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Monday
Sep082014

TIFF: The Last Five Years

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto. Day 3

The first thing you see in The Last Five Years is a white brownstone. It looks almost like a ghost in the middle of a New York City block. As the notes begin to play, the camera drifts upwards to peer into windows and search for its movie star within them. No, that's not her.  Not her either. Ah, there she is. Anna Kendrick sings the entirety of "Still Hurting", moping around a dark apartment, crying. The camera moves around her (in strange patterns) and her voice is just beautiful. And then I realize I've forgotten to breathe and am gripping my armrest.

I have a strange relationship to modern movie musicals. We're about 14 years into the movie musical's modern resurgence after two decades of a major drought but it's still hit and miss as to quality and success (not necessarily related). I always desperately want them to be great since there are so few. The fact is, though it's grossly unfair, each of them bears far more responsibility in keeping an entire genre alive than any action, horror, drama, epic or comedy out there. I have trouble relaxing watching them because of all this pressure and only when the film is gobsmackingly great or confident (like a Moulin Rouge!) do the "ohmygodpleasedontkillthemusical" nerves subside and just let me thrill to what's in front of me. 

more...

Anna Kendrick with composer Jason Robert Brown (he has a cameo in the movie)

Fans of the original stage production "The Last Five Years," are many and quite obsessed within the musical theater freak communities. I myself was an early devotee - I'd rank it easily in the top ten musicals written in the past 40 years or so and I've listened to it regularly ever since. Super fans should breathe a huge sigh of relief that the score is intact and composer Jason Robert Brown and Sherie Rene Scott (the original Cathy) are still involved. Another tension-breaker: Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are both very good as the young lovers Cathy and Jamie.

I can't tell you how pleasureable it is to hear an entire musical sung by people who have no trouble singing it and singing it expressively because they are both actors and singers, and not actors who are trying to sing for a film role. The highest compliment I can pay them is after years of listening to the original productions recording - I know every word and inflection - I'd totally buy this and probably alternate it with Sherie & Norbert's solo when the mood struck. (As a point of comparison, I almost never listen to Chicago, Hairspray or Les Miz film soundtracks and NEVER the Sweeney Todd after one listen because if I'm in the mood, on go the stage production recordings without a moment's hesitation.)

That's the good news. But elsewhere we're hit and miss.

The film is extremely faithful to the stage play even keeping the conceptual tracking of Jamie's solos moving the story forward in time while Cathy's move the timeline backwards. Which is to say that Cathy starts out jaded, sad and angry and gets happier hopeful and excited by the end; Jamie does the opposite, compounding the tragic beauty of their troubled connection and echoing their unfortunate career trajectories. The problem with the film version of this concept is that director Richard LaGravenese hasn't really worked out a way to clarify this for audiences and I can't imagine anyone watching it for the first time, understanding that each time Cathy sings we are moving only backwards in time and each time Jamie sings only forward. Further confounding the confusion is that their solos don't truly feel like solos (though they are) because the characters are acting so much within the other's song so their character arcs are all scrambled. To confirm my suspicions I asked a critic friend who hadn't seen the play and he thought they were just hopping around in time like a 21 Grams situation. Another random moviegoer also confirmed this suspicion. (Naturally, the story doesn't have the same thematic oomph if you don't understand that this is happening.) There are a few minor attempts to show this visually, the most successful being two beautifully touching shots near the film's end when you see both characters onscreen simuitaneously but are aware unmistakably that they aren't actually sharing the same time. But even this moment is marred with a weird decision of a costume change.

"Summer in Ohio" is the comic highlight. Anna aces it!

So it's hit and miss throughout. Some numbers are well staged like the very funny "Summer in Ohio" and some exceptionally moving like "The Next Ten Minutes" but others seem confused about how far to push the musical reality. But I was pleasantly surprised by "The Schmuel Song" which I could not imagine working in the film, but it does.

But the biggest problem, that drags this highly faithful and beautifully sung adaptation of a truly unique musical down from "masterwork" to "good" is the direction and that camerawork which never stops searching for the subject from that opening scene til the close when we've circled back to that white brownstone. The subject (this relationship) is right in front of you; just shoot it, get out of its way!  For no reason you can possibly surmise beyond lack of nerve ('will people be bored?') the camera rarely stops moving and it's very distracting. There is weird spinning around the characters and occasional nostril tight Les Miz closeups (not that close, please!). Worst of all is the unthinkable use of a jittery handheld camera which comes out frequently. Whenever the camera calms down, which does happens from time to time, the songs and performances just grab you. Why not just place your camera in a few advantageous places and let Anna and Jeremy show us how right they are for Cathy and Jamie. And that is, happily, very right indeed. Even if Cathy and Jamie were never right enough. B


The Last Five Years is planning a 2015 Valentines Day release. Because marriages falling apart is super romantic!

