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by Stephen Groenewegen

"The magic of Miles"
3 stars

Rolf de Heer has been regularly making films in Australia now for four decades. He’s overtaken Paul Cox as our leading auteur and has the distinction of having had his films invited to compete at the Berlin, Cannes and Venice film festivals. I suspect it is his collaboration with David Gulpilil on The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) that will form his legacy for future theorists. They’ve certainly been some of de Heer’s most acclaimed and popular films. But before he formed that partnership, de Heer moved between a lot of different genres and notably experimented with how he made his films and who he cast in them. Dingo (1991) is a good example. It’s the film with Miles Davis in the Australian desert. Yes, that Miles Davis, the legendary jazz musician and composer (and subject of a 2015 biopic, Miles Ahead, by Don Cheadle).

The story of Dingo kicks off with a prologue set 20 or so years earlier, in 1969. Two boys and a girl, each about 10 years old, are playing in the street in Poona Flat, a small country town in Western Australia, when they hear a noise. Improbably, young John (Daniel Scott) makes out the strains of a jazz trumpet. Improbable because a Boeing 707 aeroplane is flying low over the town to make an unscheduled stop nearby. The whole town turns out to watch as jazz musician Billy Cross (Miles Davis) and his band exit the plane, set up their instruments on the tarmac and play an impromptu number. John is transfixed and Billy, seeing how he’s been moved by the music, tells him if he’s ever in Paris, to ‘look him up’.

It’s a remarkable opening. The enormous plane, a group of jazz musicians from overseas - many of them black; it may have well been an alien spaceship landing in the desert to establish first contact. It sets the tone for the film and signals this will be a story about a man following an unlikely dream.

John grows up to be played by Colin Friels, an appealing actor with a boyish face and a ubiquitous presence in Australian films at this time. John is a dingo (wild dog) trapper, and goes by the nickname of ‘Dingo’. He’s become fascinated by an intelligent dingo that has learnt to trigger Dingo’s traps without being caught (metaphor alert!). Dingo’s life has been shaped by the events at the start of the film - he’s collected all of Billy’s records, learned to play the trumpet, stayed in Poona Flat and married the girl (Jane, played as an adult by Helen Buday). The town can’t relate to John and his obsession with Billy’s music, so he plays his trumpet out in the bush across a spectacular gorge with the echoes adding an eerie note to his music.

The echoes also give him the feeling of performing alongside his idol, and what that might be like. And Dingo is ultimately about him achieving his dream, in spite of the odds stacked against him. Many of those obstacles are of Dingo’s own making: he’s a dreamer, too proud to ask for help. His home life gets complicated when the other boy from the prologue, Peter (played as an adult by Joe Petruzzi), returns to Poona Flat after striking it rich in the city. He’s reeling from a divorce and wants to see if he has a chance with Jane. And he might, since Peter can offer her the devotion - and new washing machine - that Dingo is too caught up in himself to supply.

There’s another visionary sequence when Dingo has a chance to shoot the elusive dingo but instead sees a mirage of the jazz combo from 1969. It’s enough to finally spur him to action and the last, most enjoyable, section of the film is set in Paris with Billy.

Dingo was Miles Davis’ last, and arguably most substantial, film acting performance and it came right at the end of his life; he died later in 1991. He also composed the film’s score, with Michel Legrand. Whatever his inexperience as an actor, Davis is a strong presence on screen. You get the sense the filmmakers had to work around his unpredictability and other limitations, but his magnetism helps make the film’s magic work. Even in Paris, he seems otherworldly. Friels does remarkably well to keep up with him and convincingly learned to play the trumpet for the film (though it’s session musician Chuck Finley who performs his part on the soundtrack).

This was an Australian-French co-production, and the widescreen compositions are courtesy of Denis Lenoir, who sees the Australian outback with fresh eyes. But the small-town sequences are overlong and not so fresh; they’ll seem familiar if you’ve seen more than a handful of Australian films from the 1980s and ‘90s. The love triangle between John, Jane and Peter doesn’t add much tension to the film and feels almost tacked on, as if scriptwriter Marc Rosenberg couldn’t resist adding yet another element to an already full script.

Its the opportunity to see a major artist like Miles Davis - even in the ostensibly weird context of a low-budget Australian film in the outback - that gives Dingo its kick. It also lends the feel-good finish an unexpected, transcendent touch of euphoria.

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originally posted: 08/08/15 16:10:24
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  31-Jan-1992 (PG)


  31-Jan-1992 (PG)

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