Our current Movie of the Month, the 2015 true-crime musical London Road, is a grim, misanthropic work adapted word-for-word from transcripts of suburban English locals reacting to the 2006 serial murders of prostitutes in their neighborhood. It’s an impressively odd, daring film considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactments portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. London Road really digs into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic by just letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves – a feel-bad emotional & political palette that’s unusual for a movie musical.
London Road is a little too unconventional to recommend other movies exactly like it. However, there are plenty of other musicals that touch on its grim urbanity & conversational song structure, even if only in flashes. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more dour, urban-set musicals on its miserable wavelength.
Jacques Demy’s gorgeous melodrama might be the pinnacle of the recitative movie musical as an artform. London Road‘s central gimmick is in adapting the natural rhythms of human speech into song, turning a real-life tragedy into a modern-day opera. Demy does the same in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, except with the gorgeous colors & soaring emotions of a Sirkian melodrama – tracking the tragic missed-connection romance of working-class sweethearts whose lives are disrupted by unwanted pregnancy & war. It’s a musical heartbreaker about the conflict between practicality & romance, and it’s sung in the same recitative style as London Road‘s real-life tale of serial murder.
Of his two Technicolor musicals, I still strongly prefer Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, simply because the more traditional musical numbers of that one are more fun to listen to than the conversational opera of this one. London Road faces similar roadblocks in its entertainment value; the songs themselves are too restricted by its recitative conceit to be especially memorable when considered in isolation. Like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, it’s a fascinating clash between artificiality and realism, and the two films glumly sing in tune when considered as a pair.
Les Misérables (2012)
2012’s movie adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables is much, much more traditional than London Road. The longest-running musical in the West End and the second-longest running musical in the world, Les Mis might be the very definition of tradition, which makes it an unlikely pairing. What the two movies have in common—besides their blatant Britishness—has more to do with theme instead of form. Like London Road, Les Mis is a grim-as-fuck reality check about harsh cultural attitudes towards sex workers and other societal cast-offs.
Making a Les Misérables movie turned out to be a logistical nightmare, getting stuck in production limbo for decades as the rights drifted from movie studio to movie studio. The 2012 version that eventually hit the screen earned great box office and Awards Season accolades upon initial release, but it’s mostly remembered now as a kind of pop culture punchline – mainly because of Russell Crowe’s awkward singing voice and director Tom Hooper’s follow-up musical disaster Cats. Personally, I enjoyed the film both times I watched it: in the theater in 2012 and on my couch almost a decade later. Anne Hathaway’s performance as a single mother who is punished for selling her body—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—for temporary survival is especially heartbreaking and feels totally at home with the pitch-black misery of London Road.
Chances are that if you’re looking for more musicals along the lines of London Road, Les Mis might be a little too traditional for a proper pairing. A major part of London Road‘s charm is its unconventional musicality and modern, urban setting. For another modern history lesson that sidesteps the movie musical’s conventional modes of song and dance, I’d look to 2018’s Leto, which chronicles the Soviet punk scene in 1980s Leningrad. Most of the actual music in Leto is diegetic, featuring bands from the time like Kino & Zoopark performing in heavily censored & regulated Soviet rock clubs. When it does break reality for traditional song & dance, the characters perform toned-down, conversational versions of classic glam & punk tunes from acts like The Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Then, a Greek-chorus type character called The Skeptic enters the frame to inform the audience that “This did not happen” just to keep the film as grounded to its real-life history as possible.
While not as much of an overt subversion of the movie musical as London Road, Leto upends expectation in its own small, laid-back ways. It’s more of a historically set hangout film than the all-out glam phantasmagoria of similar works like Velvet Goldmine or Lisztomania. It’s always a little alienating to watch a hagiography of musicians you’ve never heard of before, but I find the film solidly charming, if not only by the graces of its killer soundtrack. More importantly, it shares a downtrodden urbanity & casual demeanor with London Road that you don’t get to see in a lot of movie musicals – even stripping away the theatricality of over-the-top performers like Iggy Pop & David Byrne to make their work as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).
Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV.
In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015.
I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top Secret, God Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers.
The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling.
There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments.
I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich.
I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community?
Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.” The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart. I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense. Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place. Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds. London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.
This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end. Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes. It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny. Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do. It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.
The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat. There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech. The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV. What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee? Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?
Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.
London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.
Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?
Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).
This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.
Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.
Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.
Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing. He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead. I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic. A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth. Smart.
Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”
Upcoming Movies of the Month May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985) June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016) July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.
There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.
When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.
This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and Hairspray—Chicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.
It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.
Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is known for criticizing Russian government with his work on stage and screen, putting him high on Putin’s radar. During the final week of wrapping up and editing his most recent film, Leto, Serebrennikov was arrested for “fraud” charges, forcing him to complete his work on the film under house arrest. Many (including myself) believe this arrest was politically motivated, so the fact that Serebrennikov pushed through and completed Leto regardless of his circumstances is so badass. He even did it without being connected to the internet (Russian government took it away as part of his sentence). Leto, a musical film about Russia’s revolutionary rock movement in the early 1980s, has rebellion running through its veins. That alone is enough reason to watch this movie.
Leto (loosely translated from the Russian word for “Summer”) takes place in repressive Leningrad in the early 1980s. Rock music is loved by the Soviet Union’s youth, but older folk view it as music of the enemy because of its Western roots (influenced by Bowie, T. Rex, Lou Reed). The Leningrad Rock Club has recently opened and serves as the heart of the Soviet Union’s rock scene. The problem is that it’s overseen by the KGB and all musicians’ lyrics must be approved prior to performances. During the film’s beginning, the band Zoopark is performing at the Leningrad Rock Club to a seated audience being monitored by police. If anyone does anything beyond light claps for applause, head bobbing, and toe tapping, the police are on their ass. Watching a venue full of people quietly sitting while high-energy music is blaring through the speakers was beyond strange. Zoopark’s front man, Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), is a prominent figure in this new scene. He’s a cool guy who wears sunglasses indoors and keeps things as funky as possible while following the rules of the KGB. He eventually meets Viktor Tsoi (Te Yoo), the singer and songwriter from the band Kino. Viktor is a little more rebellious with his music than Mike, but not enough to get him in jail or kicked out of the rock club. The relationship between Mike and Viktor is an interesting one. It’s hard to tell if Mike views Viktor as competition or if he wants to take Viktor under his wing and guide him through this new, growing music scene. Their relationship becomes even more confusing when Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), Mike’s wife and mother to his child, gets permission from Mike to hook up with Viktor.
Zoopark and Kino are actual bands and Mike and Viktor are real-life members of those bands. However, this film is not considered to be a biopic. It’s more like historical fiction loosely based on two bands considered to be founding fathers of Russian rock music. There are times throughout the film where characters break the fourth wall to say, “This really didn’t happen.” prior to a scene. It’s a quirky way to remind us all that we are not watching a biopic, even though it really feels like we are. I went into this film knowing nothing about Russian rock music, much less Russian rock music from the early 80s, and I didn’t feel like I was ever not in the know. The film sort of jumps into the plot without any background or history, but its in-the-moment style is done so well that there is no need for a newcomer like me to be brought up to speed.
What really made Leto memorable for me was the film’s unique style. The entire film is in black and white (with a few flashbacks in grainy color), and there are musical moments with hand-drawn scribbles floating all over the screen. My favorite musical number was a rendition of the Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer” during a violent train altercation. I’ve watched it multiple times. Let it be known that there aren’t that many musical numbers, so don’t avoid seeing this movie if you’re not a fan of musicals.
