Skip to content

Music Movie Mondays: “Digging the dancing queen” at Muriel’s Wedding

July 5, 2010

Does anyone else think ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” is one of the saddest songs in the pop canon? Perhaps it’s the cold distance between my ears and Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad voices. Maybe it’s how the verses lean on minor chords. Assuredly it’s the desperation with which the song tries to sell its audience on a fleeting moment long since past. Whatever it is, I have a feeling writer-director PJ Hogan sensed it too when he decided to center his 1994 breakthrough Muriel’s Wedding around the Swedish band’s hits and this song in particular.

I was warned by friends that the Australian dramedy responsible for Hogan and star Toni Collette’s state-side crossover was hardly the quirky lark that distributor Miramax and filmic successors like Nia Vardalos’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding tried to represent it as being. The titular Miss Heslop is somewhat paralyzed by poor self-esteem, unable to get out of bed, much less move out of the family home in Porpoise Spit or hold down a job. She’s obsessed with the idea of marriage, but lacks the confidence to initiate any interpersonal contact.

It primarily seems that Heslop wants someone to believe in her. It doesn’t help matters that Heslop’s father is a politician who blames his failed career on his “embarrassment” of a family. She also runs with a gaggle of shallow, marriage-minded townies who were probably too cool to hang out with her in high school and later kick her out of the group for being fat and unattractive. She finds that confidence in fellow high school reject Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths), who she runs into by chance after being ejected from her old friend group during a vacation her father doesn’t realize he’s funding. Hitting it off after their reconnection, the pair move from their hometown to bustling Sydney and land boring but steady work.

Heslop changes her name to Mariel in an effort to rid herself of the chubby, ugly lowlife she thought she was back home. She also briefly dates Brice Nobes (Matt Day) but after an unfortunate comedy of errors agrees to marry Olympic swimming hopeful David Van Arkle (Daniel Lapaine) for a sizeable fee, abandoning her roommate and family. After a family tragedy and a sexual encounter with the previously disinterested Van Artkle, she discovers that she must quit pretending and try to live her life with little reliance on the fairy tale, riding off into the sunset with Epinstalk as they return to Syndey.

Going into Muriel’s Wedding, I was particularly interested in Heslop’s love of ABBA. Obviously, I have an investment in representations of female music fandom. But I was also interested in how Heslop shared ABBA with Epinstalk, as well as how the film’s cult status reinvigorated public interest in the Swedish pop group several years before Mamma Mia! made its stage or cinematic debut.

Frankly, I wish more was made of Heslop’s fandom. Beyond the band’s ubiquitous presence in the soundtrack and Heslop’s performance with Epinstalk, Heslop only mentions them directly when talking about how depressed she was back home and how their music would teleport her. Once she changes her name, she distances herself from the band as a symbol of her tragic early spinsterhood.

However, ABBA’s marginal diegetic presence is hardly as frustrating as the film’s flat and mercurial tone. Though it dealt with depression, it was marketed as a comedy. The film itself seems to struggle with what it wants to be too, often clumsily dropping in plot points like Epinstalk’s battle with cancer. It also tends to stage scenes as broad, artless slapstick, turning characters into one-dimensional vaudevillians. This is evident in the at-times misogynistic ways in which Heslop’s popular adversaries are portrayed as vapid ninnies hungry for fame and male approval. Take also Heslop’s failed date with Nobes, which ends after he mistakenly unzips the beanbag chair he believes to be her pants. Epinstalk and her two male paramours rush in. One of the two men believes Nobes is attempting to rape his companion and wrestles him to the floor. Heslop fails to help matters by finding the whole tableau uproariously funny.

It’s also a testament to Collette’s immense talent that she elicits empathy from what could have been a hopelessly frustrating character. During her elaborate hoax of a wedding, I found myself grumbling at how hollow and wasteful this sham was for all involved. Yet I also found myself rooting for Heslop to find happiness, perhaps not through finding love in a publicity stunt, but in knowing that she is actually enough. Thus the death of Heslop’s thankless mother following her father’s request for a divorce serves as a wake-up call to live for herself and refuse to let others dictate her worth.

Ultimately, Muriel’s Wedding has the happy ending its protagonist is striving toward, though I feel weird about the tragic series of events that precede it. Here’s hoping that Heslop doesn’t completely disengage with the woman she used to be. Maybe ABBA can bridge the past with the present.

Advertisements
27 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 10:24 pm

    I know a thing or two about “Dancing Queen,” as I was the house DJ for a 1970s/80s cheesy disco for a couple of years and had to (HAD TO) play it at least (AT LEAST) three times a night, every night for that time. And often more.

    The first thing about the song is that just like “I Love Rock n’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the message of the song is about a woman who is in charge of who she wants to be with and is in complete control. The one difference is in “DQ,” the woman doesn’t have a specific target; she’s just out to attract everyone she can and then check out who she hooks!

