical talent. It’s a tough film to describe, but it revolves around the oldest possible showbiz plot: A young Sydney woman named Jackie (Jo Kennedy) dreams of attaining fame and fortune as a singing star. Her dreams get an added urgency when her family’s diner, which she shares with her tagalong cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan), falls into dire financial straits. Everything around that familiar plot, however, is pretty peculiar. The film’s songs—written in part by Tim Finn of Split Enz—often have little to do with the plot. Relationships between characters are often left unclear, and the whole movie has a disarmingly free attitude about sex, including a casual attitude toward the revelation that one character is gay. It’s a true oddity, one Holmes remembered wanting to see in the 1980s, but only catching up with later.
The Dissolve: I had never heard of this film. How did you come across it?
Dave Holmes: I remember having seen a review of it on At The Movies, maybe Sneak Previews. I think it probably had a one-week run somewhere. I grew up in St. Louis, and not a whole lot makes it out there. And certainly not a lot made it out there in 1982. There wasn’t a whole lot of fringe, weird, new-wave culture. But I remember having seen just a tiny clip on Siskel & Ebert and thinking, “I’ve got to see that movie.” And then I forgot about it until I got Netflix streaming a few years ago, and all these movies I had heard about and were hidden in the back of my mind suddenly showed up on streaming. And I though, “Okay, I’ve got to see Starstruck finally.” And it was one of those late-at-night, half-drunk viewings, and I just immediately fell in love with it. It’s so unbelievably batshit right from the very beginning that it was love.
The Dissolve: It’s an odd movie—I almost wondered if I’d missed some backstory. It throws you into the middle of the action without telling you who these people are or what they want.
Holmes: Right. Exactly. Yeah, it is just completely weird. And I love that you can almost see them adopting this new-wave attitude to things like plot and songs in a musical having anything to do with what’s actually going on in the story, or moving the story forward. It’s like they were like, “Oh, hey, it’s 1980—we can do whatever we want. This is a new-wave musical. We can just forget all the rules.” And it’s like, well, some of the rules are actually there for a reason. If a character is going to break out into song, it should have something to do with what’s going on. But not in this movie. And it’s still super-watchable. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched it just in the last two or three years.
The Dissolve: They get to the scene where she realizes the TV host is gay, and it’s announced in the most obvious way possible, but the song they sing seems to have absolutely nothing to do with that revelation.
Holmes: Nothing. Nothing. It’s just an excuse for a ridiculous, gay, Busby Berkeley-type, Esther Williams, weird water-ballet thing. Every single thing about it is just so utterly strange that, I don’t know, I’m in love with it.
The Dissolve: The Netflix plot description describes the star, Jo Kennedy, as doing “her own new-wave singing.” New wave is one of those things where you know it when you see it, but I’ve never had the cleanest definition of what new-wave even is. Do you have an easy way to narrow it down?
Holmes: “New wave” certainly became one of those catchall terms in the early ’80s, just for anything that was a little strange. So I think the definition they ran with in this movie was just whatever they felt like. When they arrive at a club in the first five minutes of the movie, and the password is hitting yourself on the forehead—that kind of thing. Anybody can do whatever fucked-up, goofy thing they want to do, and the lyrics don’t have to mean anything. I think new wave is like what “extreme” came to mean in the ’90s, which is sort of “whatever kids are doing.”
And the bands that are considered new wave really don’t have a lot to do with one another. It’s just, you were coming out of a time of Lynyrd Skynyrd and shit like that, and then suddenly it was men wearing brooches and playing synthesizers. Depeche Mode and The Police have very little to do with each other, but they were both called new wave. It was just whatever. Weird fashion, I guess.
The Dissolve: This seems like the kind of thing that would have played on Night Flight.
Holmes: Oh, for sure.
The Dissolve: It fits into that show’s catchall, semi-underground aesthetic that, for people of a certain mindset, was super-important to discover in the 1980s.
