Showbiz dreams and political commentary mix harmoniously in “Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls,” an entertaining docu about the first all-girl pop group to emerge from Burma (Myanmar). Filmed between 2010 and 2012, when the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi brought fresh hopes of freedom to many of Myanmar’s citizens, the docu effectively presents the big picture of a nation in transition through a Girl Power-charged portrait of the group and its go-getting Australian manager-mentor, Nikki May. The sophomore feature by promising documaker Juliet Lamont (“The Snowman”) is a fest crowdpleaser and ought to notch significant worldwide airplay on suitable broadcasters.
Using a tourist visa and a small camera to sidestep the lockout of foreign media during Myanmar’s 2010 elections, Lamont opens with eye-catching footage of the power pop ensemble performing outdoors for a wildly enthusiastic crowd. While stern-faced oldsters look on from a distance and military police observe without interfering, the sweltering throng is cooled off by friendly use of water hoses and not the fierce spray of water cannons associated with repressive regimes. The immediate and compelling impression is of Myanmar experiencing the “youth running wild” phenomenon that swept many Western countries in the 1950s.
Compact profiles of the five Tiger Girls are culturally and musically illuminating. Cha Cha’s dream of making it in Hollywood faces a hurdle in the shape of her stern, ex-military father; Ah Moon is confident and ambitious, but her strictly religious family does not approve of her Muslim boyfriend; Htike Htike lacks dancing ability; Wai Hnin’s singing isn’t up to scratch; and Kimmy, from the Chin Hills Christian minority, is contemplating plastic surgery to correct her “Northern and ugly” looks. One of Lamont’s neat stylistic touches is to include a solo song from each member that expresses her hopes and fears while advancing the storyline.
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Whatever their religious and cultural differences might be, the Tiger Girls regard helping their families financially as a prime motivator for success. The five are similarly united by a desire to challenge the widespread perception in Myanmar that young women who sing and dance in public are prostitutes.
Guiding the combo through unchartered territory is May, a straight-talking, self-critical young Aussie who abandoned unspecified career plans of her own to train the promising but unpolished singers. One of the docu’s strongest threads involves May’s dealings with Peter Thein, a local showbiz entrepreneur who signs the Tiger Girls to his stable, then drops them after they fail to secure a deal to appear in TV commercials for a major brand. As bluntly explained by Thein, such contracts are essential for commercial success in Myanmar’s entertainment business. Worse still, a dispute over ownership of the group’s name forces the Tiger Girls to adopt the new identity of Me N Ma Girls.
From this low point at around the halfway mark, the docu’s fighting underdog spirit revs up nicely. Against the energizing backdrop of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and election to parliament, May encourages the girls to write original songs with political and social content now permitted by relaxed censorship; an eye-opening trip to Bangkok, style makeovers and the recording of a new album soon follow. Though tinged with a bittersweet air, the overriding emotions in the final scenes are optimism and a sense of triumphing over many of the odds.
Directed and lensed with plenty of verve, the docu leaves a few unanswered questions about the financial role played by May’s b.f., Chris, a little-seen “oil and gas man.” But in its primary function of introducing the Tiger Girls/Me N Ma Girls to audiences and contextualizing their personal lives and professional struggles, the pic delivers the goods in bouncy and breezy style. Crystal-clear recordings of the group’s up-tempo live performances are part of the movie’s thoroughly pro technical presentation.