Also at TIFFA Little ChaosWildThe Gate, Cub, The Farewell Party, BehaviorThe Theory of Everything, Imitation GameFoxcatcher, Song of the Sea1001 Grams, Labyrinth of Lies, Sand DollarsWild Tales, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceForce Majeure, Life in a Fishbowl, Out of NatureThe Kingdom of Dreams and MadnessCharlie's Country, and Mommy

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Reader Comments (20)

Glad to see that the score and Anna Kendrick pulls through. Probably not enough for Oscar though, is it? Too bad.

September 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I have so so many thoughts about this movie (just saw today's screening). It was just SO hit and miss in SO many ways. At times, the acting choices were great, and others felt strange (though overall, both Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick did a great job). At times, the filming and editing worked PERFECTLY, and strengthened pieces that I thought just wouldn't work on film, seeing as it's an intrinsically theatrical score/work (like all of If I Didn't Believe In You - my opinion the best song in the film - and the beginning/end of The Next Ten Minutes, which I didn't see working at all). But, other times, it was visually sloppy, or unspecific in its focus, or seeming to misunderstand the point (or just distracting, as you said). So hit and miss. So frustrating. Overall good, still, but... frustrating to see such amazing moments intertwined with so many that... weren't.

September 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRob

(if it wasn't clear, I'm one of those people who obsess over this show. Probably my favourite modern musical, JRB is definitely my favourite modern composer, and I have analyzed the score many times over... hence all the strong feelings)

September 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I'm glad it doesn't suck. It's not my favourite JRB score (Parade by far), but it is gorgeous and I was rooting for this to be good.

September 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

I'm glad it's not horrendous. I binge-watched the second season of Smash this summer and, quite frankly, I wasn't expecting much of Jeremy Jordan.

Let's pray that the 200 movies that Anna has done this year spread out or we could have a serious case of indigestion, like the one we had with Jude in 2004.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

This is a great review. I was looking forward to yours the most, because you love the show and you understand musical theater.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

The issue with modern musicals are ALWAYS the directors. Joel Schumacher, Susan Strohman, Chris Columbus, Tom Hooper, Rob Marshall, Phylida Lloyd... Musicals are a lost art, and you have to have a strong auteurial vision (Von Trier, Luhrmann, Honoré) to pull it off. If you're adapting other people's work from another media, it's not really going to work. Movie musicals must stop being reverent to Broadway. The directors must have something to say instead of only adapting. If they can't make their own original musicals, they should at least try to make this Broadway musixals of their own from the heart. Musicals are not only a genre. They are an artist's expression. These directors must feel tge persona

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

The personal urge to make them, I mean.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal -- i agree to an extent but I also disagree. There is nothing wrong with adapting from the stage. You just have to have a vision about it. Many great film musicals were adapted from other sources whether that's the stage or other films or books. The problem is if you're adapting you have to still be a strong director because in every scene you have to make choices and you've just got to have made them. Why are these musicals so hesistant likepeople are scared to make choices or the choices so crazy and consistent that half the audience is turned away (like Les Miz's camerawork)

September 9, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Cal -- and for what it's worth I really do believe that some of these directors have a personal urge to make them. But they're just not gifted enough or are scared of their own personal urges to commit to them (this one NEVER pretends it's not a musical praise be).

Where are the auteurs now that the genre is revived? I know it's probably too much to ask for a new Bob Fosse or a Busby Berkeley but why can't we get like a new Robert Wise or Vincente Minnelli who understand the form well enough to make brilliant musicals even though musicals aren't their only genre or even their #1 genre.

September 9, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I don't know if lack of an auteur fingerprint is what makes it hard for the modern musical to take off. I thought Sweeney Todd was distinctively Burtonesque, and it mostly sucked because of that. The atrocious singing and the lack of captivating music helped sink it too. A clear auteur voice didn't do much for Eastwood's Jersey Boys either. Having a distinctive aesthetic doesn't do much if such aesthetic is not adequate for the genre or the material.

Sidenote 1: Chicago was an all-around triumph and even Nine had its shining moments (like My Husband Makes Movies), so I don't think Rob Marshall deserves the shit he gets.

Sidenote 2: Les Miz made almost 450mil worldwide, was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, and holds a solid 7.7 rating at imdb based on nearly 200,000 registered user evaluations. The soundtrack peaked at number 1 on the US Billboard 200, moved in excess of 650,000 units and was certified gold by the RIAA. That movie is only divisive inside the bubble of critics, and even there it holds a 70% fresh on RT. On pretty much every other criteria it was a bonafide hit.

Sidenote 3: I would love for Lee Daniels to make a musical. He could do Cyndi Lauper's Kinky Boots.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

Thanks for the review-- I was watching for yours because you know/love the show. I'm still a little nervous about the movie (I love the show and I'm guess a little worried about how it translates onscreen), but your review also made me want to see it more.
And I'm feeling like a very bad fan for not knowing that Sherie Rene Scott is involved with it!

