Amid the too-easy lessons learned in Let It Shine, Tyler James Williams captures beautifully the chameleon-like quality of young people on the cusp of independence.
Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac famously mocks the human predilection for distracting surfaces, in this case, physical beauty. Yet its cruelest joke is hard to know, whether it's the trick played by Christian and Cyrano on Roxanne, or the playwright's suggestion that if you are, as one of my students put it, "true to your own authentic self," the world will eventually fall at your feet. Like all romantic fiction, the play's main aim is to fuel the fantasies that keep us in line as we quietly live out our very unremarkable lives. Not surprisingly, it has enjoyed enormous success for the last hundred years, on stage, on radio, and in film.
Years of adaptations have showed that the straightest reading may not be the cleverest. Recent versions of the play have highlighted the sting in the tail: the pusillanimity of the central characters' behavior and the tragi-comedy of lives measured by looks and not by substance. Disney's new tween musical version, Let It Shine, on the other hand, wallows in self-affirmation and candy-flavored optimism, snagging the basic storyline from Rostand, but stripping away the wasted lives that result from the characters' actions. That said, Let It Shine sometimes zings, thanks to excellent acting by Tyler James Williams in the Cyrano role (here, Cyrus DeBarge) and a starry soundtrack melding hip-hop, gospel, and rap.
Let It Shine shifts the battle for Roxanne's love to suburban Atlanta, Georgia, where Cyrus directs the choir at his father's Baptist church and busses tables at a downtown, teen-friendly music club, where he hangs out in the shadow of his best friend, Kris (Trevor Jackson). Cyrus, a confident rapper in his home studio but too shy to stand up on stage, is running into problems. His father Jacob (Courtney B. Vance) bans the hip-hop he's using to jazz up the choir, and his grade-school crush, teen music phenom Roxanne Andrews (Coco Jones), assumes the cooler Kris wrote the romantic rap Cyrus penned for her under the pseudonym Truth.
This premise turns the sword fights of Rostand's original into witty rapping duels, with Brandon Mychal Smith's sneering Lord of Da Bling as the MC to beat. His snarky wit cuts competitors dead and helps to zap the sugar of the story. When Kris goes into the studio to record "his" rap, with multi-talented Cyrus alongside as his "engineer," Cyrus and Roxie end up debating her use of Auto-Tune. Here scriptwriters Eric Daniel and Don D. Scott use the romantic instruction that Roxie should be her "own authentic self" in order to expose the well-known problems with Auto-Tune, namely, its manufacture of yet another perfectionist fiction. When Roxie protests, "Everyone uses it," that doesn't absolve each person from making an individual decision.
Amid the lessons learned, Williams captures beautifully the chameleon-like quality of young people on the cusp of independence. One moment he's the geeky tie-and-cardigan-wearing accompanist, banging on the church organ and keeping the congregation rocking. The next he morphs into the weary busboy, mocked by Da Bling's crew, knowing he's good but lacking courage for the fight. Cyrus displays this uncertainty in front of his parents, at times the teenager chafing under their illogical prohibitions, at others the young adult with a life to make, despite and because of restraints. Williams' performance brings credibility to some very rocky scenes, such as the moment when he and Kris reveal their deception to Roxanne, just before her big performance. Unfortunately, no one else quite matches his conviction (although Vance appears to be enjoying his stint as the too-familiar fun-busting preacher).
Jones' acting as Roxanne rarely reaches the level of pedestrian, but she's the singer in the show, belting out showstoppers as comfortably as she tempers a troubled-love song. The set list in Let It Shine mixes up a teen-friendly palette of genres from gospel and pop to R&B and hip-hop, including as much secular aspiration as the religion of love. "Guardian Angel" includes a paean to the power of creativity that might inspire any hopeful writer: "I wanna be the greatest in the world," Cyrus asserts,
Not for the money, or the fame, or the girls,
Not for the car keys, jetiskis, or the vacation to the West Indies,
But simply 'cuz I love it.
When I write, I'm like a puppeteer,
Pullin' these strings til the melody sings.
And it honestly makes me spread my wings.
Combining ideas old and new, such lyrics indicate the soundtrack's basic eclecticism. And while this might appear a cynical bid for maximum audience appeal, it also highlights the continuum of development in American popular music, with its dual heritage in faith and exile, and especially, the role of black churches in nurturing that heritage.
Such allusions to creative legacy are pretty much lost, however, in the requisite happy Christian ending. Roxanne, last seen refusing to talk to Cyrus and Kris from her dark-tinted limo, inexplicably turns up at the DeBarges' church ready to reconcile. Dad, of course, decides hip-hop is okay. And Kris conveniently disappears as an impediment to the love match and musical partnership of Cyrus and Roxie (at least Rostand had the decency to give Christian a logical end by killing him off in battle). The various sorts of music must also be reconciled, and so the movie comes up with a hallucinogenic, all-singing-and-dancing finale, choreographed to the children's gospel song and civil rights anthem, "This Little Light of Mine."
All this contrivance doesn't quite obscure what Let It Shine does well. As Jackson phrases it, "Viewers don't have to know the history behind this movie to enjoy watching it. But I like the idea that somebody might be interested enough to want to go back and learn more about the original. If that could happen, that would be pretty great."