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Soundtracking: "Best Worst Thing..."

Soundtracking is our newest wekly series, with Chris Feil talking music in the movies! The Tony Awards are this weekend, so here is a documentary on a Broadway flop...

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened charts the making and failing of Stephen Sondheim / Hal Prince collaboration Merrily We Roll Along. The musical charts the decades-spanning friendship of three showbiz types, but told in reverse and with teenagers playing the roles. It was high concept and it was a notorious bomb - but with one brilliant and emotionally involving score.

If you’re unfamiliar with the musical and its complicated backwards plotting, Best Worst Thing does a pretty snappy job of quickly explaining the show’s concept before focusing on the cast left out in the cold by Merrily’s failure. What sounds rather niche for a documentary subject is actually quite moving and emotionally accessible, and still touches on some hefty themes. The film, directed by original cast member Lonny Price, is personal but not cloying. It’s a documentary about the hard truths of growing up into a world that isn’t all you were promised, - and it consistently finds deeper context for the music.

One of the many special things about Sondheim’s score for Merrily We Roll Along is that it ages with you. From first listen (or watch, if you’ve been lucky enough to catch a production somewhere) and on, the depth of the piece becomes clearer as you can project your own disappointments on it, the things that didn’t work out that have made you do some tough reevaluation. Perhaps that’s the biggest reason that the musical has gained a cult following since it’s bellyflop on Broadway.

Best Worst Thing becomes like a meta exercise: art reflecting life reflecting art. Lonny Price crafts the film so that the songs sung by the interviewees’ younger selves comment on their lives that followed. It’s a wholly unique embodiment of its subject, while also enlivening our relationship to the melancholy of Sondheim’s score. It’s as immersive a study on the impact and depth of a work of art as you’re likely to see, surprising in the relationship between text and real life.

Part of the musical journey of the film is being treated to a few early versions of the songs. Much as the film uses the score to chart the emotional journey of these actors before, during, and after the production, it also charts the creation of the work itself. One particular treat to Sondheim fans is audio of Sondheim performing “Good Thing Going”, a love song of sorts about things taken for granted. The composer sings the song for the first time to the assembled cast, an unknown prophecy preparing the youngsters for what’s coming.

But also like Merrily, the film isn’t a downer. There is later triumph and healing, and reuniting - like seeing the cast reassemble for a later staged concert of the score. We see the three leads together again for “Old Friends”, all about the embitterments and unsinkable love between besties. It’s not only a relief considering how acquainted we’ve come to the cast’s disappointment, but because you can see years of pain shed in the performance. The number is loaded with meaning the actors never could have had before, and we as the audience understand it more fully as well.

In its final sequence the principal cast returns to the theatre that housed Merrily, all awe and tears at the resurfacing memories. The cast assembles hand-in-hand around a piano as former lead James Walton sings “Growing Up”, a thesis statement for the film, if not the musical. Those familiar to the show will appreciate the subtext here that change can be for the better, as this is a song added to later revisions of the show. The song faces disappointment head on, teaching us to reshape our own outcomes and move on with purpose - much as the cast has. It’s a touching close to a film that examines our relationship with the pains of the past and the optimism of the future.

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is streaming now on Netflix.

Previously on Soundtracking:
Sister Act
American Honey

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Reader Comments (2)

thanks for covering this one. This film really needs to be more well known. It's actually a very good documentary of as you say a totally niche but acccessible subject. I wish it had made the Oscar finals.

June 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Saw this today. Eyerolled at the beginning (which was quite self-congratulating). Misty-eyed by the end especially when the songs came up. Touching, relatable stories of joy and heartbreaks of growing up.

June 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJija

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