If you’ve been watching the Cartoon Network fantasy series Steven Universe since its 2013 debut, it’s difficult to think back to when the show was a collection of one-off adventures instead of a complex intergalactic epic with five seasons of mythology guiding its every move. Insular adventures like Steven begging for French-fry bits at the wharf or raising an island of adorable Watermelon Stevens have gradually given way to emotionally tough, intellectually challenging tales of queer love & war across the endless canvas of Space & Time. It would be a total shame to roll back all that careful incremental progress from the canon adventures of Steven & The Crystal Gems at this point in their saga, which is entirely the point of Steven Universe: The Movie. Most “The Movie” addendums to television shows dial the clock back to their respective mythologies’ starting point to welcome in new audiences at a late stage in their run, once they’ve earned that larger platform. Steven Universe: The Movie isn’t screening in cinemas across America or anything, but it does mark the occasion of having gradually earned a sizeable audience by reaching for the grandiose spectacle of a feature-length musical. It also leans into its “The Movie” designation by resetting all character development & plot complications back to a square-one factory default setting. What’s most impressive about the movie is that this reset is treated as a devastating tragedy for longtime fans, not an ingratiating plea for a new audience.
As accustomed as we’ve become to our favorite pop culture institutions extending themselves into perpetuity through reboots, network jumps, and crowd-funded movie sequels, the harsh truth is that Steven Universe pretty much wrapped up the story it needed to tell by the end of its fifth season. This feature-length follow-up to that arc about says as much. All the work of dismantling an intergalactic empire is through; all the characters have reached a personal & communal place of self-acceptance; there’s nowhere left for the show to go. All that can be done at this point is to tread water solely so that we can spend more time with the Crystal Gems whom we love so much, or to dial the clock back and ruin all their progress for the sake of establishing a worthwhile conflict. Steven Universe: The Movie expertly demonstrates the folly of both approaches. It opens with the Crystal Gems on Earth in peaceful communal health and the empirical Gems in space no longer searching to destroy deviants outside their colonial rule. Steven announces that he hopes things never change, aligning himself with the satiated fandom. Then, a Fleicsher cartoon-style villain, Spinel, arrives on Earth to cause havoc by erasing all the memories & personal progress the Gems have earned over the course of the show as vengeance for a past wrong. It’s heartbreaking to lose all that progress at an instant, but at least the challenge of rebuilding the Gems’ memories & personae gives Steven something to do besides reveling in how perfect his life is now and how he never wants anything to change. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Steven saves the day by empathizing with & healing Spinel (as is his usual M.O.), once again resetting the scenario back to normal with characters settled exactly where you’d want them to be. It’s an incredibly smart, concise demonstration of why the show needs to end as soon as it will (after its sixth, final season), as it looks back at all the work it’s already accomplished – work we don’t want or need to see cyclically destroyed & restored.
Unlike most “The Movie” mutations of ongoing television shows, I don’t think this will necessarily win over anyone who hasn’t already converted to the cult of the Crystal Gems. The show has gotten so detailed & insular in its own mythology that even slight changes in costume & character design have massive implications for fans of the show (especially regarding Steven’s physical maturity in this instance), whereas a casual viewer or newcomer would likely shrug those details off or fail to notice them at all. Because this movie resets its characters to their factory-default settings, it does somewhat work as an introduction to its featured players, but the recaps are so compressed that they mean more as a reminder to fans of how far we’ve come than they’d signify to the uninitiated. The best chance a Steven Universe newbie would have of being reeled in by the movie is in director (and series mastermind) Rebecca Sugar’s songwriting. The film’s structure as an Old Hollywood musical (or a Golden Era Disney throwback, depending on its whims) allows for plenty of space to feature Sugar’s emotionally potent songs, which have always been a vital cornerstone for the show. In particular, the fictional band Sadie Killer and The Suspects’ number “Disobedient” is legitimately the best song I’ve heard all year—in a movie or otherwise—and should work just as well for someone who doesn’t know how much personal progress Sadie had to achieve in order to perform it (a lot!). Otherwise, the movie is clearly aimed at an already converted audience. It reminds us of how far the story has progressed, allows us to briefly celebrate that victory, and then demonstrates why continuing the show past this point could only lead to stagnation or heartbreak. It’s apparently possible to love Steven Universe and still be happy that it’s coming to an end.
