In “That Music Moment,” we take a monthly look at memorable or significant uses of popular music in film, and consider what that moment says about the film at large.
During the summer of 1994, American audiences were treated to a refreshing splash of Australia’s independent cinema. Writer and director Stephan Elliott’s film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, made on a then-modest budget of 2.7 million Australian dollars, was part of a few indie charmers that helped introduce American audiences to the charm of Australian cinema, alongside 1992’s Strictly Ballroom and 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding. What Priscilla offered up beside the Stateside introductions of Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, was a look at the world and joys of drag performance that mainstream audiences would likely not have seen before.
The story at heart is simple and follows a “road movie” template. Drag performers and friends Tick (Weaving), Adam (Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp*) accept an offer to perform at a Casino Resort in the central Australian town of Alice Springs, and so drive there from Sydney using a beat-up old tour bus they christen “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” What is soon revealed is that Tick accepted the offer because it came from his ex-wife, Marion, who lives there with his eight-year-old son Benjamin, both of whom Tick has been slightly estranged from out of embarrassment and guilt. Tick wants a relationship with his son but is embarrassed of and unsure how to explain his drag career and homosexuality to Benjamin. He asks Marion to keep it a secret from Benjamin—even though Tick and his friends are performing at the hotel Marion works at—until he is ready to tell his son about his life, sometime in the future.
[*Yes, Stamp, a cisgender male does portray a transgender woman. There are a handful of ways this film shows its age, and this is one of them. However, to its small credit, the film does always refer to Bernadette as a woman, and Terence Stamp portrays Bernadette with a lot of respect and dignity, and never clowns or minces for the camera. But, yeah, this was the early 90s. Have you watched Friends lately?]
After waiting out a breakdown in the middle of the desert, and picking up the lonely figure of Bob (Bill Hunter), the gang finally arrives at Alice Springs. Once there, we jump pretty quickly into their big debut at the resort, and after seeing our characters spend weeks in the dusty desert, dressing up merely for fun, we get to see them in their full glory on the stage at last.
The stand-out sequence of the film, which can be easily taken out, consumed and enjoyed at any time and at any place, is their performance to CeCe Peniston’s dance hit “Finally.” Besides being purely entertaining, this sequence is practically the film’s essence distilled into four-and-a-half minutes.
Is it Australian? Check. Tick as Mitzi del Bra, Adam as Felicia Jollygoodfellow and Bernadette as her wonderful self arrange their show—which has pretty great production values, considering how Priscilla looks—to move from honoring the plant life of Australia to the animal life, and up to the high-class world of the opera.
We first see the curtain pull up to reveal a human-sized glittering silver stiletto shoe in the center of the stage. Then the spotlight reveals Bernadette, singing Peniston’s opening lines: “Meeting Mr. Right, the man of my dreams, the one who taught me true love, or at least it seems.” When she reaches the first “finally,” Mitzi and Felicia step out into their spotlights in their individual outfits. They’re dressed to represent indigenous plants like the waratah and the bottlebrush, but with costumes pooled together with everyday resources.
The sequence is edited together seamlessly so that several complex costume and set changes occur within a single edit, without missing a beat of the song. In the second segment, we begin on Felicia and her metallic blue lipstick and feathery eyelashes as she begins the next verse (“seems so many times, he seemed to be the one, but all he ever wanted was to have a little fun”). In this instance, the three performers are dressed equally as dramatic blue and black feathered emus, with Mitzi and Bernadette again revealing themselves alongside the “finally!”
The third segment spotlights Mitzi first, as she emerges from behind a stage fixture, crawling along the stage dressed as a fiery lizard. Bernadette and Felicia get in character and hiss at each other around the stage. Finally, in the last segment, the girls are dressed up in 18th-century finery, with sky-high wigs and painted beauty marks over powdered faces, and they finish the song by arranging their props to resemble the Sydney Opera House. The entire performance, just like the film, is full to the brim of Australian trademarks and touches that speaks to how its creators—whether it be Tick, Adam, and Bernadette, or Stephan Elliot—want to honor and take pleasure in their country’s culture.
These detailed, beautiful and fabulously fun outfits are another element which is entirely characteristic of the film. Priscilla perhaps made its biggest splash with its costumes, with its costume designers winning an Oscar, an AACTA (Australian Oscar), and the hair and makeup team winning a BAFTA. The enduring pleasures of Priscilla remain the elaborate, DIY-esque costumes and matching makeup. Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzie Gardiner put together most of the costumes with things like hot glue (and even had costumes melt apart because of that), but with a relative shoestring budget they pulled off fantastic looks throughout the film.
