Guest written by Jane Albert
A strange thing happened at midnight, 30 years ago, at that most sought-after of film festivals: Cannes. A quirky, genre-bending film about ballroom dancing, directed by unknown Australian Baz Luhrmann, was debuting in the emerging film category known as ‘Un Certain Regard’. The filmmakers were as nervous as they were excited – films lived or died by the Cannes reaction – and Strictly Ballroom had been bittersweet to make.
Executive producer Popsy Albert was in the audience that night and still shakes her head at what happened as the credits began to roll. “There was a 15-minute standing ovation, it was quite extraordinary. The organisers instantly invited us to a second midnight screening, and people queued around the block to get into that. We watched the audiences coming out and they were literally dancing.”
Three decades on, almost to the day, Strictly Ballroom returned to Cannes in the Cannes Classics program as a fresh, digitally restored feature, as memorable now as it was on debut in 1992. Multiple international film awards and global box-office popularity saw it become one of the most successful Australian films of all time; while the stage musical adaptation Strictly Ballroom The Musical which opened in Sydney in 2014 begins its tour of the UK and Ireland in September.
Luhrmann and his filmmaking team of costume and production designer partner Catherine Martin (Australia’s most decorated filmmaker with four Academy Awards to her name) and writer Craig Pearce would go on to become one of the most respected film teams in the world. Their latest feature Elvis, shot entirely in Australia, brings a colourful, contemporary lens to the King of Pop and there are already rumours of its Oscar potential.
A hop, skip and short flight away from Cannes to Austin, Texas is SXSW, another festival prized on the international circuit, where another audacious Australian film made its debut this year. Seriously Red, starring Rose Byrne, her partner Bobby Cannavale and writer-actor Krew Boylan, is the latest film to emerge from the all-female independent Australian film production house Dollhouse Pictures. Directed by Gracie Otto and co-produced by Jessica Carrera, Seriously Red is a joyful, irreverent comedy that follows Raelene ‘Red’ Delaney (Boylan), who decides to throw in her day job and pursue her dream of being a Dolly Parton impersonator. The film received a nomination for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW and debuted locally at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
Strictly Ballroom and Seriously Red may be decades apart yet they share a connection: both had the backing of Alberts, who recognised the innovation and talent of these then-emerging creative teams. From the late Ted Albert, who saw the play Strictly Ballroom and said, ‘That’s the film I’m going to make,’ before approaching then backing young opera director Luhrmann to direct his first film, and later collaborate on the trailblazing soundtrack; to investing in Otto and her team at Dollhouse Pictures, Alberts has long supported creativity.
As we cautiously emerge from a global pandemic that has left no-one’s lives untouched, we know the crucial role film, music, art, theatre and dance play, not only in helping us understand the immense hardship of what we’ve endured but, just as importantly, in moving forward together with joy and hope.
The creative industries were brought to their knees during the pandemic that cruelly – just as it did in Shakespeare’s day – shut us out of theatres, concert halls and galleries, those spaces where people come together to share and delight in culture in all its forms. So it was particularly satisfying that Alberts could support the Michael Cassel Group to bring American Lin-Manuel Miranda’s trail-blazing new musical Hamilton to Australia in 2021. Hamilton is a celebration of diversity, creativity and innovation and proved not only why musicals are still relevant in 2022 but the importance of individuals like Miranda who hold up a mirror to society and help us understand, acknowledge and celebrate who we are today.
Alberts involvement in Strictly Ballroom, Seriously Red and Hamilton continues our legacy of backing pioneers while helping to enable a flourishing society and a world that has a vibrant culture at its core.