Stuck between the sincere emotional devastation of Boys Don’t Cry and the over-the-top camp of Desperate Living, the 2014 adaption of Pierrot Lunaire is the story of a trans man’s tragic romance with a cisgender woman like no other filmmaker except Bruce LaBruce could tell it. The legendarily filthy queercore filmmaker first adapted the opera for the stage in 2011, clips of which are incorporated into this short, energetic feature in harsh collage. Filtering the story through a Guy Maddin-style Silent Era throwback, the text of the opera is not translated into English, but conveyed instead in frequently humorous silent film intertitles. The sounds of the opera itself are also interrupted by the pounding rhythms of gay club music, a stark contrast to the Marianne Faithful-esque vocals of the backing track. Vaudevillian pantomiming complicates the genuine raw emotion of a trans man struggling to be accepted as he is in the ancient past of the late 1970s. The titular “butch dandy” will humorously complain about the “foul indignity” of having to squat to piss in one breath of purple prose, then beat his own bound breasts with genuine, devastating pathos in the next. It’s strange; it’s self-contradictory; it’s both flippant & heartfelt. It’s queer as fuck. For better or worse, Pierrot Lunaire is pure Bruce LaBruce.
If Pierrot Lunaire has one Achilles heel it’s that, even at a mere 50 minutes, its narrative concept is too slight to fully support a feature. This is the exact kind of Guy Maddin-type experimental territory that’s typically relegated to the short film medium. Pierrot’s quest to be seen & treated as a man by his unwitting girlfriend & her “fat capitalist pig” father has a kind of inevitable tragedy to it, both due to the narrative structure of most operas & due to the types of gender transition stories that are most often told onscreen. LaBuce may color within those lines narratively, recalling far too many Oscar-thirsty misery tales to leave much of a storytelling impression, but the aggressively queer, expressionist lens he filters it through feels entirely foreign to the genre. Poetic double exposures of the full moon & projections of how Pierrot sees his true self in the mirror clash with over-the-top line deliveries of zingers like “Marlene Dietrich is more man than you’ll ever be,” & “I’m going to get the bottom of this if it’s the last bottom I get to.” Forever the artful pornographer, LaBruce also fills the screen with modern kink iconography: leather-clad masc strippers, strap-on dildos, burlesque routines, S&M gear, etc. The only element of straight-world prestige filmmaking present is that the film’s costumes were designed by Zaldi (costumer for heavyweights like Lady Gaga and RuPaul). The rest of the film is wild, queer, D.I.Y. punk excess with very little concern with taking the shape of mainstream trans tragedy narratives, defiantly so.
The politics of onscreen trans representation has evolved drastically since LaBruce first staged Pierrot Lunaire in 2011. Casting choices in his most recent film The Misandrists even suggests LaBruce has evolved with it. That means this film’s half-flippant, half-tragic tonal clash isn’t going to sit or age well for all audiences, the same way that Hedwig & The Angry Inch has awkwardly mutated over the past decade. As an experiment in avant-garde, genderfucked theatre, however, Pierrot Lunaire is far bolder & more adventurous than even Hedwig was in its own heyday. It’s a film that only concerns itself with extremes. When adapting a tragic trans story into a musical, it has to be a gut-wrenching opera and a vaudevillian Silent Era pastiche. When taking on notes of vintage horror it has to treat gender dysphoria as a self-endangering form of body horror and include sillier indulgences like Franksentein-style sci-fi, zombies, and glory hole guillotines. LaBruce will settle for no less than being a pornographer and a serious artist, a prankster and an emotive auteur, a radical philosopher and a campy provocateur. Pierrot Lunaire might struggle to keep up with the ever-evolving standard of representation politics or justify a feature length runtime, but it satisfies all of those self-contradictory goals with ease – no small feat.
Everything aboutAnna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.
The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.
I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Plenty of people loveBuffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.
