Seriously Red

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“Find out who you are and then do it on purpose.” Seriously Red starts out with this pithy aphorism from Dolly Parton then dives into the story of Raylene “Red” Delaney, an Australian property valuer who really really wants to be the Tennessee country star herself.

Red is a lovely woman but a terrible valuer, and director Gracie Otto and writer Krew Boylan’s film wastes no time in getting her fired from her job for being too empathetic, not quite pencil-skirted enough, and then putting Red on the road to glamour and glory as she goes all in on being a Dolly impersonator.

But can you be true to yourself by being someone else? That’s the main conundrum explored in a film interested in boundaries. As Red eases herself into the wig and the rhinestone-spangled pantsuits, and inserts the chicken fillet falsies, she’s at first mistaken for a drag Dolly act. Later, Red hooks up with a female Elvis impersonator and sexuality comes under the spotlight. Before the whole thing swings back to its big central idea as Red gets chummy with a Kenny Rogers impersonator she gets paired with to sing Islands in the Stream, then moving in with him, the pair of them never breaking character. Even making love with each other? Uh huh.

As well as writing, Krew Boylan also stars as Red, and puts in a fantastic performance as the depressed Aussie suburbanite saved from stale mediocrity by the magic of Dolly – as Red Boylan is sweet but demure, as Dolly she’s bright, smart and funny. Dolly brings out the best in Red in the way that this role brings out the best in Boylan – a versatile talent, who ten years ago was being touted as one to watch. The predictions are coming good.

Obviously, an Aussie film about humdrum lives transformed by a life-enhancing injection of popular culture is going to bring to mind Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and that’s exactly where Seriously Red sits. There is worse company. Fun fact: Gracie Otto’s dad, Barry, was one of the stars of Strictly Ballroom.

Bobby Cannavale and Krew Boylan
Bobby Cannavale and Krew Boylan

Otto and DP Toby Oliver shoot it all in a bright, kitsch colour palette inspired, she says, by Pedro Almodóvar – there’s a lot of orange, skin tones to crimplene – and Otto has got a couple of name actors in Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne to give the whole thing some marquee clout. Cannavale plays the owner of the Copy Club, where the impersonators all hang out and perform to each other – like the Star Wars bar except populated by the likes of George Michael, Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Taylor Swift and Madonna – and he does a very passable Neil Diamond (who knew?). Byrne, also an executive producer, plays EP, the female Elvis impersonator. She’s almost unrecognisable. Otto uses them both sparingly, and keeps them often wreathed in shadow, so as not to steal Boylan’s thunder.

The real Dolly tweeted that she liked the film, and why wouldn’t she – it’s a monument to her nous, her acumen, her showmanship and her ability to write and sing a good tune. And it’s full of her music. Having Dolly’s manager on board as the film’s executive producer helps, and possibly hints at a more businesslike relationship going on somewhere in the background. No one ever accused Dolly Parton of having a poor business mind.

The subplot about Red’s best male friend, Francis (Thomas Campbell), who carries a torch for her, feels tokenistic, as if it’s in there because films like this must have an unrequited love angle, the guy who next door who loves her for what she really is etc, but it gives us access to Red’s home life, where her offhand mother (Jean Kittson) and twinkling but largely silent grandfather (Tony Barry in his last film) suggest subterranean psychologies at work.

More of the other lookie-likeys might have been nice. We get plenty of Kenny Rogers (Daniel Webber), who is too young and too buff to be playing Islands in the Stream-era Kenny, but very little from the others, though the snatch of Don’t Rain on My Parade by drag Babs Streisand (Trevor Ashley) suggests all sorts of avenues this film could have dived up, if there were more time.

And is that Dannii Minogue playing a lookalike Dannii Minogue?

Seriously Red – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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