Synopsis – A troupe of hilariously self-obsessed theater stars swarm into a small conservative Indiana town in support of a high school girl who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom.
My Take – While it might have seemed that following the disastrous reception of last year’s Tom Hooper directed ‘Cats‘ would put an end to any or all future film adaptations of Broadway musicals for a good period of time, exactly a year later, Netflix has picked up the risky responsibility to bring out this starry affair, that too from none other than multi-talented Ryan Murphy.
Over the years, Ryan Murphy has dipped his toes in everything from full on high concept soap operas to gripping dramas; to everything in-between, however, it is Glee (2009-2015), that arguably put him on the map for everyone, despite helming the very financially successful Julia Roberts led 2010 film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert‘s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Hence it naturally made sense that he returned to his musical roots by adapting a largely forgotten Broadway musical, only this time with a ton of star power to back him up.
The end result being a whimsical, campy, and ultimately touching film that makes for a prime example of how fun and heart-warming, a good old musical film can be. This is a film that embraces its goofiness wholeheartedly, and like the characters at its center, it aims to please, and simply won’t stop until you submit.
Sure, it is in no ways perfect or particularly clever and demands a certain reverence for the theater and for musicals that simply put most of us do not have. But it is also without a doubt a lot of fun especially watching such globally famous names send up narcissistic celebrity culture.
With great acting, some truly emotional moments, breathtaking choreography and awesome songs backing it up, director Murphy truly has an unexpected winner on his hands.
The story follows Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), two struggling Broadway actors who just saw their new musical go from potential hit to an immediate one-night flop. Despite feeling dejected, it is while drinking away their sorrows with fellow struggling actors, Angie (Nicole Kidman) and Julliard-educated yet bar-tending Trent (Andrew Rannells), that they decide to engage in some kind of reachable activism, all in order to give them a PR makeover which has been constantly deeming them self-involved and therefore too unlikable.
By checking on Twitter, they end up marking Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a high school senior in Edgewater, Indiana, as an easy foil. The cause being Emma who recently come out as gay has been banned by the local PTA board, led by Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), from attending prom with the girl of her choice. Though Emma has the support of her school principal, the progressive, Broadway aficionado Tom (Keegan-Michael Kay), it is not enough to do away with the small town, retrograde views of her sexuality.
To complicate matters for Emma her secret girlfriend is none other than Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose), the straight-A, perfect student daughter of Mrs. Greene. Convinced that the situation is their golden ticket to redemption, the failing foursome of Broadway end up descending upon the small Indiana town that is decidedly not ready for them.
What commences from then on is exactly what you think will happen. There’s plenty of singing and dancing. Lots of inside jokes and self-deprecation. There are messages about the importance of kindness and being true to yourself. It is definitely cheesy but it’s a lovely feel good film. Despite the film’s cheesiness and how it spoon feeds a lot, it’s beautiful and enjoyable due to its nice story and its important cause and life messages. And to me that’s more than enough to love and enjoy it. It may be completely and utterly basic, and about 30 minutes too long, but I was nevertheless entertained.
The plot of course, based on a myriad of true stories is still deeply relevant, though the story may seem unreal and even quaint to unseasoned 2020 audiences, inclusive proms were at the core of the never-ending culture wars until not too long ago. Hence the heartbreak one feels for the indignities suffered mostly by Emma is no less real simply because it may seem that this could not happen in today’s America.
The film other, self-referential, and slightly less serious themes are also entertaining. Like, Dee Dee, an actress who at this point is beyond description or critique, is entirely and joyfully self-involved. This causes her trouble not only with the school principal Tom, but hinders her own ability to be helpful to Emma. The mockery of celebrity status here is both entirely superficial but also wildly amusing.
Tonally, the film feels like a mix of other, more successful musicals like Mamma Mia and High School Musical especially. The best song of the lot plays out at a mall, where Trent, tries to persuade Emma’s homophobic school mates to not be ignorant. They think they’re being good Christians by hating gays but, he reminds them, they’re cherry-picking the Bible and ignoring its central message i.e. love thy neighbor. It’s a witty song and I enjoyed every minute of it.
As a director, Ryan Murphy’s work here is beyond reproach. The way he’s chosen to stage these massive song and dance numbers is remarkable. The way he blocks every set piece. The way his camera is constantly in motion. Those sweeping overhead shots. He manages to capture the majesty of a stage production and successfully translate it to the screen.
Yes, as is the case with most Broadway musical adaptions, it is a bit too long. Yet, I do understand the need. When you have so many big names, there’s always the risk of wasting them, their faces and brands used purely for profit. But director Murphy knows the quality he has, and expertly uses the time and energy given to each character and performance.
However, the one failing I am not able to let go of is the improper and rushed handling of the single most crucial character moment of the film, making the character’s whole transition completely unconvincing as a result.
Nevertheless, the cast seems to be having a blast. As one would expect Meryl Streep is excellent as the hilarious diva, James Corden excellently puts behind the memory of Cats, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells each have fantastic spotlight numbers to strut their stuff, Kerry Washington surprises with her wonderful voice, and the over-exposed yet underrated Keegan Michael-Key brings in yet another delightful turn.
But without a doubt, it is Jo Ellen Pellman‘s standout performance that makes her the star of the show. Having her character Emma smile awkwardly through every single horrible thing that happens to her was an inspired choice. Ariana DeBose too gets some nice moments to shine as Alyssa, Emma’s girlfriend. On the whole, ‘The Prom’ is an exhilarating cheesy and basic yet enjoyable musical that is colorful, self-aware, and presents a very worthwhile message.
Directed – Ryan Murphy
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 131 minutes