There’s certainly other cinematic comfort food just as laidback & eager to please as the 2011 high school drama Hunk Dory, but rarely does it look this nice. Set in 1970s Wales, the film looks like a sunlit Polaroid dipped in honey, a perfect amber hue to capture the stoney-haze nostalgia of high school summers. This is a slow-moving hang-out picture molded after the Linklater tones established in Dazed & Confused and Slacker, but one that makes little effort to match those films in narrative complexity or character development – instead choosing to find its own distinct voice in the basic pleasures of its sights & sounds. The tendency of most 1970s nostalgia dramas would be to over-indulge in playing dress-up & recreating the era’s lingo. Hunky Dory instead busies itself by capturing mood, searching for the perfect tone of sun-damaged, over-exposed photographs so that it looks like a memory. Even its soundtrack of 1970s glam & stadium rock standards are mutated to feel like nostalgic memory & mood instead of being presented as original-recording needle drops. It’s cinematic comfort food in its deliberate embrace of narrative & thematic simplicity, but also just in the way it feels like an afternoon nap in a hammock.
Minnie Driver stars as a high school drama teacher struggling to hold her teen students’ behavior together at the tail end of a troublesome semester. She encourages them to examine & process their emotions through a class project that reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a jukebox musical featuring then-modern rock numbers by groups like ELO, Roxy Music, and Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars. There’s a twee tinge to the instrumentation behind those glam rock covers (recalling those early 2010s YouTube clips of grade school choirs taking on acts like Beach House & Tame Impala), but the musical performances are thoughtfully arranged & relevant to the themes of The Tempest in a remarkably rewarding way. Less remarkable is the hangout character drama that fills the languid spaces between performances: teenage runaway crises, minor romantic betrayals, Driver arguing for the academic value of artistic expression to her more narrow-minded colleagues, etc. Anything that’s lacking in those conflicts is easily paved over by its endearing “Let’s put on a show!” dramatic structure, so that when the film concludes with a glam rock, outdoors staging of The Tempest it’s all smiles & warmth. The only frustrating thing is that you can’t watch the stage play in full.
Hunky Dory introduces its characters as if you already know them from a pre-existing television show or stage play, spending way more time on the “Where are they now?” wrap-up in the end credits than in opening minutes’ exposition. It mostly gets away with it too, since its archetypal depictions of 1970s teen behavior feels instantly familiar despite the specificity of its Welsh setting. The frustrated violence, denim-on-denim make-outs, and low-key hedonism of high school brats verging on summer break are so familiar that sketching out individual character traits among this sprawling cast of fresh faces is almost unnecessary. The film easily gets by on capturing the mood of the time without weighing itself down in specifics. This is accomplished mostly through sights & sounds: honey-dipped digital photography & choral arrangements of nostalgia-inducing ear worms. Hunky Dory is marketed as being “from the producers of Billy Elliott,” which should give you an accurate expectation for what you’ll find in its unambitious, but perfectly endearing nostalgia-drama indulgences. Its greatest sin is that the full-length staging of its glam rock Tempest isn’t included as a DVD extra, since the song selection & arrangement of what’s included in the film is thoughtfully planned out enough to indicate that it could be done.
Welcome to Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-first episode, Brandon & Britnee discuss the jukebox musicals that comprise the most recent two film-acting credits from the ever-fabulous Cher: Burlesque (2010) & the Mamma Mia! franchise. Enjoy!
Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Young at Heart(1954) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when Doris Day first falls for Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart.”
What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never properly reviewed the film, but when reminiscing about Frank Sinatra’s legendary career onscreen, he wrote, “The image that lingers is from Young at Heart, when he pushed back his hat, lit a cigarette, sat down at a piano and sang to Doris Day and broke her heart. He never had the looks to be a matinee idol, but he had a voice – the Voice – and he had a screen presence, and for a time in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra was one of the most interesting and successful actors in American movies.”
