New York Film Festival 2016: 'Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened' + Aquarius'
A bittersweet documentary looks back at the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece that almost was, and Sonia Braga slaps old age (plus racism, classism, and Brazilian corruption) right in the face.
Lonny Price’s Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened faces a quandary right away. The end of the story told by the documentary, which had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, is known by almost everyone who might see it. The theater nerds who make up the likely audience are well aware that when Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along had its hugely anticipated 1981 Broadway premiere, it was doomed to fail in spectacular fashion.
Nevertheless, Price starts his film on a blast of goony optimism and keeps ratcheting up from there. It’s a particularly close-to-home story for him, as he was cast in Merrily We Roll Along’s improbably young cast. Director Hal Prince had a radical idea for Sondheim’s take on their source material, a 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play that runs in reverse, with the characters starting in middle age and regressing to their college years by the end. Instead of casting adult actors who could then play young, Prince wanted kids. So the casting call went out and thousands of eager hopefuls answered. Price, a 22-year-old Sondheim fanatic from New Jersey, was one of the lucky few who made the cut.
The fascinating early moments in Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened make use of footage shot by ABC for a making-of-the-musical documentary that was later abandoned. It’s like watching the greatest theater camp of all time, with all these bright-eyed kids (Price was one of the seniors, the youngest was only 16) perpetually agog over the fact that they are going to be in a Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince show. On Broadway.
At first, Price makes Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened something of a personal essay, describing with enthusiastic panache his obsessive love of the form in general and these practitioners in specific. (He had already worked as an office boy for Prince after writing a fan letter.) Then he broadens the circle, marrying rehearsal footage of other cast members like Tonya Pinkins and Jason Alexander (eight years before he won a Tony and nine before appearing in Seinfeld) with new interviews. (Although, incredibly, a gawky young Giancarlo Esposito can also be seen in the rehearsal footage, there is, unfortunately, no catch-up interview with him.) One actor remembers, “You felt like you were witnessing history.” That about sums up the type of enthusiasm that Price delivers here.
At the same time, the film includes warning signs that have a particularly ominous note. The performances that we see are peppy as hell. No surprise given Sondheim’s rich and unusually up-tempo score. (Price wisely keeps threading the music throughout, so the hair on your arm is almost continually standing up.) The problem with that is the musical itself is ultimately a downbeat piece, filled with questions, as Sondheim notes in the film, about disillusionment, betrayal, and selling out. These aren’t the easiest emotions for these eager young strivers to portray, at least in the glimpses we see here.
The coming difficulties are hinted at by Prince's directorial arrogance. After casting all those youngsters, he suddenly decides to get rid of all the costumes for the show’s changing eras and dress them in plain shirts that feature their characters' names on the front. He may have had reason to feel confident. Prince and Sondheim had just come off a decade of occasionally successful collaborations, from 1970’s Company to 1979’s surprise hit Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, whose frequently rapturous critical response likely left them feeling confident in their choices.
In this case, though, the collapse comes quickly. As Abigail Pogrebin (who went on to become an author and TV producer) recalled, confused and disappointed audience members were just streaming for the doors: “I remember singing to the backs of people.” Although Sondheim offers a mordant quip about the ensuing frantic reworking being like every Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musical about putting on a show (slipping scripts under doors late at night and such), the documentary moves on a little too quickly to the post-mortem. While it might be useful to see how the players deal with their disenchantment, the padded where-are-they-now material reads too much like local news human interest segments. Moreover, this emotional diary of fractured dreams and hard-fought successes doesn't explore why it took until the 2012 London production for Merrily We Roll Along to get a real critical reckoning.
Sonia Braga in Aquarius (2016)
Almost as theatrical as any of the real-life hoofers in Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, the fictional heroine of Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius sees the whole world as a stage for her to command. It’s a testament to Sonia Braga’s control that she doesn’t turn this character into a domineering bore, even as she's at the center of an overly spacious and repetitive narrative with too little to occupy herself.
Aquarius, which had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival, sets viewers up for what looks to be an epic-sized portrait of a neighborhood. It opens with a montage of black-and-white aerial photographs of a beachside neighborhood in the northwestern Brazilian city of Recife. Full of broad boulevards and clean, modernist towers, it looks like an idyllic planned community straight out of some '60s urban renewalist’s dreams. The film then presents a miniature tableau that haunts almost everything that follows.
On a night in 1980, the young Clara (Barbara Colen) is celebrating her recovery from cancer and also the 70th birthday of her Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez). The scene is drenched in honeyed nostalgia, from the car lazily turning on the beach while the sound system blasts “Another One Bites the Dust”, to the party’s intertwined notes of celebration of sadness and the camera’s warm brownish tint, like an old photograph left out too long in the sun.
Cutting from there to the present day, Clara (Braga) reappears as a 65-year-old widow living in the same apartment in the same small building across from the beach. The nostalgia that coated the party scene and the opening montage is stripped bare now. It's present day, no filter on the camera, just natural lighting and the grind of everyday life. But Clara is in thrall to the past: with her vinyl music and faraway stare, she can’t quite connect with today.
As soon becomes clear, however, Clara is no weak widow needing a friendly stranger’s arm to cross the street. She’s a fighter. Soon she’s got a cause. The developer who has bought her building, the Aquarius, has bought out literally every other resident but her. He keeps upping the offer and moving on to some standard-issue landlord harassment, hoping she will sell out, so he can knock the place down and build a brand-new residential tower. No matter that she’s living in what one of her sons calls a “ghost building”. Clara stays on.
As in Filho’s Neighboring Sounds, the focus here is on place, atmosphere, and the emotional and physical skirmish zones that grow up between family and neighbors in close quarters. His narrative strikes out occasionally from its home base of Clara’s beautifully appointed apartment, with its flowing curtains and view of the ocean. But few of her interactions with the people in her wide circle of relatives and friends, lead much of anywhere. The film is more comfortable inside Clara’s spiky relationship with her loneliness (the joints and wine, one night with a gigolo) or her enemies (the landlord, the class system, corruption, the invisible line dividing the white beach from the black).
Aquarius features many moments of beauty and moody discomfort, but Filho’s treatment can seem occasionally narcotized and, and at other times, overplays the symbolism that occasionally juts in. Lumps of termite-infested wood remind us that the state is rotten, and the dresser in Clara’s apartment triggers an amusingly lusty flashback in Lucia during the earlier party scene. Yes, the past is never past.
As a real estate agent might say, the film has good bones. But what’s laid on them is unfortunately often not enough to hold attention, even given Braga’s fierce, aristocratic devotion to the role.