A life-size portrait of the larger-than-life entertainer Peter Allen
Critics who watched him in cabaret said entertainer and songwriter Peter Allen must have burned calories at the rate of 1000 a minute. And the much anticipated series Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door buzzes and crackles with the same familiar supercharged gestures of Allen’s obsessively energetic performing style, or at least their cinematic equivalent.
Scripted by Justin Monjo and Michael Miller, and adapted from Stephen MacLean’s pop biography The Boy From Oz, the two-parter is directed by the accomplished Shawn Seet, who most recently gave us Matt Ford’s distinctive crime series Hiding.
The expensive, lushly produced show is from production company Shine, responsible for INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, also written by Monjo and Miller, the no-holds-barred story of how six suburban boys from Sydney’s northern beaches conquered the world with their unique sound and an incredible work ethic.
The same thing, of course, was true of Allen. Like the young INXSers he was just a boy obsessed with musical self-belief, the ability to survive the most punishing touring schedules without killing himself — though in his case in the early days there were frequent sexual misdemeanours — and a gift for song.
And despite a few stylistic inconsistencies, this series is also very good, another highly polished piece of commercial TV with the right emphasis on stars, spectacle, sex, conflict and pain, with a burnished kind of glossiness and a lot of heart. Especially from Joel Jackson, who plays Allen with panache and style and emotional empathy in a mesmerising performance. He even manages to sound like Allen and gets the hip sway just right, that jazz ballet walk, the slightly swish manner and, as his career proceeds, the suspiciously hybrid accent.
And what’s so interesting in this performance is how Jackson develops Allen’s distinctive style of camp — the way he was too gay for the straights but not gay enough for the gays. Successful as he was, Allen was never really voguish, a point developed in MacLean’s biography. He points out that to the emerging gay liberation movement in the late 1970s Allen was too much the straight person’s idea of the gay court jester — “that dreadful hairdresser act”, as one disdainful critic said.
The story, at least in the first part, is relatively linear in its outlines, treated as a kind of showbiz fable. Blessed with a feverish metabolism and convinced of his ability to win laughs from all around him, it’s quickly clear that Allen was never “the boy next door”.
Growing up in postwar bucolic Armidale, NSW, young Peter (Ky Baldwin) stands out. He’s a born performer with innate musical ability and a playful smile, with a stoic mother, Marion (Rebecca Gibney), a woman with an eye for truth who adores him, but a father, Dick (Nick Farnell), who drinks too much and withdraws into his own shadow. And when he looks at Peter, all he sees are the things that don’t add up. “You know how hard it is for me with you the way you are?” he tells him.
Peter plays the piano, tap dances, sings and soon takes over the ladies lounge at the local pub while the delighted women smoke and sip beer — a professional pub singer at 11 years old, earning 30 shillings a night. MacLean’s book emphasises the pattern of women in Allen’s life — as foils, as audience, allies and mentors. But there is small-town heartache and suffering, and after leaving school at 14, the confident teenager (now played by Jackson) somehow partners with Chris Bell (Rob Mills) in a fake “brother act”, the Allen Brothers — all matching suits, turtlenecks and stiffly choreographed movements, singing cover versions of other’s songs. As part of the Channel 9 Bandstand family, the duo is especially popular in Asia, and discovered by superstar Judy Garland (Sigrid Thornton). Allen’s sexuality well-hidden, he famously marries Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli (Sara West). But behind his back he is called “Mr Minnelli”, and as he weathers Garland’s virulent domestic rampages, his sexuality less of a secret, he knows he has to somehow change course.
When we leave Allen at the end of the first episode, he’s attempting to take control of his own story, the events so far set in relief against his knowing and candid appraisal. “I’m scared I’m a saloon singer and I’ll be singing The Impossible Dream when I’m 60,” he says.
Even in his wedding photos with Liza he looks like a guy “who was just passing and stuck his head in the shot”. But we don’t leave him tortured by his sense of inadequacy, his marriage unravelling after a superbly played scene of sexual indiscretion. (Minnelli would later claim in real life that she never knew he was gay. “Let me put it this way: I’ll never surprise anybody coming home again as long as I live.”)
Instead we cut to 1992 to finish act one. He’s at the Sydney Hilton and he dedicates a song to his now former wife. It’s called I Honestly Love You — which would become a No 1 hit for Olivia Newton-John. It’s a song that, as Allen’s biographer noted, is really a dramatic monologue making the point that all love, even the impossible, should be acknowledged and respected.
Monjo and Murray’s style is that of a kind of pop epic, a series of set-pieces propelled by a rollicking period soundtrack from Michael Yezerski, most scenes underscored by songs. It’s an approach taken much further by Seet, who seems at times to want to set the entire narrative to music and the overriding impression is that of an extended music video superbly photographed by cinematographer Bruce Young.
One of our most distinctive directors, Seet likes to play with film, as the old-timers used to say, almost like a grown-up kid playing with a giant toy, the visceral scenes his pride and joy. It’s as if he’s free from cajoling actors, the demands of the story, the rigid rules of time and space. The idea is to provide some sense of the subjective quality of the character’s lived experience.
Seet likes to stretch out the thrill — he adores montage — and give us more bang for buck, some of it almost semi-impressionist, the director taking fantastic visual risks. (Something that doesn’t work is the occasional use of Allen and Garland as a kind of chorus popping up unexpectedly to comment on the world of the younger Allen. But there’s also a brilliant virtuoso sequence when the older and young Allen sing a duet of Time is a Traveller.)
Seet gives the impression he always after what’s called “a golden slate” — a shot that could be used for the entire scene without cuts, one that need only be augmented by coverage that allows control of the pacing and the story’s clarity. There are many tight, shifting, close-ups and the rest of the world falls away around his Peter Allen, crowded and blurry as he subjectively takes us into his personal spaces against a tapestry of soft, amorphous blobs of colour.
While the style is at times overblown and lushly camp, Jackson is never larger than life; he gives us a, Allen who is precisely life-size, living, spontaneous and unpredictable. Often, when things seem highly confected around him, he behaves like a human being, trapped in a quandary whose outcome he cannot foretell.
In performance — he sings his own songs — he is unbridled and galvanic, abandoning himself to each swivel of the hips, shriek or gurgle, vulnerable without pathos and willing to be hurt in search of love.
Thornton is mesmerising as Garland, forever fighting off the rigours of diet, pills and overstrain, taking us over the rainbow into a world of indulgence and victimhood. And West’s Liza is so charismatic and charming, she brings tears to the eye with the fine tremulous suggestion of vulnerability. A round of applause too for Angela Toohey, who provides the startling vocals for Liza, that effortless sailing up the octave, and Melanie Parry for the impeccable singing voice of Garland.
And as for Ky Baldwin, a star is born.
Joel Jackson as Peter Allen, left; Jackson with Sara West as Liza Minnelli, below; Sigrid Thornton as Judy Garland, bottom