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLily

@cal

Well, Phyllida Lloyd did actualkly direct the Mamma Mia!-stage musical many years before the film. It's also written and produced by the same women like the stage musical. So it might was their vision coming to life. ;)

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

As a superfan of the musical, I was so thrilled to work on the film but also worried about the reaction to it. This was the only review I was waiting for and I'm glad that you mostly enjoyed it :)

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDominique

I've read a few reviews of this piece on various sites and the over riding thought that comes through all, including this one, is that if you haven't seen the stage version (and love it) the film falls pretty flat.

As for Carmen's assertion that Sweeney Todd, (one of the greatest musicals ever written) has a ".....lack of captivating music......."....well.....we are all allowed our own tastes and opinions. But after that, I wouldn't be surprised to find that Carmen thinks Pia Zadora totally deserved her GG.

Chicago was good and Marshall seemed to be on the rise, but "Flashdance Geisha" quickly put paid to that and Nine........maybe it did have a couple of good moments, but then a stopped watch is correct twice a day. It takes a seriously flawed vision to make "a letter from the Vatican" with Penelope Cruz, boring. But I will allow that at least he is trying to think outside the box, I just think he only had one box to think outside of. Which is more that I can say for Hooper who is MIA except for one short and a "lost in post production" film with no release date or even completion date to mention. Les Miz might have a lot of nominations, but it did nothing to burnish Hooper's career and perhaps brought it to a skidding halt.

Nat is right about a loss of individual vision but I also think this is exacerbated by the change in the stage musical form itself. Musicals are based less and less on enhanced reality (Guys and Dolls for instance) and more and more on a complete suspension of disbelief (the latest Company and Sweeney revivals with the cast playing instruments on stage). The Last Five Years seems to be suffering from this. The problem of putting it on film is in not thinking film first, musical second.

I want to see Julie Taymor take on a Stage to film adaptation. That's a woman with a lot of boxes to think outside of. Lee Daniels is an interesting thought, but it needs to be a female driven show. Maybe he's the one do to Lady Day and Emerson........

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Peter Jackson should take on a musical. (and not a Hobbitty one)

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I just watched a clip of this on Youtube (Anna and some dude singing in a car) and it was TERRIBLE. Horrible direction, the song was super annoying and her vocals weren't that great. Not judging the entire movie based on that but I can't say I'm excited.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

I think musicals are specifically trick to adapt, more than other genres. What is so great about the great musicals is how they are deeply cinematic, even whey they are adapted. See the editing in Cabaret, for example or the camera work. Or can you even imagine that The Bandwagon was once a Broadway musical?

Forget this idea you have to respect the source, because stage musical is so damn different. Change it. Cut songs. Don't EVER direct a musical number, like in Nine, on the stage. Can you believe Nine? What's the point of making a movie musical if all the music numbers are on the stage?

Shorten these damn musicals. You just can't direct a three hour movie with people belting out songs. You need coolness in movies. Gene Kelly was cool. Jacques Demy was cool. Fred Astaire was cool.

Fosse worked well on screen because he always directed movies with jazzy scores. That is cinematic. Tone it down.

Save the screams for Life is a Big Cabaret. When you have a Soliloquy and I Dreamed a Dream in your first 30 minutes, you just can't go anywhere else.

I hate to say that, but Sweeney Todd was never going to work with so specifically theatrical score. Forget larger than life. In theatre, it's nice. In the movies, it sucks. Ok, even if you had cast the best singers, those songs are just wrong for the screen.

Once in a lifetime this larger than life musicals work: West Side Story and that's all. More three or four, maybe.

The issue with all these directors is that they love the source materials and don't know much about movies. You don't have to love the source material, not always. Great directors never downgrade cinematic work because they love a book or a play.

But I still maintain the most great musicals are originals. We need original musicals.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

@ Henry - Re: your Pia Zadora comment. That was completely unnecessary. You could have simply disagreed politely, Sweeney Todd is one of the greatest musicals ever written. Simple as that. Or even expanded on the subject. I like the complexity of the harmonies, or whatever is the element of the score you appreciate most. That makes for a discussion all the others can participate in, if they want to. No need to direct an ad hominem at a fellow poster you have never and will never meet. That just sours the mood of the topic and makes for a worse TFE community.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

Carmen & Henry -- yes, let's keep it civil. But also, I think Carmen's reaction to the music has a lot to do with how bad the singing is. I've heard this from other people who weren't familiar with the musical before seeing the Burton film. The truth is: Sondheim is hard to sing. So if you're not skilled, you can't really sell the very complex beauty of his music. And then the music will sound like it's not good when in fact it's genius.

September 9, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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