Face the Music and Dance
A review in three acts.
I. There are people who don’t like musicals.
Ever since they peaked as successful films in the early 1960s, it seems that every year someone trots out the latest attempt at reviving the form. On rare occasions this attempt is a Godspell, but more typically it is a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the once vivid genre goes crawling back to the doghouse to await its next chance. But in the ‘90s, there was, if not a renaissance of the filmed musical, then certainly a reintroduction of its concepts. The primary venues have been television (The Drew Carey Show, The Simpsons, and even South Park), and Disney’s animated features, which increasingly adopted attributes of the Broadway musical until two of them The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast made the complete crossover, as successful stage productions.
Still, there are people who can’t bear musicals. These people are wrong.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is Kenneth Branagh’s first attempt at a musical film. Two or three of his previous works include what you might call “musical moments,” but this is his first using songs throughout. It is also the first in which the songs are not “natural”; that is to say, there is no explanation for them within the fictional world. Here, simply because they are in a musical and they’re supposed to sing and dance, the characters sing and dance. Music rises up as if from nowhere and they fall into coordinated and sometimes fantastical movements until the end of the number, when they resume chatting or conspiring as though nothing unusual has happened.
And in their world, it hasn’t. In a full-fledged musical, there is no need for explanation. There comes a time when what needs to be said is said best through a song, and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. It was either Rogers or Hammerstein, I believe, who once explained that in a musical, when two people sing to each other, it means they are in love, and when they dance together, it means they want to have sex. It’s a way of externalizing internal emotions. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the dances serve a similar purpose. Not to say that every dance is an expression of bridled love or lust (though over half of them are), but they are means of expressing feelings that the characters otherwise dare not say, or illustrating with neat precision something that would bore the audience if prosaically talked through in the book.
The book of a musical the spoken portions exists to provide dramatic context or additional characterization, but the songs are key. Branagh has rather stacked the deck here, by selecting songs by Kern, Berlin, Porter, Hammerstein, and some kids called Gershwin. But unlike An American in Paris or Singing in the Rain, which also picked songs from pre-existing catalogs, Love’s Labour’s Lost‘s storyline is not fashioned around the musical numbers; rather, they have been made to fit Shakespeare’s plot, still set in the “Kingdom of Navarre,” though adjusted somewhat to suit a new time frame, pre-war 1939. A trio of young men Berowne (Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard), and Dumaine (Adrian Lester) pledges to join their King (Alessandro Nivola) in a three-year course of university education, forswearing female companionship. As you would expect from a musical comedy, this vow lasts entire minutes, or as long as it takes four pretty women the young French Princess (Alicia Silverstone) and her friends Rosaline (Natascha McElhone), Maria (Carmen Ejogo), and Katherine (Emily Mortimer) to arrive. The inevitable complications ensue, but again, as is expected, no heartstring becomes so tangled that one good tug at the end can’t resolve things.
Most of the songs are well integrated into the storyline, with only a couple seeming imposed on it. Of course, technically, all the songs are “imposed,” but one of Branagh’s achievements here is that most of them don’t seem so. And you know what? Most musicals have one or two songs that have only the flimsiest justification within the plot, and are really an excuse for the audience to enjoy looking at attractive dancers and hearing a nice tune. So why quibble?
II. There are people who don’t like Shakespeare, who consider him the darling of drama critics or academic types, and incomprehensible or irrelevant to modern audiences.
These people are also wrong. But it’s harder to blame them.
At their best, the comedies contain great lines of dialogue, as well as warmth and romance that can be discovered and rediscovered anew by performers and audiences. Still, for some people, the very name “Shakespeare” is as Kryptonite to Superman. Now, some might argue that the Bard is in a better position than are musicals, given that we have recently had new filmed versions of Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet, not to mention the award-winning Shakespeare In Love. But regardless of how good any of these films are or aren’t, on average you’ll find them hovering around 120 on any list of film grosses for their respective years: not exactly Independence Day numbers. It seems clear that the plays still have stones tied round their necks when it comes to swimming in the popular acceptance sea. But it isn’t, in my view, because mass audiences don’t “get it.” That implies the failure is on the part of the audiences, and, it ain’t necessarily so. The problem is that most people have been the victims of well-meaning English instructors who teach the plays as though they were meant to be read: they are meant to be spoken and heard; they are meant to be seen.
