Melbourne, 1978, and a superstar is heading there in the shape of David Bowie, so a queue of local fans are camping out for a month to ensure they get tickets to his concert. As they chat in the cool evening air, a car full of skinheads pulls up and one of them starts yelling at the fans, in particular one sleepy-looking chap called Sam (Michael Hutchence) who has been lazily canoodling and giggling with his girlfriend Anna (Saskia Post). For some reason his very presence there is enough to wind up the shouter, and he gets out to remonstrate with Sam, but the fans soon send him and his rowdy mates packing...
The tale of Sam and Anna was just one thread in Richard Lowenstein's biographical, collage-like movie Dogs in Space, which was drawn from his experiences of the punk scene in Australia in the late seventies, just as it all began to fall apart. Although when we catch up with the characters damn few of them appear as if they have any idea of what's going on, they are society's self-styled outcasts and if they were not living in the house where most of the action takes place they would be on the streets. You could describe the house as a squat, except that someone has been paying rent on it, though who that is and when exactly the money ran out is obscure.
You could very easily watch this and not pick up on any one aspect at all as it drifted along as if in a drug-induced haze, with Lowenstein making very few concessions to any audience who was not willing to meet him halfway. This meandering style, whatever you might have thought about it, did nevertheless convey a sense of authenticity about what the dropouts got up to, briefly sparking into life as they form a band, or driving out into their environment, or when their television watching is interrupted by a man (Aussie movie regular Chris Haywood) wielding a chainsaw who drowns out the important bit they were waiting for. But in the main, most of them looked to be struggling with a narcotics at various points.
Certainly Sam, based on a friend of the director - he even shares the same name - enjoys shooting up heroin and turns Anna onto the habit, though if there's a problem audiences had with this at the time it was Hutchence's performance, possibly because as an international rock star he was the most visible cast member so when they latched onto him as their guide through this world, Sam's woozy irresponsibility proved less than ideal. Actually, Hutchence was fine, and now it's possible to be a lot more sentimental about him in light of his untimely death you can see this was a better tribute to his talents than sitting through Frankenstein Unbound and realising he wasn't in that much.
Or you could put on an INXS album, or perhaps watch one of their videos, which non-coincidentally were often directed by Lowenstein, who was a good friend of Hutchence. Music plays an important role in this film, not only as plot as the titular punk band Dogs in Space struggle to get by despite themselves, but more significantly as mood, obviously the work of a filmmaker more at home directing his drama to the beats of the soundtrack than he was guiding the actors. That said, many performances were pleasing and convinced as real individuals, from Luchio (Tony Helou), the engineering student determined to pass his exams no matter what, to the unnamed teenage runaway (Deanna Bond in her only feature) who shows up on the front step one day and opts to stay, with nobody responsible enough to see she gets to a stable home. As this wanders to a conclusion, Lowenstein could have sent up his characters, making this an Australian Withnail & I, but with one of the most poignant and original death sequences in his nation's cinema, you could tell he truly liked them, as we should.