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Daffodils is a charming, bittersweet and tuneful piece of Kiwiana

Aren’t pop musicals meant to be all sweetness and light? Daffodils contains death, divorce, dashed dreams and quite a bit of unhappiness. It takes place largely in Hamilton during the 60s, 70s and 80s, too. But we do get to go to the beach a couple of times, and there is a nice rural wedding.

Still, if this local musical, which is based on the stage production of the same name and has its leads singing a dozen New Zealand pop anthems, isn’t as sunny as its name suggests, it still succeeds on its own terms. It’s a charming, bittersweet and tuneful piece of Kiwiana.

It sometimes strains for effect in its dependence on that hit parade to propel its story. It can also take some adjusting to how those songs are delivered, with the singing arriving as characters’ internal monologues or daydreams, rather than integrated in the way of traditional musicals.

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Thankfully, the performances of its leads – Rose McIver and George Mason as Rose and Eric and singer Kimbra as their grown-up musician daughter Maisie – are all fine and often affecting. That’s especially so of the couple’s duet of Neil Finn’s Fall at Your Feet and a touchingly dairy-free take on Jordan Luck’s forever cheesy I’ll Say Goodbye (Even Though I’m Blue) near the end.

Kimbra’s role is in a contemporary setting, playing a club gig where her cover songs occasionally flash back to her parents’ lives. She’s more narrator than fully drawn character, unfortunately, and her scenes are more sideshow than integral. Much of the film follows Eric and Rose’s courtship, marriage and family life in suburbia, which take some melodramatic turns, mainly as a result of Eric’s domineering father.

The songs, 10 oldies plus two by soundtrack arrangers Lips, arrive at regular intervals throughout as they did in scriptwriter Rochelle Bright’s original stageplay, based on her parents.

Some tunes have been put through a blender: Counting the Beat is clearly being punished for its overexposure by being dragged back into the psychedelic rock 60s. There is an energetic if puzzling mash-up of There is No Depression in New Zealand and Jesus I was Evil, supposedly showing the malaise of the Muldoon era.

We don’t do many musicals. The first was Don’t Let It Get You back in 1966, which was a Rotovegas attempt at A Hard Day’s Night. Our most successful one, arguably, was the animated Footrot Flats, with Dave Dobbyn’s hit-laden soundtrack.

Predictably, Daffodils also has Dobbyn songs, with teenage Eric belting out Th’ Dudes’ Bliss while loading his Zephyr with beer and then, a decade or two later, middle-aged Eric offering a vulnerable Language as his marriage starts to crumble. They fit the narrative neatly. So do Rose’s takes on Sway and Anchor Me. And in those moments, Daffodils, sad, tragic and sometimes awkward as it is, blooms into something quite lovely.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.