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Red, White & Brass

Infectiously joyous and brimming with heart, this true tale follows a group of Tongan rugby superfans who claim they're a brass marching band to score tickets to the Rugby World Cup.
By Sarah Ward
June 16, 2023
By Sarah Ward
June 16, 2023

Watch Red, White & Brass and you'll never see the pre-game or half-time entertainment at a big sporting match the same way again. Of course, if Rihanna, or Beyoncé with Destiny's Child, or a heap of hip hop and rap legends are taking to the stage at the Super Bowl, you won't question it — but if there's a community band on the turf, you might start wondering when they first picked up their instruments, why and if it was only four weeks ago to make it to this very gig. Are they just out there because they were that desperate to see their team play? And, because they missed out on expensive and instantly sold-out tickets? Were they so eager, in fact, that they bluffed their way into a gig by claiming to already be a musical group, then had to speedily do anything and everything to learn how to get melodic, and obviously not embarrass themselves, in a passion-fuelled whirlwind of pretence and practice?

A band solely forming to score access to a rugby game sounds like pure screenwriting confection. Often enough, though, when tales like that make it to the silver screen, it's because they're so wild that they can only be true. Such is the case with Red, White & Brass' premise, as it notes at the outset. Back in 2011, New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup, which was a source of particular excitement to Aotearoa's Tongan population, and especially to avid aficionados at a Wellington church. The kind of fans that were showing their devotion by decking out their homes in the Tongan flag top to bottom, hitching the red-and-white cloth to every free space on their cars and carrying around the symbol on their phone cases, they were determined to see Tonga play France in their own home city, and willing to whatever it takes to do so — wholesomely, in the type of underdog story about fervour, ingenuity, self-belief and luck that engagingly makes for an easy and warm-hearted cinema crowd-pleaser.

On-screen, the dynamic Maka (NZ Popstars personality and film debutant John-Paul Foliaki) first thinks that he'll simply raise enough in donations for his congregation to attend the big game, aided by his dancing while the choir sings. When it ends up taking too much money to make money that way, that plan hits a bum note. So does a too-good-to-be-true offer that's exactly that. But sports fandom and a love of one's country are just like life in frequently finding a way. Handily, Aroha (Hariata Moriarty, Cousins) from the city council is looking for a brass marching band to perform before the match, asking at Maka's father Pita's (Tevita Finau) church for local talent. They don't have what she's searching for, and have never been anywhere near even thinking about having a brass marching band; however, that doesn't stop their resident born entertainer from saying otherwise when he hears that free Rugby World Cup tickets are involved.

It may spring from reality, with co-writer Halaifonua (Nua) Finau scripting the story with first-time feature director Damon Fepulea'i from his very own experiences — yes, this happened to Finau — but there's a touch of Brassed Off meets Pitch Perfect meets Cool Runnings to Red, White & Brass. Although some films bring others to mind because they're that generic, often lazily as well, that isn't what's occurring here. Whether or not you know the IRL outcome going in, you know the outcome. You know that there wouldn't be a movie unless exactly what you think will happen happens. Stepping through this real-life quest makes for infectious viewing because it does follow the expected narrative pattern so lovingly, with such heart and so satisfyingly, especially when it comes to celebrating NZ's Tongan community.

Maka has plenty of convincing to do, including friends like Veni (Dimitrius Shuster- Koloamatangi, Upright), who has largely lost touch with his Tongan heritage; Irene (Ilaisaane Green, The Commons), who is sceptical about this new brass-playing scheme; and his disapproving father and wary mother Elisiva (Valeti Finau). In the process, with help from Samisoni (Michael Falesiu), the only person Maka knows with any brass marching band experience, the Tongan word "māfana" is mentioned more than once. It means an overwhelming feeling of warmth and emotion, so it happily fits his mission, and it's also what Red, White & Brass itself is revelling in. This is an affectionate and joyous film that doesn't just pay tribute to events that clearly begged for the big-screen treatment from the moment that they happened, or to the feeling and energy behind them, but to the community and culture goes all-in when it comes to national pride.

Even when they're disagreeing, disparaging or doubting — and when the familiar sports-film training journey sees Maka and his pals start out with plastic bottles, then join a school band for lessons, and also become the unhappy stars of a viral fail video — Red, White & Brass' persistent group of Tongan rugby superfans don't waver in their māfana. Nor does the cast that Fepulea'i has assembled to portray them, as led by Foliaki bouncing around the movie with a larger-than-life vibe that plays as pure zeal. That the Finaus, Nua's parents and both first-time actors, basically step into their own shoes is a nice touch, as is including some original members of the Taulanga Ū Brass Band, who started it all. Red, White and Brass is directed with inescapable fondness as well, which flows through to its sunny frames (as shot by Andrew McGeorge, The Panthers), upbeat editing (including by Fepulea'i) and mix of marching-band tunes with tracks from Three Houses Down.

In music, hitting every expected note is usually pivotal. When that skill is perfected, creativity and experimentation can echo, which Red, White & Brass acknowledges and embraces. In cinema, movies that stick to the sheet before them can be blandly cliched, and many do, but the best of them swell with reassurance and comfort. Everyone watching wants this film to turn out the way it does, which it does, sticking to reality and offering a soothing bit of solace in a hectic world. That's what loving a sport, your culture or anything that you're passionate about can be, too, and Fepulea'i, Finau and executive producer Taika Waititi (Thor: Love and Thunder) know it, feel it and let it resound.

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