On a 1974 concert tour in Australia, Frank Sinatra was held hostage in his Sydney hotel room by angry trade unionists –and liberated only thanks to a future prime minister’s intervention. Given the tantalizing possibilities, and the bold stroke of casting Dennis Hopper as Old Blue Eyes, much has been expected from Aussie-U.K. co-prod “The Night We Called It a Day.” But the film proves to be only fitfully engaging, and without rave reviews, Sinatra fans may wait to catch this in ancillary, while younger audiences won’t be seduced, adding up to modest box office returns for the ambitious project. A problem vexing current Aussie films is the lack of well-crafted, well-honed screenplays. And, despite the input of Michael Thomas (who previously wrote “Scandal” and “Backbeat,”) the same goes for this film. When Thomas and co-scripter Peter Clifton stick to the facts of the Sinatra incident, they provide tasty entertainment, but far too much of the running time involves the misadventures of Rod Blue (Joel Edgerton), the pushy, impoverished rock promoter who makes a stab at the big time by engaging the legendary Sinatra for a concert tour. Blue and his personal problems are the stuff of a far more conventional movie, despite an engaging performance from Edgerton.
Blue, saddled with mounting debts, risks everything on the Sinatra tour. The singer’s lawyer, Mickey Rudin (David Hemmings) is skeptical, but Sinatra is charmed by the young Aussie’s naive enthusiasm, and so arrives in Sydney accompanied by Rudin, a couple of minders and Barbara Marx (Melanie Griffith), his new companion and future wife.
But from the moment he touched the ground, the jet-lagged singer was bombarded with questions about his personal life, to which he reacted with understandable impatience and mounting anger. Australia’s reputation as a hospitable nation certainly wasn’t reflected in the showbiz writers employed by the tabloids, and one writer in particular, which the screenplay calls Hilary Hunter (Portia De Rossi) needled Sinatra with questions about Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow.
During his first concert, Sinatra refers to Hunter as “a two-dollar whore,” and later compounds the insult by adding that what he said was unfair to whores. Hunter files a complaint with her union and, in no time at all, the country’s trade unions combine to blackball the singer and his entourage. (“Ol Blue Eyes Is Black” reads the 1974 Variety headline.)
Hotel staff, communications personnel, airport refuellers all join the ban, so that the Sinatra entourage find themselves virtually trapped in their hotel room, with no room service and no possibility of leaving the country. Throughout all this, Sinatra refuses to apologize to Hunter, saying there were two things he would never do, yawn in the presence of a woman he loves and say he’s sorry.
The man brought in to solve the impasse is trade union leader Bob Hawke (David Field) who, nine years later, would become Australia’s prime minister. Hawke is depicted as a vain, beer-swilling would-be tough guy who is essentially outfoxed by Rudin. One of the major drawbacks to the film is that the key confrontation scene involving Hawke doesn’t also involve Sinatra, who apparently left the job to his attorney.
It takes some time to adjust to Hopper as Sinatra, but after a while, the magic just about works. Hopper, appearing in his second Aussie film (after “Mad Dog Morgan” in 1976) captures the spirit of the entertainer, and the concert scenes, in which he’s voiced by Sinatra impersonator, Tim Burlinson, are pretty convincing. With a Nelson Riddle-like orchestra as backup, Burlinson delivers such standards as “One For My Baby,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Night and Day,” “That’s Life” and “All the Way” in recognizable Sinatra style, while Hopper has the singer’s stage presence down pat.
Griffith has a rather thankless role as Barbara, who is just along for the ride. But despite the limitations, the actress brings warmth and earthiness to the character, and her scenes with Hopper and with Rose Byrne, excellent as a young lawyer in love with Blue, have considerable charm. Portia De Rossi is on the nose as the obnoxious, though glamorous, newshen. For Aussie audiences, the big kick will be Field’s funny impersonation of Hawke, and more could, perhaps, have been made of this character and his involvement in the strange story.
Indeed, the stranger-than-fiction yarn would probably have worked better as a documentary, but then pic wouldn’t have Hopper’s engaging star turn. But auds might have been spared a lot of padding, including extraneous subplots involving Blue’s pregnant secretary and his gangster father (Tony Barry).
This is a very different kind of film from director Paul Goldman’s debut, “Australian Story,” and, on the whole, a far less successful one. A prominent credit given to top film editor Nicholas Beauman as “editorial consultant” suggests a fair bit of tweaking has gone on since the film’s apparently underwhelming market screening in Cannes this year, but the technical packaging is slick and professional in every department.