The Hays Code had a peculiar way of obscuring intent in older Hollywood fare. Films that superficially appear to be wholesome & chaste can sometimes be subversively disguising much darker, less moralistic themes than what that infamous production code permitted. It’s also tempting to read too much into that subversion in attempting to parse out artists’ intent vs. what Major Studios of the one era would allow. The musical romance Young at Heart operates within this historical grey area, concluding a schmaltzy musical reverie with an absurdly handed tragic conclusion that’s incongruous with the film’s overall tone, then immediately reversed. The film either doesn’t have the heart to follow through on its own devastating implications or was obstructed by Studio heads’ demands for a happy conclusion to a generally happy story. Its ending can be read either way, both literally blissful or figuratively tragic, making it only increasingly, frustratingly bizarre the longer you sit with it.
A remake of a popular 1930s musical titled Four Daughters, Young at Heart functions on the surface as a well-behaved Technicolor romance. Doris Day stars as an eligible bachelorette at the center of a musical family mostly made up of daughters desperate to be married off. With an alarming focus on anxieties of weight loss & living single, the desperately lonely girls (adult women, really) are all awestruck by the arrival of a handsome, overconfident songwriter played by Gig Young. As he’s employed to write songs for the family, the girls all separately pine for his affection, something that’s awarded to Doris Day’s lead, to her sisters’ jealousy. Much of this early stretch of the film is dependent on the simple joy of watching Doris Day sing, a talent that’s dedicated to culturally toxic, marriage-obsessed diddies like “Til My Love Comes for Me,” “Ready, Willing, and Able,” “Hold Me in Your Arms,” and “Make it Soon.” Thankfully this nauseous love fest is disrupted by the arrival of Frank Sinatra as a troubled, dangerous piano player and friend to the songwriter beau. For her sisters’ sake and because she’s genuinely turned on by his talent, Doris Day’s protagonist leaves her dream man for this sad puppy dog of a romantic rival. This much-needed interjection of danger & sexuality opens the film up to an increasingly tense conflict of hurt feelings, romantic betrayals, and declining mental health. This all culminates in a climactic suicide that feels miles & miles away from the sunny, romantic (even if unhealthily marriage & weight obsessed) disposition of the film’s opening stretch.
Or does it? In an incredibly bizarre denouement, the tragic suicide that tears this family apart is undone with an idyllic Easter morning get-together, the attempted death being retconned as a failure. The 1930s version, Four Daughters, stuck to the implications of the suicide while Young at Heart tacks on a happy ending so artificially saccharine it can almost be read as dream of Heaven. As Four Daughter was also produced under the Hays Code, it’s unclear whether the suicide was not allowed by the studio for moral reasons, its actor‘s vanity, or a general preference for romantic musicals to end on a happy note. What’s even more unclear is what director Gordon Douglas (who helmed the horror classic Them! this same year) intended to convey in its ending. Is the final scene supposed to be taken as a literal happy conclusion to a dark chapter in these sisters’ lives or is it a subversive workaround that concludes the story on a more logical beat, subtly indicating that its image of peace & romantic calm is actually a vision of Heaven? I honestly have no idea what to make of it, thanks to more notorious Hays Code & Studio System shenanigans, which almost makes for a more intriguing conclusion than the straightforward approach of Four Daughters.
If you read Young at Heart as a straight, well-behaved Technicolor romance, it’s a kind of unremarkable, modest pleasure. Doris Day & Frank Sinatra are compelling performers, but most of the material is a cookie cutter approach to movie magic. The in-the-moment intensity & absurdly incongruous fallout of the film’s climactic suicide scene is what really makes it interesting as a Studio System relic. It’s impossible to know what Studio Notes or Hays Code adherence might have steered Young at Heart to such a bizarrely artificial conclusion., but it created an interesting tension in the process. Just as Sinatra’s arrival earlier in the film disrupted its chaste, serene romance, Gordon’s return to that chastity after such a tensely bleak suicide sequence feels like just as much of an intrusion, so much so that the scene can be comfortably read as a supernatural broadcast from Heaven above. The censorship of the Hays Code era encourages that kind of skeptical, overreaching reading of what movies are doing on the surface vs. what they’re getting away with beneath it, whether or not that kind of interpretation is warranted here specifically.