As an impressionable young teenager growing up in the heady years of the 1980s, I have fond memories of the magnum opus of the now fairly obscure Yahoo Serious - a classic of Australian cinema, the rollicking good tale Young Einstein. I was, to be quite honest, a ridiculously giddy fan of Mr Serious back in the day: I collected newspaper clippings and magazine articles from any source possible and I even looked up his address in the NSW phone book and wrote to him. Most excitingly, I even received a reply! I’m hoping when I have some time to go through my stored stuff, I’ll be able to find it…

But I digress.

I would like to put forth a proposition, which is, to whit: that I believe Young Einstein to be the seminal proto-steampunk movie to have been produced in the Antipodes. It has all the hallmarks of a classic steampunk story: swashbuckling romance, geeky endearing characters, crazy inventions of Science and, quite notably, it is an alternative history as several good steampunk tales have been. The Difference Engine, The Anubis Gates, Walt and Emily and numerous others all play fast & loose with the potential alternate lives of well known (or not quite so well known) figures of history, and have them doing some crazy and remarkable things.

The plot of Young Einstein is a lighthearted telling of the strange story of Albert Einstein - Tasmanian apple farmer. It is set in the Edwardian era, and Young Einstein’s age appears to be concurrent with the real Einstein. Albert grows up an odd, inquisitive boy; “Sometimes I wonder whether he’s cut out for farming,” says his father. Accompanied scene by scene by every iconic Australian animal known to us, he displays his odd character by washing dishes in his bathtub (while bathing, and playing the violin), being unusually accident-prone and unusually thoughtful. Eventually, he discovers how to split the atom and put bubbles into beer - clearly the most important possible use for such a groundbreaking technology as nuclear fission. In the process he destroys his grandad’s shed. But his father is exceedingly proud and sends young Bert off to the mainland to register his discovery at the Patent Office, for the good of all mankind. Here we see the vague threads of the real Einstein, as Albert takes up work at the patent office as a way in to try and register his idea, which nobody seems to understand. He is bullied in this job by the corny Ubervillain Preston Preston who, in his attempts to impress the pantalettes off the visiting French scientist and love interest Marie Curie, resolves to steal Albert’s formula and “make something of it”. Along the way, Albert also invents Rock & Roll (and surfing) quite a few years early. When Einstein discovers Magnus’ plans, he hurries to stop him before he blows up the 1906 Science Academy Awards ceremony - which he does by plugging a steampunked guitar into the nuclear reactor Magus has built. All ends well with Einstein getting the girl and nobody dying, including Charles Darwin. Utterly, utterly silly, but completely unapologetically so.

Released through distributor Village Roadshow, Young Einstein was their biggest Australian hit. Warner Bros distributed internationally, with the movie grossing over $100,000,000, so all up a very successful film. The movie was reasonably high-budget for an Australian production at the time ($4.5 million) - yet still much lower than many USA productions - and, the fact that Yahoo retained creative control even after getting the bigger investors interested meant that a lot of the wacky humour and downright silliness, which otherwise may have been cut, remained in the film. It was also clearly a work of great love and inspiration, taking years of development and pitching before reaching any kind of funding, let alone completion. Yahoo has been known answer to the question “how do you make a million dollar movie?” with the answer “1. Get a million dollars. 2. Make the movie.”

But it’s all the little details which I love so dearly, and which are not diminished at all by the age and that fact that it’s from the ’80s; many films from that era have not dated so well. The wardrobe is great, with Albert’s big baggy shorts with braces look incredibly endearing, the classic Victorian long john underwear in some scenes just adorable, and all the outfits for the ladies - ooh la la! There’s proper corsetry, well coiffured Victorian hairstyles (at times…) and lovely frilly underwear that is very tastefully featured, especially in Albert’s dodgy boarding house in the city.

Of course I can’t write this without expounding in greater detail on the real star of the movie - and that is the music. When it comes down to it, the core of the plot hinges on the idea that the power of music is greater than the power of the atomic bomb, which is a wonderful, romantic and delicious idea. The very first scene after the titles is Albert dozing under an apple tree, serenaded by Beethoven from a gramophone. Albert’s steampunked violin and guitar are two fantastic props, and not dissimilar at all to some of the props and art we are seeing people create today within the steampunk community. A fantastic Australian-heavy soundtrack with fabulous tracks from popular bands of the time such as Icehouse, Models, The Saints, Paul Kelly, The Stems, Mental as Anything and Big Pig ensured a very warm reception when the movie came out in Australia, but the Mentals’ cover of “Rock & Roll Music” ensured that it had a little more relevance to the Americans too - and the movie did do very well outside Australia.

I was fortunate to have been in Sydney when the ’80s exhibition was on at the Powerhouse Museum earlier this year, and imagine my surprise and delight when the first thing to be seen on entering the exhibition was, yes, Young Einstein’s guitar, in the flesh! I spent ages looking carefully at all the little details, marvelling that this piece of art had been made so many decades ago, when steampunk as a literary genre had barely begun. And it featured along with so many other iconically steampunkesque gadgets & props: grandad’s laboratory with it’s “bubble-o-meter” for the beer, Albert’s compass for crossing the Great Southern Land, Preston’s pocket watch, the crazy electric lock on the Mad Scientists’ Ward, a steampowered dingy, a penny farthing, a hot air balloon, a crazy homemade wireless, a handgun with crosshair sight - the list just goes on and on and on! And how can you not simply adore and firmly class as 100% steampunk any movie which so steadfastly champions Science above all else? The scenes in the lunatic asylum (featuring a very young Sandman amongst other well-known Aussie faces) speaks volumes: mad scientists, every single one - loveable, crazy, and of course, so very steampunk. And the premise then, that the only thing greater than science, is music? Sheer genius and inspiration.

I can watch Young Einstein over and over and never get bored. There’s plot holes a mile wide, but it all just doesn’t matter: it’s such a fun movie, and you can revel in the positive, can-do attitude, the Science and the Music, and all the steampunk Pretties - and trust me, there are a plethora of them. I salute Yahoo Serious for providing a generation of Australians with a steampunk romp in many ways years ahead of its time, and I think this movie (along with, earlier in my childhood, Cole’s Funny Picture Book, which I plan to write a post on at some point) strongly influenced my later love of steampunk. I thank him wholeheartedly for it.

This entry was posted on Friday, October 22nd, 2010 at 1:04 pm and is filed under Culture, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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