You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

Adapting a musical into a film is always a tricky proposition. In some cases, like Chicago and Dreamgirls, the changes are welcome, and can even be an improvement. In others, like Les Miserables and Into the Woods, the movie can't begin to live up to the stage musical. And in one, namely (Rent), the movie is so terrible that it drove the final stake into a musical I used to love, to the point where I can barely listen anymore.

So, I've learned to approach movies based on musicals with a healthy degree of caution. Today's entry is a strange case, because I watched the movie, and still haven't ever seen the show. I'm speaking of the 2014 movie The Last Five Years, written and directed by Richard Lagravenese, who adapted Jason Robert Brown's popular 2002 Off-Broadway show.

The movie stars Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, and it does its best to convey the gimmick of the show. The story of Cathy and Jamie's doomed marriage is told in two directions: Cathy's songs begin at the dissolution of the relationship and move backwards, while Jamie's songs begin after they've just gotten together, and move forward. The two sing from their own separate perspectives, only meeting in the middle once, at their wedding, before diverging again. It's a pretty cool idea, but sadly, the movie doesn't do a very good job of getting the timelines across, because as a matter of necessity, Cathy and Jamie are almost always sharing the screen, if not the song. The entire idea of hearing the two sides of the story advancing in different directions gets muddled as the actors toss in lines of spoken dialogue while the other is singing. An attempt is made to separate out the happy times of the marriage from the bad times through lighting and color, but it's just not divided enough, so the end product is too blurry.

Also, I don't have much (if any) experience with Jeremy Jordan's work, but he just did not strike me as having the charisma necessary to play this part. Jamie is supposed to be a magnetic, charming, wunderkind of a writer, and while Jordan's singing voice is just fine, he seemed woefully miscast to me. Kendrick acquits herself much better as Cathy the struggling actress, who simultaneously adores her husband and worries that she's being left behind in his wake.

I wondered if my lackluster response to the movie was due to the source material or the film itself, so I then immersed myself in the 2002 Off-Broadway cast recording, starring Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz. Yup, the movie is the problem. Even without being able to see the characters or the staging, the 2002 music captivated me in a way that the film couldn't. It wasn't until I listened to the score that I was able to catch some of the real cleverness of the story structure, such as the only ten minutes that the two characters share being their wedding song called, well, "The Next Ten Minutes".

The musical itself isn't perfect. My least favorite song in the movie ("The Schmuel Song") was not measurably better in the cast recording, and it goes on longer than any other song in the show. Also, that song aside, all the songs in the first half were more enjoyable than the songs in the second half, which made the enterprise feel a little lopsided.

Overall, though, I'm glad I watched this movie, flawed though it was. It opened up the world of the show to me, and the next time I catch The Last Five Years listed on a local theater's upcoming season, I'll be there.

The Last Five Years (2014): B-
The Last Five Years (2002): B+


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