Holmes: Oh, yeah. Having Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains be on Night Flight as often as it was was hugely important to me. And this movie absolutely would have fit right in. I wonder why it didn’t. After I saw it for maybe the fourth or fifth time, I tweeted that everyone should see it, and some Australian person I don’t know who follows me said she had seen it a drive-in movie [theater] in a double feature with The Muppet Movie. That’s perfect. And I’m furious I wasn’t there.
The Dissolve: I guess it found an audience in Australia, but never one here. Do you know anything about the stars? Have you researched it in any way?
Holmes: I have done a tiny bit of research. I know Jo Kennedy went on to do a few more movies, and she had, I think, a couple of hit songs. And Angus [Ross O’Donovan] did something recently, I want to say.
The Dissolve: Reg—Max Cullen—was just in The Great Gatsby and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Holmes: Oh, interesting. But I can see Jo Kennedy being a little bit of an Australian sensation. They do well with their weirdoes. Tim Finn did a lot of the music for this movie, and he went on to do great things that I really like. I think they take better care of their weirdoes than we do.
The Dissolve: It’s funny, too, because you get the sense of Australia being one big, small town—or certainly Sydney being one big, small town—watching that film. Jo Kennedy walking on a tightrope between two buildings is suddenly citywide news.
Holmes: Oh, of course. In fake breasts that look exactly like real breasts, so I don’t understand what was going on there. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: I could watch this movie as many times as you have, and not understand why she has the fake breasts on.
Holmes: Right. Oh, and there’s so much I don’t understand. I don’t understand what’s going on with their parents, or how Jo and Angus are related. I suppose they’re cousins? But then their parents are dating. I don’t get it. And they don’t really spend a whole lot of time trying to get you to get it. It’s just like, “Here are some people, and there they go.”
The Dissolve: I’m relieved to hear that, because I was wondering if it was just my mind not being able to follow this plot. Jackie and Angus are related in some way, but they also seem to be into each other. But Angus also seems to be gay.
Holmes: Exactly. And then he immediately falls in love with this Katy Perry woman [Kaarin Fairfax] who is chewing gum at the theater at the end. So I guess he gets a happy ending. She never gets to say a word, but they tumble down some stairs together.
The Dissolve: I looked her up, and she actually, in real life, went on to marry Paul Kelly for a few years.
Holmes: I’ll be darned.
The Dissolve: And I think she still acts, too. And I did not catch Geoffrey Rush, but apparently he’s in the film as well.
Holmes: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. He is the put-upon stage manager of the show, where she sings the old standard, “My Belief In You.” Which, what the fuck is that song, even? The lyrics are totally way too complicated, it’s anti-catchy, and yet I guess it’s supposed to be the biggest song, at the moment, in Australian history. And two seconds before she’s supposed to go out, they change the song on her, and she knows the choreography. It just doesn’t make sense. But there are a lot of movies that I watch as bad movies and have a laugh or whatever. This one, there is a lot that doesn’t work about it, but I genuinely, legitimately enjoy it. It’s a strange thing. It’s bad in a lot of ways, but I don’t hate-watch it the way I would hate-watch a bad movie. It’s not The Room.
The Dissolve: The director, Gillian Armstrong, had just done My Brilliant Career, and she went on to have a long career as a director of some very good films. And it looks great. The DVD transfer could be a little sharper, but all those shots of the Sydney Harbor at sunset were fantastic. It gives you a sense of a time and place, a feeling of what Sydney in 1982 felt like.
Holmes: I think what I really love about it is that it does embody a spirit. There really is a new-wave spirit to it. You can tell that it’s a bunch of young people, and that the rules of pop culture were changing, and they just wanted to make something. I just feel like they wanted to make something joyful, so they did. There’s a real experimental spirit to it. It’s heartwarming, in a way.
The Dissolve: There are parts of it when the band goes nuts in the studio, and it feels like they’re trying to do A Hard Day’s Night filtered through early MTV.
