IM­POS­SI­BLE DREAMER

A life-size por­trait of the larger-than-life en­ter­tainer Peter Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, Sun­day, Seven, 8.30pm.

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

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