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A Heartbeat Away Review

A Heartbeat Away Review

A Heartbeat Away, Reviews   |   Written by Craig Mathieson

Bum notes abound in daft orchestra tale.
In her feature debut, A Heartbeat Away, leading Australian theatre director Gale Edwards (The Boy From Oz, the West End revival of Jesus Christ Superstar) attempts to supplant the dull grip of provincial realism on local filmmaking. In her take on the tale of a foundering marching band rejuvenated by youthful enthusiasm, she goes for a tone that is light and whimsical, verging on the ludicrous; farcical trumpet bellows greet punchlines and she tries to make a virtue out of broadly two-dimensional characters. Everything is played up, spun out – melodrama and camp are in the air.

But it just doesn’t work. And not only does her approach fail, it nosedives into terminal velocity, rendering A Heartbeat Away an annoying, close to distressing, viewing experience.

Julie Kincade’s vertiginous screenplay is centered on the regional fishing town of Montague, where the local economy is petering out and one of the few remaining vestiges of community is upheld by the local marching band. It is conducted by local electrician Edwin Flack (William Zappa), a baton wielding martinet whose withering comments and obsession with winning the regional Gold Cup marching band competition have kept the musicians coming to rehearsal year after year. The movie is barely five minutes in before he gives his first over-played speech – ‘you’ve got to play like your life depends on it” – and it’s an early sign that the story will brook no restraint.

A man of many deeply harboured disappointments, Edwin’s chief fuse is his teenage son, Kevin (Sebastian Gregory), a rock & roll guitarist who has refused to pursue the classical education offered to him. When Edwin is hospitalised after a traffic accident, just as the nefarious local mayor (Colin Friels) is trying to destroy the marching band so he can give their clubhouse to a resort developer, it falls to Kevin to motivate the ageing musicians and take them to the Gold Cup, where a victory will save the day.

Such simple storylines have long been the lifeblood of good, emotionally durable pictures, but A Heartbeat Away’s inability to craft a lasting mood, generate dialogue that’s little more than bluster or exposition, or induce some spark of genuine engagement from the cast reduces the film to little more than an outline still waiting to be filled in.

As a first time director Edwards avails herself to various techniques and styles, but none of them make for a cohesive whole. She’s plainly drawn to briskly edited montages, and no sooner has Kevin met instrument shop clerk Mandy (Isabel Lucas), also the mayor’s daughter, than they’re dancing around the counter as they strike rock & roll poses together. It is the first of many montages, including but not limited to band rehearsals, an evening beach party where significant glances are exchanged above the flames, marching practice and Kevin getting nostalgically raucous with his mother (Tammy McIntosh). Near the movie’s end there is even a montage of previous montages.

As if to allow for dramatic lighting, much of A Heartbeat Away unfolds in darkness – Edwin’s hospital room is like a tomb, the mayor takes meetings in shadowy chambers and half the other locations have conveniently hung spotlights. The last Australian film this enamoured of darkness was Daybreakers, which happened to be about vampires.

Even the Gold Cup competition takes place at night, complete with multiple lighting towers, but the band’s performance of a seminal turning point in rock music from 1991 is staid and uninspiring. A film like Radu Mihaileanu’s The Concert was able to get away with a great degree of daftness because the penultimate performance was rousingly strong and it was hard not to be swept up by its accumulated emotion. In A Heartbeat Away this essential moment lacks vigour, or a decent master shot, so it fizzles out, leaving you to wonder about the wisdom of Kevin playing electric guitar atop metal scaffolding during a lightning storm.

Like Babe and Strictly Ballroom, A Heartbeat Away hopes to be an eccentric romp that ends in a stirring triumph. But it fails on nearly every count, appearing destined for a long half life in the Bad Movies We Love stakes.