Holmes: Oh God, I had forgotten about the “I’m gonna trust him with my future” song [“Body And Soul”]. I really love that in the moments when it becomes a musical and everybody’s dancing together, they’re dancing and singing these songs that have horrendous lyrics that don’t make any sense at all. So we’re supposed to believe that this café full of old people are singing “I’m gonna trust him with my future.” And who is “him”? Who is “he”? There is no “he.”
The Dissolve: Speaking of that café, much of the plot involves the classic musical setup of putting on a big show to save a struggling business, but the café is one of the least-appealing places I can think of to dine. It’s just this sad, over-lit diner.
Holmes: It’s poorly laid out. It’s a weird place that, by the way, seems to be pretty much packed, so I don’t know what the problem is. I am utterly charmed by—I guess she’s their grandmother? Whoever the old woman is who runs out onstage to give her a purse. Also, in the middle of it, there is this song and dance number called “I Want To Live In A House” that is legitimately some of the best choreography I’ve ever seen in any movie. So just when the movie becomes so ludicrous and incomprehensible and ridiculous, all of a sudden there’s this legitimately great number that Angus sings with the band. I truly think it’s incredible choreography, and it’s a song that has not dislodged itself from my brain since the first time I saw it. Just when you think you have this movie figured out, it actually gets really good on you, briefly.
The Dissolve: Do you know if it’s had any afterlife in Australia, beyond people remembering it from drive-ins? Or is has it been forgotten there, as well?
Holmes: I feel like it’s been forgotten, which is a shame, because if there were ever a movie that needed a cult following, it’s this one. Let’s start it. Let’s start a cult following today.
The Dissolve: The attitude toward sexuality is interesting. It seems very casual about Jackie sleeping with different men, and the TV presenter being gay is presented with a shrug.
Holmes: Right. They’re pretty progressive, those Australians. They were ripping up the rulebook in every way. I mean, that gay party is one that—I think if I had seen that at 10, or however old I was when this movie came out, I would have just exploded. That’s a hot gay party that I have really spent my whole life looking for, and never found.
The Dissolve: It’s also not subliminally gay. It’s just outwardly, aggressively gay.
Holmes: Yeah, it’s the gayest.
The Dissolve: At a time when The Village People were having heterosexual fantasies in their films.
Holmes: Right. Which, I mean, Can’t Stop The Music, that would be my ideal double feature—another super-joyful movie where it’s like, “Hey, the ’80s are here, and we’re going to do things like you’ve never seen before!” Like, just incredible, misplaced hopefulness at the beginning of what turned out to be a pretty grim decade.
The Dissolve: Yaz has a song called “Goodbye ’70s” where the sentiment is basically “Oh, the 1970s are over and it’s going to be our decade.” And it’s like, “No, it’s not. It’s going to be worse. You’re going to be nostalgic for the 1970s pretty soon.”
Holmes: Yeah. And oh God, especially in Can’t Stop The Music, they make such a big deal about, “There’s going to be stuff coming in the ’80s that you won’t even, you can’t even imagine what’s going to happen in the ’80s!” And it’s like, “Oh, God, neither can you guys. Gay people do not have the best decade.” But, yeah, I could watch Can’t Stop The Music pretty much any day.
The Dissolve: Does anything else stick out to you about Starstruck?
Holmes: There’s a line from one of the songs that Jackie and Angus sing in their bedroom while she’s surfing on an ironing board that says, “There’s a brand new way to be Quasimodo.” That, to me, really sums up the movie, because what the fuck are you talking about? But she sells it. I’ll be damned if she doesn’t sell it.
The Dissolve: Where do you see the influence of that era these days? Or, what got lost when new wave faded?
Holmes: I think we lost a bit of exuberance. Everything is so reflexively snarky and cynical these days. And a movie like this is totally sincere. Completely batshit, but totally sincere. And I miss that kind of thing. I don’t think you could do a movie like that these days without winking at it a little bit, hedging your bets and saying, “Okay, we all get that this is ridiculous, but go with us.” Everything has to be delivered with a little wink, and this was not. They just put it out there, which I admire.