    There really aren’t that many songs that have that kind of motif, which is a definite part of the attraction of that song. Also, the song has a refrain that nails D major chords, which some psychiatrists have suggested is quite attractive to human ears. I don’t know how much Benny and Bjorn knew about the psychology of sound, but they definitely connected with that. People seemed to want to hear it over and over and over again.

    As for “Muriel’s Wedding,” I completely agree that it was, at best, a “dramedy” and certainly not a “comedy” as it was billed when it was released. Getting through to the end (which to me wasn’t even all that happy) was like making it through a prize fight. There was a lot of punishment there, for certain.

    Give me “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” every time over this!

  2. evmaroon permalink
    July 6, 2010 12:14 am

    I saw Muriel’s Wedding shortly after I saw Strictly Ballroom, and wow, was I disappointed. I mean, it just didn’t seem like they were about the same country.

    On another note, I loved that the name of Muriel’s hometown was Porpoise Spit.

  3. July 6, 2010 12:32 am

    I saw this film in the theaters the night it opened in LA. I remember being really excited about the film and the premise, but then got tired of both rather quickly. I also got tired of the press around Toni C’s chub – the weight she gained for the role – and I think the way that aspect was handled in the stateside marketing of the film greatly damped its reception. I did like the film, but I remember making a note of Rachel Griffiths, in order to avoid any more of her work. I managed to do so until Six Feet Under, where it seemed she was finally able to learn how to act, though she never managed to master an American accent.

    As for “Muriel’s Wedding,” I completely agree that it was, at best, a “dramedy” and certainly not a “comedy” as it was billed when it was released. Getting through to the end (which to me wasn’t even all that happy) was like making it through a prize fight. There was a lot of punishment there, for certain.

    Very true. The film really had some oddly timed moments and because the audience believed they were viewing a comedy, they didn’t always realize certain moments – “Muriel, my legs!” – were not being played for laughs. That made for some very awkward moments in the theater.

  4. July 6, 2010 1:27 am

    @evmaroon try adding “A Cry in the Dark” to that Ozzie film fest!

  5. July 6, 2010 1:53 am

    “A Cry in the Dark” is one of the most horrible films I’ve ever seen.

  6. evmaroon permalink
    July 6, 2010 6:19 am

    Dingo ate my baby! Dingo ate my baby!!!

  7. July 6, 2010 8:14 am

    To this day, if someone says something really hilarious and mean, I will look at them and say in a facsimile of an accent, “you’re terrible, Muriel.”

  8. July 6, 2010 9:10 am

    I first saw Muriel’s Wedding around the same time as Welcome to the Dollhouse, so they are forever associated in my mind. I’m a bigger fan of the latter.

    “Beyond the band’s ubiquitous presence in the soundtrack and Heslop’s performance with Epinstalk, Heslop only mentions them directly when talking about how depressed she was back home and how their music would teleport her. “

    ABBA functioned more as sonic wallpaper (sorry, this is the best phrase I can come up with at 9 AM), just sort of lurking in the background. It made for an interesting soundtrack, I guess, in comparison to the harder rock that made up most 90s movie soundtracks, but yeah, more could have been explored here.

  9. July 6, 2010 9:18 am

    To this day, if someone says something really hilarious and mean, I will look at them and say in a facsimile of an accent, “you’re terrible, Muriel.”

    Ha! I think La Mommie has done that too.

  10. July 6, 2010 9:20 am

    I first saw Muriel’s Wedding around the same time as Welcome to the Dollhouse, so they are forever associated in my mind. I’m a bigger fan of the latter.

    I really like Welcome to the Dollhouse, and it does seem to be cut of similar cloth. Definitely tackling similar themes and executing them in a similar fashion.

  11. July 6, 2010 9:28 am

    @Kathy, that is a hilarious pairing of movies that I wouldn’t have put together, but it makes total sense when I think about it. Sonic wallpaper is pretty accurate, thinking about Alyx’s observation that it gets left behind at the end, ABBA is a sort of internal setting for Muriel, rather than a side character.

    Mamma Mia! has the opposite problem, which is that you watch the movie for the songs and just barely hang on to the stories thrown around to connect them. I say this as someone who has watched the movie three times and thinks this scene is one of the bravest performances of that year:

  12. July 6, 2010 9:34 am

    I say this as someone who has watched the movie three times and thinks this scene is one of the bravest performances of that year:

    Is Mark Darcy singing or Bond 5.0? I’m a little nervous about clicking on the link.

  13. July 6, 2010 9:36 am

    Meryl, oh no. I like her voice, but I’m so uncomfortable, like Bond.

  14. July 6, 2010 12:23 pm

    Snarky, it is an uncomfortable song about an uncomfortable moment and I can’t. stop. watching. I find it rather bold in an ironic age.

  15. July 6, 2010 12:26 pm

    Also, this is how fixated I am — the vocal track in this scene is different than the one on the soundtrack, which is all polished and missing the moments of voice cracking with sadness. Oh, Meryl.

  16. July 6, 2010 12:32 pm

    I find it rather bold in an ironic age.

    Agreed. It’s a great moment.