Branagh’s film is full of delightful verbal and visual rhythms. He and his cast are as capable with the verse as you would expect from the man who has made something like half of all the film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work in the past 10 years, and who even now has two more in the works. More importantly, Branagh seems to understand that in Shakespeare, the emotions are larger than the language. If you get them right, they will illustrate the text.
Don’t think I’m underestimating the words; emotions without text are as artless as text without emotion, and Shakespeare’s text is as cunning as you can get at giving form to those emotions. In the hands of able actors, Shakespeare’s “taffeta phrases, silken terms, precise, three-piled hyperboles, and spruce affections” are a passport to the land of milk and honey.
III. There are people who will say that in making a musical film of a Shakespearian play, Branagh was courting a magnificent folly.
These people are right. There have only been a handful of such adaptations, and only two could be called outstanding, Kiss Me Kate (with, incidentally, an original score by Porter) and West Side Story. But to make a new film that rarely changes the original language, yet dares to use that dialogue as a lead in to these well-known songs well, it could have been so ugly.
Guess what. It works. I went to sleep last night with a smile on my face, thinking of this film. We expect good Shakespeare from Branagh, but the musical aspect here makes it more than just another of his adaptations. Not all of the actors have sung professionally before, but they throw themselves into their steps and vocals with much emotion, beginning in the first scene, when Berowne tries to dissuade his younger friends from their chosen path of abstinence by singing, “I’d Rather Charleston.” It’s loopy, it’s silly, and it should work a treat at getting the audience in the mood for what they are about to see. And this is precisely what the opening number of a musical is supposed to do.
The rest of the musical numbers follow suit. Approached by the men shortly after their arrival, the women blithely rebuke their advances with “I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me,” in which the theatrical nature of this venture is underscored by McElhone’s Rosaline cheekily looking right at the “audience” on one line. Berowne is a romantic soul who, as the eldest of the men, has more of an overview of life than the others. He is the first to question the wisdom of the King’s ban on women and the first to act on his feelings. He is also the first to discover that his companions have similarly fallen, in a standout scene in which they arrive separately at the library and each, thinking he is unobserved, sings part of “I’ve Got A Crush On You.”
Most of the performers also do well with their characters, apart from the music. Nivola’s King is memorable mostly in his playful exchanges with Silverstone. From the moment they meet, they are warring with words that would make Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks sick. Silverstone doesn’t have to do much but act the goofily exhilarated young girl meeting a cute boy while on holiday with her friends. You won’t be surprised to hear she can handle that aspect of the role. But a twist at the end requires her to pull herself together quickly and assume a somber weight, and she carries it off effectively. I’m not saying she’s ready for Lady Macbeth or anything, but there just may be more to this young woman than meets the eye.
And no one shames him- or herself with the dancing, which is character-driven and eccentric. The amusing incongruity of Lillard’s gawky form, for example, makes up for any lack of inborn grace. In the “I’ve Got a Crush on You” number, Lester dances away with furniture and the scene. Admittedly, it’s pretty apparent here and elsewhere which members of the cast are experienced musical performers (that is, Lester and Nathan Lane as Costard the vaudeville clown) and which are not (Lillard). As the clown, Lane has two very specific functions: to make the audience laugh (easily achieved, for my part) and to be a plot device (he accidentally exchanges two letters he’s supposed to deliver to two women). He handles both functions ably and good lord, the man even makes “There’s No Business Like Show Business” work without being draped in corn.
If you are one of those who are frightened away by musicals or Shakespeare, you may want to resist this musical Shakespeare. But to you I would say: come on in, the water’s fine. This film is colorful and flighty and insubstantial and sentimental, and exults in it.