Once upon a time, in 2001, there was a musical. Beloved by dozens, this teeny-tiny song cycle told the story of an ordinary, five year relationship in a highly unusual way – from the woman’s point of view, we would be traveling backwards through time, from the end to the beginning, while from the man’s, we’d start at the beginning and move forward. Written by hot up-and-comer Jason Robert Brown, and stuffed full of fodder for cabarets everywhere, to have even heard of this show indicated a pretty deep nerdiness for musical theatre.
Meanwhile, at the cineplex, things are looking pretty dry for the musical lover. Sure, Evita came and went in 1996, but let’s not talk about that. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut came out a couple of years ago, and that was actually a pretty good musical! Moulin Rouge looks pretty crazy, and apparently has movie stars doing musical numbers in it, and people are actually seeing it! There’s supposed to be a film version of Chicago coming next year. But I don’t know…can Renée Zellweger sing?
Flash forward to 2015. Chicago, of course, won a bunch of Oscars, and proved that the trend of movie musicals kick-started by Moulin Rouge wasn’t going to just be a fluke. In the intervening years we’ve had studio releases of Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, heck, even Nine (actually…let’s not talk about that one either).
And now, we have a movie adaptation of that little musical-that-could, The Last Five Years, directed by Richard LaGravenese. In it stars Jeremy Jordan, straight from Broadway, and Anna Kendrick, a bonafide movie star with box office mojo (thanks to the surprise hit Pitch Perfect, another musicalized movie event), and then Into the Woods, which showed off her strong, trained musical theatre voice. The adaptation is aggressively faithful, with every song and only minor tweaks to smooth the transition to the screen. Moreover, it is an independent release, and simultaneously hitting limited theaters as well as video On Demand services like iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Instant Video.
In short, if you explained this to someone in 2001, they would never believe you. I certainly wouldn’t have.
Right from the get-go, LaGravenese starts making choices that define this specific world. We enter through Cathy’s (Anna Kendrick) point of view, after Jamie has already left her, and the world is awash in grey, courtesy cinematographer Steven Meizler, a world made emptier through wide angle lenses in small spaces. Cathy laments the lost time in “Still Hurting”, during which she barely moves, sings half the number in one take, welling up tears before your eyes, as the camera floats around her and through her empty apartment.
Kendrick sounds terrific, as usual, but it’s her emotional connection that really draws us in. Throughout the movie, we see a Cathy with a lot bubbling under the surface, yet so determined to say and do the “correct” thing that communication starts to suffer. You can see this in “See, I’m Smiling”, where she is clearly holding back her real feelings of frustration that Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) hasn’t been giving her more than the bare minimum of time. In this case, the acting choice benefits the biggest conceptual change from the stage musical – Jamie is physically present in the scene. Costumed by Ciera Wells in a suit and parted hair that may as well be a suit of armor, it’s still clear that Cathy is our P.O.V. character. We’re in an awkward moment, which Cathy is trying to fill with words, until things inevitably explode. (As a PG-13 release, the movie gets one f-bomb, and chooses it wisely.)
We’ve already met a young Jamie by this point, having jumped back after “Still Hurting” to 2008 or so, where Jamie and Cathy are consummating their relationship. The filters get warmer, the world gets sunny and bright (the over- vs. under-saturated picture being our main way of telling the halcyon past from the drab present). Once again, the choice to have Cathy physically present is justified by the two of them having VERY different priorities at the moment. Storyteller Jamie can’t stop editorializing (and, crucially, slipping into little un-realistic fantasy worlds), while Cathy just wants him to stop talking about his mom and exes and just, y’know, get to it! (Once again, Wells separates our non-P.O.V. character from us, with Cathy sporting intense highlights and looking like a pin-up girl).
For his part, Jordan oozes charm, and is a dynamite singer, naturally. I’ve had mixed opinions of Jordan in the past, but it’s safe to say that Smash’s Jimmy is finally dead and buried. Jordan turns in a deeply open performance, and his choices vocally prove consistently unique. As we progress down his road, we watch that suit of armor get put on, and how, indeed, success as a novelist really is “Moving Too Fast”, as he’s still too young to deal with all the attention, the women, and the focus asked of an eventual wife struggling with her own career. “Nobody Needs to Know,” Jamie’s late film reflection on his choices and failures, and where he makes a choice to ultimately abandon the relationship for his own survival, proves simultaneously the most I’ve ever sympathized with AND the most I’ve ever disliked Jamie, a remarkable simultaneous feat.
Where to watch The Last Five Years:
Google Play, and
Amazon Instant Video
very limited big screen release:
locally, see it Feb 20 at Angelica Popup at Union Market
Jordan and Kendrick show real chemistry throughout, best evidenced in “The Schmuel Song”, while Jamie uses his ample charms, impressions, and apartment choreography to get Cathy out of a rut. Here we see the biggest strengths of both actors, in Kendrick’s flawless, dry reaction quips, and Jordan’s seemingly boundless gusto. Chemistry isn’t limited to appealing moments, as the fights between the couple crackle as well. Even in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You”, where each character sings from a different time, you can see the deep connection that each character has to the idea of the other one, simultaneously hopeful and emblematic of the problems each one has in the relationship.
So here we are then, The Last Five Years on film and readily available for couches everywhere. I’m convinced that this release strategy is ingenious, and will work to the movie’s benefit for years to come. Case in point – during my first viewing, I found the individual vignettes to be quite strong, but the overall pacing of the movie to be a little jagged and seamed. Yet now, having watched it again, moments I found stylistically jarring, like fantasies or subtextual talking in real environments, meshed more into the whole.
In this world of shared clips and viral videos, I can picture individual chunks of this movie being shared and appreciated for their detail, priming the viewing experience to come of watching the whole piece. On first viewing the whole was not equal to the sum of its parts, but deeper understanding of those parts begins to reverse that. It is truly an instance of something getting better as you grow more familiar with it (unlike Into the Woods, a movie I loved that I can only see more flaws in each time I watch). For example, an idle spin of a lamp in “Nobody Needs to Know” proves a haunting reminder of better times from “Schmuel”.
As you can tell, I liked The Last Five Years quite a lot, and my appreciation is only deepening with familiarity. Only time, and the next five years, can tell if this is fleeting infatuation or the real deal.
Learn more at TheLastFiveYearsMovie.com