  17. July 6, 2010 5:39 pm

    Give me “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” every time over this!

    That is one of my two favorite down under movies. The other one varies between “The Coca-Cola Kid” and “Quigley Down Under.”

  18. anthrok8 permalink
    July 6, 2010 9:48 pm

    My favorite Australian film (as if I have seen ever so many) was The Dish. It was gentle and self effacing and funnier than all get out.

    I found Muriel’s Wedding very sad to watch. It may have been the mood I was in when I watched it (hellloooooooo is that The Grim I see over there?). But, still. Sad.

  19. July 7, 2010 2:26 am

    I haven’t seen Muriel’s Wedding since it came out in theaters, but I remember it having a funny yet melancholic tone. And I remember a similar frustration-mixed-with-hope feeling toward Muriel as I watched – like I wanted her to stop being so self-defeating and making bad choices but I didn’t want to give up on her and throw in the towel.

    I feel like ABBA always had something oddly sad or cold about their music too. I think so many of their songs, whether intentionally or not, reflect the times they were in very well. Moving from the 1970s into the 80s people were on this path of kind of mindlessly consuming and being hedonistic in this way that was a lot about avoidance and wanting to detach from difficult events/situations like the Vietnam War, corruption in US government, etc. So there’s this way where ABBA is trying to be all about fun and partying and love but it’s all with this backdrop of pain and difficulty that everyone is trying to escape and ignore.

  20. Octavia permalink
    July 8, 2010 5:01 am

    Muriel’s Wedding gives me this feeling of sadness and nostalgia. I agree the music does have this haunting, desperate quality, which is part of it. But the film also captured this sense of feckless desperation you seem to get in Australasian small towns (like where I grew up). This awkward attempt to be relevant and bigger than your reality that still seems to really resonate (it’s still a big theme). Funnily, Sydney is still quite 80s in a cut-throat big shot OTT kind of way.

    I have a soft spot for Australasian films in the… awkward distopiacomedy (?!) genre.

  21. July 8, 2010 7:38 am

    I’m not sure what my favorite Australian film is, but my favorite Australian musical film is definitely Gillian Armstrong’s “Starstruck”. Jo Kennedy plays a plucky teenage girl who knows her singing talents will take her to the top once she gets her big break, so she attempts a series of wacky stunts to get people to notice her. There are great New Wave songs by Tim Finn and Phil Judd of Split Enz. There’s an homage to “A Hard Day’s Night”, a number involving a kangaroo suit that evokes Marlene Dietrich in “Blonde Venus”, and a big gay water ballet that pays tribute to Esther Williams’ work with Busby Berkeley. I think the world could use more big gay water ballets. The whole film has a sense of fun, fun, fun that lasts from start to finish.

  22. July 8, 2010 9:58 am

    I’m an ABBA purist, and I liked that clip, Ray! I have been avoiding that movie like the corner of the bus that smells like pee, but I’m glad you posted that. It’s pretty great. Many of the sadder ABBA ballads and songs are just so darn earnest that if you aren’t ABBA, they can come off as awkward, uncomfortable, and downright weird. But Meryl makes it work! It is totally brave, she doesn’t shy away from earnestness. She runs with it. Awesome.

  23. July 12, 2010 8:39 am

    I only saw Muriel’s Wedding once long ago – I think I rather enjoyed it – I’m rather used to the British version of comedy which is often heavily laced with “the dark” (compare the series The Office from Britain and from America, for example.)

    @ Heathereff – I think I saw “Starstruck” and was amazed at the embarrasing cheesiness of it – kinda reminded me of a low-budget Canadian film. The kind that make you cringe. It is possible we’re thinking of different films, though.

    I do love Priscilla of the Desert but I have a special fondness for Walkabout – probably the first Australian film I saw (well it was set in Australia – don’t know who actually produced it.)

    There was also a film about a Brit who ends up in the outback – it was highly critical of Australians and depicted them as bigoted, cruel to animals and backwards – but I can’t remember the title or a recognizable actor at all.

    Anyone ever see “My Brilliant Career” – starred a young Sam Neill and Judy Davis. Oh, hey, Gillian Armstrong directed it. Whattaya know.

  24. July 12, 2010 7:19 pm

    weelisa, I think we’re talking about the same “Starstruck”. It’s definitely one big ball of aerosol cheese, through and through. That’s deliberate, and it doesn’t claim to be anything else. I enjoy it so much because it throws itself wholeheartedly into being what it is, laughing at itself and inviting you to laugh with it. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone’s tastes.

  25. July 13, 2010 8:17 am

    Don’t get me wrong, Heather, I’m actually a connoisseur of cheese. I saw Starstruck years and years ago – on Sunday morning teevee. I think it could stand a re-watch.

  26. evmaroon permalink
    July 13, 2010 11:26 am

    Since we’re talking about Australian movies, how about Rabbit-Proof Fence? One of the best of movies of the early aughts.

Trackbacks

  1. Music Movie Mondays: Muriel’s Wedding « Feminist Music Geek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: