Doing Time for Patsy Cline is a Wacky Take on Aussie Country
When it comes down to it, America and Australia have quite a bit in common. Okay, one country was founded by Puritans, the other by criminals…but we have similarities in our rugged terrain, hearty pioneer spirit, and the large indigenous populations we’ve spent centuries oppressing.
Hooray, former colonies of Britain!
If, as music scholar Bill Malone writes in Southern Music, American Music, the poverty, disenfranchisement, deprivation and cultural isolation of the American South is part of what gave Southern music its special character, then it would seem to be likely that Australia—struggling with the same—would have some music with comparable character. It can’t all be Savage Garden and Andy Gibb, right?
Indeed, Australia has a well-developed country music scene; from Slim Dusty to Kasey Chambers, country music in Australia is not only surviving, but thriving. 1997′s Doing Time for Patsy Cline may not feature an actual country music star like the other movies we’ve featured in Celluloid Country, but its presence is almost tangible throughout the film.
Matt Day (Muriel’s Wedding) is Ralph Smith, a 17-year old outback boy who dreams of country music stardom in his own personal Mecca, Nashville. As he prepares to leave his parents’ sheep farm, his father offers this bit of advice: don’t bring back a girl with slim hips. Why? To prevent childbirthing fatalities since the farm is so far away from a hospital.
With this bit of wisdom ringing in his mind, Ralph sets out hitchhiking, trying to get to Sydney so he can hop a plane to the States. A couple named Boyd and Patsy–named after the singer, of course–picks him up, and the three continue on their way. Ralph quickly falls for fellow country music lover Patsy (played by Miranda Otto of The Lord of the Rings trilogy), though he’s not too wild about her scumbag boyfriend.
Ralph’s views about Boyd are vindicated when they are pulled over and arrested for amphetamine possession. While Patsy escapes, the two guys wind up in the slammer–hence the film’s title, Doing Time for Patsy Cline.
Here’s where things get wacky. The movie starts playing with reality, cutting the prison scenes with an alternate storyline in which Ralph and Patsy hit it big in late ’90s Nashville despite their lame-o song and garish, fringe-y cowboy outfits that haven’t been worn since The Porter Wagoner Show was on television. Is it real, or simply the fantasy of a marginally-talented bumpkin? You’ll have to wait 90 long, incredibly boring minutes to find out.
This is not a good film. However, it did win several awards, mostly for musical score. Indeed, the music is the best part of the film; songs include “Midnight Special,” “Sweet Old World,” “Boulder to Birmingham,” and “Dead Red Roses,” an original written for the movie (it’s Ralph and Patsy’s smash hit, and does in fact sound like a number of 1990s one hit wonders).
The film is a neat look into not only the music of Australia, but its prison system as well. Did you know that if you’re in an Australian prison, you apparently get to keep your guitar and your bitchin’ cowboy hat and jam with the dudes in the cell next to you, all of whom have mandolins, harmonicas, and drum brushes? Oh, and apparently there’s an annual line dancing festival next door to the jail.
Doing Time for Patsy Cline is not the most realistic–or the most enjoyable–country music film ever made, and if you’re looking for good Australian country music, you’re better off starting with the albums of ’50s singer Slim Dusty and working your way up to current Australian country stars Catherine Britt and Adam Harvey.
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