The “Finally” sequence is the best of the film because it offers continuous, themed looks for each of the main characters and is an absolute feast for the eyes. It is not surprising at all seeing these outfits that Priscilla, in the spring of 1995, became the first contemporary, non-sci-fi or fantasy film to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design since 1979’s All That Jazz. In fact, since Priscilla, only three contemporary, real-world films have even been nominated for that award. Those films are 101 Dalmatians, The Devil Wears Prada, and La La Land. The Dalmatians outfits are probably the closest to the drag regalia in Priscilla. If you need any further proof of Chappel and Gardiner’s flair for fashion, check out what Gardiner wore to the Oscars.
The final, truly Priscilla element of the sequence is its complete joy in the face of disinterest or confusion. When the performance ends, the faces of Tick, Adam, and Bernadette are momentarily beaming. This is what they love doing, and they are so glad to finally be doing it again after such a long journey. However, throughout the performance we get a few shots of the audience: they remain completely unimpressed throughout. Even as Felicia is serving up top-glam and Mitzi is singing as if her bowels are being torn from her body, even in the face of those costumes, the audience just isn’t feeling it.
As they take a moment and see the audience once the performance has finished, and hear the lukewarm, tired applause, the smiles on the performers start to wrinkle and fade. Well, they just don’t get it, do they? Seems to be what Adam at the very least is thinking. But that hardly matters, and the lack of enthusiasm from the audience doesn’t impact their stay at the resort. What the sequence is really about, and why the fusion of it with such a great, LGBT-embraced song like “Finally” is so fantastic, is the complete joy we see in their performance. They don’t care what the audience is doing, they are having a fantastic time and they are going to perform the hell out of their choreography, in their homemade costumes and myriad wigs that they schlepped halfway across Australia.
It’s not hard to see this moment as a microcosm of the larger dynamic between the gay community and the “straight world” that so often tries to oppress them. Watching this scene, particularly during Pride Month when so many straight people don’t seem to get the importance of the joyful celebration of being gay, we can see some of where that joy comes from and how strong it is. Mitzi/Tick, Felicia/Adam, and Bernadette perform and seem to say: I am on this stage, I am living in full color and in fine fashion and if you don’t get it, that’s your loss—I’m going to do this anyway, I’m going to be beautiful, and it’s going to be so much fun. The use of “Finally”—an effervescent and unabashedly joyful song—contributes to this buoyancy, as well as its lyrics effusing the joy of finally finding “the man of my dreams,” who is described adoringly as having “brown cocoa skin, and curly black hair…[with a] gentle, loving stare.” The all-in excitement and unfiltered lust of Peniston’s performance is fitting with Tick, Adam and Bernadette’s equally unfiltered display of drag beauty and gay joy.
However, there are three audience members who are absolutely raising the roof at the end of the performance. We don’t see them at first but hear them. Soon, though, the roaming spotlights highlight Marion, Bob, and young Benjamin applauding, smiling and cheering them on. The shock of seeing Benjamin there makes Tick faint off the stage but he soon recovers. The sight of these friends and family members in this sequence represents the gooey, generous heart at the center of Priscilla. Even when the population at large may not “get” you or what you do, there will be some people who do and they will think you’re amazing. Tick slowly begins to form a relationship with Benjamin, who already knows everything about his father from Marion, and who doesn’t find any of it remotely strange. At the end of the film, Benjamin joins Tick and Adam on Priscilla to go spend some time with his dad in Sydney. Bernadette, who at the beginning of the film was grieving a recently deceased love, forms a sweet relationship with Bob, and decides to hang in Alice Springs with him for a bit.
The four minutes in which Tick, Adam, and Bernadette finally make it to Alice Springs and finally get to perform is the sweet and glamorous culmination of the film. After suffering through their own inner doubts and annoyances with each other, and waiting through a breakdown in an outback town teeming with violent homophobes, and just living on a bus, the three friends get to have fun and be at home again. Their utter happiness and explosion of creativity on display during their “Finally” performance is what draws them even closer to their new, or reunited, friends and family and what reminds them of who they are, and what they should never try to hide.