Singin’ on the screen

Camilla Cabello stars in CINDERELLA
Photo: Christopher Raphael

Stage musicals adapted for the screen are like wine. Some are best consumed fresh and are soon forgotten. The best improve with age. The latter include Hollywood’s golden decades of the 1930s, then the 1950s, and finally a brief spurt up to 1975. 

More recently, the box office has not been kind to musicals; Cats, for example, was a disaster, though biopics of musicians remain popular. 

Disney’s streaming service is the home for animated and high-school musicals. It also has 20th Century Fox’s library. However, only The Sound of Music and Hello Dolly! are available. 

Netflix has Annie and Chicago. One of its originals, The Prom, features Meryl Streep and actor-producer James Corden to boost its message of diversity.  

Amazon Prime has Guys and Dolls, Mamma Mia!, Les Misérables and Fiddler on the Roof. It, too, has ventured into original productions, the most notable being Cinderella, with Cuban-born pop star Camila Cabello. Corden produces and the director is Kay Cannon (Blockers, writer of the three Pitch Perfect movies).   

Though aimed at younger audiences, Cinderella has some slick dialogue, with modern feminist overtones, and a mix of old and new songs. The story goes back to 1697 and a Frenchman called Charles Perrault, so this is clearly old wine in a new bottle. 

Older audiences are more likely to appreciate Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which brags that it is based on a true story “with songs and dances added”. This was made for Fox, but on-sold by Disney to Amazon. 

Its young star (Max Harwood) follows the same trajectory as Billy Elliott – growing up in tough, working class, northern England, before making it as an entertainer, in this case as a drag queen rather than a ballet dancer. 

Jonathan Butterell, Tom MacRae (music) and Dan Gillespie (lyrics) co-direct an adaptation of the 2017 stage production, adding more substance with context from the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis. 

Richard E. Grant is a bonus as Jamie’s mentor and an alter-ego known as Loco Chanelle. John McCrea, who played the original Jamie on the stage, appears as the younger Loco. 

While Jamie will live on as a stage success, Netflix’s Diana: The Musical comes to the screen before proving itself with live audiences due to Broadway’s Covid-19 shutdown. 

It was filmed in an empty theatre using some cinematic trickery to speed up changes of costumes and settings, which are impressive. This was possibly to upstage Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, a drama starring Kristen Stewart that debuted at the Venice Film Festival. 

Joe DiPietro’s book and lyrics are easy to follow, but offer little that wasn’t covered in Netflix’s The Crown or other movies and TV shows. Jeanna de Waal looks too mature to be a teenage princess, but that soon passes. Erin Davie steals the show as the scheming Camilla, while Roe Hartrampf has the hardest part as Charles. This one won’t age well. 

Ratings: Cinderella 7+. 112 minutes; Everybody’s Talking About Jamie R16. 114 minutes; Diana: The Musical R13. 117 minutes. 

 

CLIPS 

 

The Guilty 

(Netflix) 

A remake of the Danish thriller with the same name that screened at the 2018 NZ International Film Festival. It loses nothing in the transition to Los Angeles and Jake Gyllenhaal, in another of his highly-strung roles as a demoted cop paying penance on the night shift at the 911 emergency call centre. This is a change of pace for director Antoine Fuqua (Infinite, The Equaliser), from his high-octane action shows. Gyllenhaal is multitasking the plight of his callers, his forthcoming disciplinary hearing and a separation from his wife and daughter. His decision-making becomes more erratic, and the tension builds as he becomes too eager to help in the hope that this will overcome his character flaws. Fuqua’s taut pacing emphasises long, unbroken sequences that show Gyllenhaal at his best. 

Rating: R13. 91 minutes. 

 

The Starling 

(Netflix) 

Melissa McCarthy’s appearance in Nine Perfect Strangers confirmed her ability to play empathetic dramatic roles as well as just being the butt of fall-girl humour. She and her husband, the reliable Irishman Chris O’Dowd, are struggling to overcome the death of their daughter. He has been admitted to a mental health clinic, without accepting why and seeing no reason to leave. She throws herself into home maintenance and gardening, where the titular bird becomes a complicating factor, and seeks solace in the kindly Keven Kline, a therapist who has turned to treating pets rather than people. The breakup of couples who have lost a child was also explored recently in Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman, but with much greater visual and emotional impact. Director Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures, St Vincent), from an original script by Matt Harris, opts for some easy outs to engage audience sympathy, which is not surprising given the A-list cast. 

Rating: R13. 104 minutes. 

 

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles) 

(Amazon Studios) 

The practice of admitting bourgeois women to mental asylums for dodgy emotional reasons is usually the fodder of low-grade horror. But occasionally these aspire to higher motives, such as Germany’s Never Look Away. French actress Mélanie Laurent (Oxygen, Inglourious Basterds), in her most substantial directorial effort to date, takes her inspiration from an 1887 painting by André Brouilett called “A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière”, and a novel by Victoria Mas. Laurent wrote the adaptation and also plays the head nurse, who gradually becomes sympathetic to the plight of a patient (Lou de Laâge). She has been admitted for “speaking to the dead” and, with the others, is the subject of abusive but then accepted treatment by neurologist Jean-Martin Charcott. He is depicted in the painting, and was prominent in the use of hypnosis to cure “hysteria”. The “ball” of the title is a bizarre annual event in which the inmates are paraded in fancy dress before the hypnosis school’s funders. Medical practice has become more enlightened, but Laurent leaves no room for this side of history. 

Rating: R18. 121 minutes. 

 

 

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Nevil Gibson

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