Hollywood doesn’t make movie musicals the way it used to, it’s just the truth. Think about this for a moment: What was the last movie musical you saw that was not based on an existing stage show or earlier film, adapted from a television show or novel, or remade in some way, shape, or form looking to stand on its own? Every big awards baiting musical – “Les Miserables,” “Dreamgirls,” “Nine,” “Chicago,” – or desperate money-grubbing sparkle – “Hairspray,” “Rock of Ages,” “The Producers,” “Rent” – have all bitten off of Broadway, looking to cash in on a similar level of success (with usually less favorable commercial and critical results), forgetting how truly great, one-of-a-kind, strictly cinematic musical ventures did it decades ago when audiences still cared about the art of the movie musical and big movie stars could actually really sing, really dance, and did not have to try their hardest to fool you into believing they were the real deal (that’s because just about all of them really were). Rarely over the course of my entire lifetime, honestly, has a movie musical been made in the way that classic movie musicals once were.
Excluding all animated Disney movies or anything of that cartooned ilk (which includes “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut”), the last singular movie musical that I can find – one that actually constructed extensive musical numbers set to original music that was written for the film, carried the story forward, and was even sung by the artist, who also starred in the film to boot – was Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark.” That’s right, Lars Von Trier, Nazi-sympathizer, Dogme 95 co-founder and curator of all things sad, strange, and beautiful (and “Nymphomaniac”) is quite possibly the last filmmaker to ever tackle the nearly deceased genre of the movie musical, and he presented an end result that is wholly, unequivocally Von Trier-ian. But he still did it, and masterfully at that. “Dancer in the Dark” was released in the year 2000…fifteen years ago…and for all of the heartbreaking sadness that culminates over that film’s grueling 140 minute runtime, I would still, without hesitation, take any number of Von Trier musicals over even the best of the Hollywood-does-Broadway films of recent years. No matter what they do, they just can’t seem to get it right.
Now I know I may sound like a broken record, as I kind of ranted about this subject some time ago, but this week I went to see “The Last Five Years,” a big screen adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s musical play of the same name, and my opinion of the film immediately related back to this issue, which I have been agonizing over for many years and has only worsened following the releases of “Jersey Boys,” the “Annie” remake, and “Into the Woods.” Hollywood would rather risk ruining the success of original properties they are either adapting or remaking instead of actually trying to make a movie musical from scratch. They rely on the fandom of the source material in order to bank on their gamble (because musicals are gambles these days) without really caring if the film actually expands upon the musical in a positive way. Every high-profile movie musical I’ve seen in the theaters has only made me either pine for or wish that I had gotten to see the original stage show – case in point being the turgid “Jersey Boys,” which made me regret not venturing to see the show first run, or the lackluster “Les Miserables,” which still managed to have an emotional effect on me only because of my affection for the music and memories of the Broadway show are so rich. “The Last Five Years,” however, indicates a new level of low, and actually makes me fearful for I desperately hope that Richard LaGravenese’s film is not ushering in a new era of the movie musical. “The Last Five Years” is officially the first movie musical I have ever seen on that has made me never, ever want to see the stage show on which it was based. The film has tragically killed the musical for me.
Briefly, before going forward, I will confirm that I have not only never seen Jason Robert Brown’s show, but I had not even, until seeing the film, even heard a single song off the soundtrack. I never watched the trailer, nor viewed the promotional clips. I barely knew the basis of the story; I knew that it was exclusively a two-hander, told both forward and backward, hopping between perspectives, musically illustrating the chronology of a single five year relationship. Other than a casual understanding of the show’s gimmick, I went into the film almost totally blind. My judgments, therefore, will only be of the film “The Last Five Years,” but, as I’ve already mentioned, the lasting effect it had on me extends, unfortunately, back to the source material.
Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan play Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein, two lovely young New Yorkers who spontaneously hook up and eventually continue a loving relationship that runs for the eponymous length of time before various circumstances leave it hopelessly irreparable. The story begins at the bitter end before catapulting us back to the joyous beginning; the tale migrates in either direction exclusively through song (there might be two lines of spoken dialogue) with Cathy’s songs moving backward and Jamie’s songs moving forward. The duo only shares two songs, which, fittingly, are the finales for both Act One and Act Two of the stage show. In other words, it’s a totally lyricized version of “Memento,” but with the focus being a thin, predictably doomed romance instead of a vengeful, mentally handicapped investigator searching for his wife’s killer.
Very little about this film is commendable, let alone acceptable, in all honestly, but if there is any merit to be found it can be graciously placed at Anna Kendrick’s feet. She is the sole bright spot in this horribly dull film. Kendrick is a really terrific actress with an effortlessly lovable quality that has allowed her to transcend stuff like “Twilight” and “Pitch Perfect” and worthless roles like “The Company You Keep,” “Cake,” and “End of Watch” that sadly overpower the better credits of her career. Ever since she proved that she has an incredible set of pipes, she’s been slowly getting typecast in musicals or music heavy roles, and relegated to insubstantial supporting parts elsewhere. In “The Last Five Years,” Kendrick’s singing ability is never in question, but it’s the smaller, subtler choices that she makes apart from the singing and the telling lyrics that makes her performance somewhat watchable. She taps into Cathy’s pain from the moment she appears on screen, and watching her rewind the chronological emotions proves that she is in dire need of strong material outside of the musical realm. She needs to work with writers and directors that thrive on this kind of natural emotional conveyance (you need to look no further than Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” to realize that Anna Kendrick is capable of much, much more than this), but she is undone on an almost scene-by-scene basis because of bland, formless direction by LaGravenese and the sheer inexperience of her Broadway-beloved co-star, Jeremy Jordan.
