||Why is it that in movies celebrating the liberating power of composing, the music the characters write is always so terrible? As if “Mr. Holland’s Opus” weren’t bad enough, we were recently treated to the ludicrous “August Rush,” in which the “grand symphony” penned by a supposedly gifted little boy turned out to be soupy, overwrought elevator music.
The problem recurs in “Broken Hill,” in which the young hero, Tommy McAlpine (Luke Arnold) conducts imaginary orchestras while pounding in fence poles on the Australian sheep ranch of his taciturn father George (Timothy Hutton), who also serves as the school’s hard-driving soccer coach. (It’s no wonder that his music is mostly thumping rhythm.) Tommy and his dad don’t see eye-to-eye—George considers the idea of Tommy becoming a composer pretty absurd (his own hopes of pro soccer were dashed, you see, and he doesn’t want his son similarly disappointed)—and both are haunted by memories of Tommy’s mother, who was far more supportive and understanding.
Still Tommy soldiers on, despite the inability of the school orchestra to cope with his scores. And he’s overjoyed when his mentor arranges an audition with a recruiter from a prestigious Sydney music school. But who will play his music?
The answer comes when Tommy’s induced to participate in a destructive prank by the classmate he’s infatuated with, hard-edged American Kat Rogers (Alexa Vega). Both are caught and sentenced to community service, and Tommy suggests, against her wishes, that they be assigned to form a band and chorus at the nearby prison—something suggested to him by an earlier encounter with a escaped convict whose life he’d saved. (Tommy’s a busy boy: he also plays on his dad’s soccer team, while shearing a lot of sheep in his spare time.)
From here on you know the drill. The prisoners are initially an obstreperous lot, and Tommy tries too hard at first, and Kat doesn’t want to be involved at all, and the hard-nosed warden isn’t of much help. But don’t you know it, before long the cons, Tommy and Kat are making beautiful music together, and so are Tommy and Kat alone as puppy love takes hold between them. There are obstacles along the way to Sydney, of course—the initial audition goes awry when an escape occurs, Kat might have to go to New Zealand (horrors!) with her father, and when George finds out about Tommy’s plans he throws the kid off the homestead. But you just know it’s all going to end well as the prison orchestra and chorus performs Tommy’s composition before a beaming audience that includes his proud papa and his girlfriend Kat. The only thing missing is that the school soccer team doesn’t win the championship.
This is a hopelessly cliché-ridden tale that wouldn’t be out of place on a family-oriented cable channel but is several sizes too small for the big screen. And while Arnold makes an appealing protagonist, Vega—of the “Spy Kids” movies—has become more irritating with age, though she’s better at playing the softened version of Kit in the last reels than she is pretending to be the bad girl earlier in the picture. Meanwhile Hutton is all simmering moroseness and overripe Aussie accent. (Why an American was cast in the part is beyond understanding.) The “colorful” prisoner band members strike the right notes, so to speak, and Leo Taylor is appropriately ramrod as the warden, whose apparent sympathy with Tommy’s project may hide an ulterior motive. There are some nice Australian vistas on display (courtesy of cinematographer Nick Matthews, whose work overall is fine), but generally the technical side of the movie is pretty mediocre.
And that awful music—which we’re supposed to find magnificent—is the final nail in the coffin. (Presumably it’s to be blamed on Christopher Brady, who’s credited with the score.) It makes “Broken Hill”—the name of the small town in which the story is set—come across as broken-down instead.