Like Kendrick, Jordan’s musical abilities are not under the gun here, but his on screen faculties are. This is a telling case of a performer with gifted stage presence who is simply unable to transfer that power into a readable, active screen performance and opposite Kendrick, Jordan’s inadequacy is shamefully evident. The apparent division in their respective qualities immediately shuts down the potential for chemistry. Watching the two of them sing at each other rings as dull and hopelessly false – I don’t buy their love or any of the hopscotching emotions that we ‘see’ transpire on screen. The lyrics present the makings of the story quite clearly, but the imbalance between Kendrick and Jordan turn all of the sweet notes into sour ones. I can grasp why LaGravenese would propose the “The Last Five Years” to Jordan as his big screen debut, but there’s nothing but a desperate, full-body, trying-to-reach-the-back-row quality to the final product which makes us quietly beg for his songs to end quickly so that Kendrick can take over again.
But with an absence of chemistry, “The Last Five Years” pretty much finishes itself off. It’s a real shame too, because the music and lyrics, straightforward and surface-level as they might be, are undoubtedly impactful. I might have nothing but derision for this movie, but, again, Anna Kendrick at least does her best by what Brown has written and gets some of the intended sentiments across. But even with this pairing, Kendrick singing Brown’s lyrics – brief, inconsequential glimmers that “The Last Five Years” provides- LaGravenese’s interest in effectively directing the action feels uninvesting and stale. By coloring in the show’s minimalist notions, LaGravenese believes he’s opening up the world, but instead it feels even more manufactured and insensible; rather than drawing us in, the director keeps us fully detached, worsened only by Steven Meizler’s amateur cinematography – either steely monochromatic or distractingly bright – and the wedding video-like camerawork. Taking a page from the Tom Hooper guidebook, LaGravenese tries to entice us by shooting large chunks of the songs in winding, uninterrupted takes, but he can’t even come close to Hooper who, for as misguided as most of his work on “Les Miserables” was, still managed an appealing staging now and again. Instead, the actors leap out of frame, Meizler quickly trying to catch them even if it means tilting the camera around without a single thought toward crafting a lasting, meaningful image, eliminating any sense of control over each song and scene.
Now while Richard LaGravenese has been in the business for over two decades, his directing credits barely offset his writing credits, which include “The Fisher King” “The Ref,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Behind the Candelabra,” and even last year’s “Unbroken.” LaGravenese proudly attributes a “Written for the Screen and Directed by…” credit to himself at the top of the film, one of only two credits in the film’s plain title sequence to appear over an actual film image (everybody else gets the standard black background). The text is in white and it’s set over a white apartment building, barely readable even on a multiplex screen. I’m curious if LaGravenese is actually trying to hide his double-credit, feeling embarrassed rather than proud, because he must realize that there is no actually adaptation process here, nothing in the actual writing that adds to or differs from what Brown first wrote. For all I know, LaGravenese could have copied and pasted the lyrics from Brown’s book into a word document, printed it, and handed it out as a ‘script.’ There is no dialogue, there are only Brown’s lyrics. If that’s all it takes to get a writing credit slapped next to your name at the head of a movie, then I’ve been overthinking this business for a long time.
If “The Last Five Years” appeals to musical fanatics, I can only predict that those who end up liking or even loving it will have had some previous exposure to the stage show. But, it’s hard to imagine this painfully shallow and lifeless gimmick inciting anything more than a sarcastic “boo-hoo” out of viewers, even those who are softhearted and musically savvy. As put to celluloid by LaGravenese & Co., “The Last Five Years” is pathetically predictable and carelessly indolent, boring and inactive, jarring and detached. It is another problematic step backward for the Hollywood movie musical that does a foul injustice by devaluing the original, and much beloved, stage musical. It fails, as a whole, to discover the crux of a decaying relationship, forgetting that film tells an entirely different story than the stage, and totally ignoring the major power and burden it is to present an innovative story in a medium quite different from the one intended. Because of this film though, I think I would be better off never even giving Jason Robert Brown’s musical a try. This version was all the interaction I ever needed to have with it.
There’s a lyric in one of the tracks, titled ‘A Summer in Ohio,’ where Kendrick’s Cathy proclaims, “I could shove an ice pick in my eye/I could eat some fish from last July/But it wouldn’t be as awful as a summer in Ohio.” I would like to submit a revision: “I could shove an ice pick in my eye/I could eat some fish from last July/But it wouldn’t be as awful as ‘The Last Five Years.’” The future for the movie musical looks depressingly grim, a fact that hurts me deeply.
Review by Mike Murphy