NOTE: This review was originally published on October 24, 2014 from the Austin Film Festival. I am re-publishing it today as it hits limited theaters and VOD this weekend.
At the beginning of every year, people make their lists of their most anticipated films of the coming twelve months. This January, films like Interstellar, Inherent Vice, Boyhood, and, for some, Captain America: The Winter Soldier topped lists all around the Internet. What about me? Well, I am a musical guy. So, clearly, Into the Woods would be my number one… Right? That is not the case. My highest anticipation was for something much smaller. Don’t think Broadway. Think off-Broadway. My most anticipated film of the year was Richard LaGravenese‘s adaptation of The Last Five Years. When I would tell people that, usually the first question I heard was, “What is that?” Well, person who just asked me that, it is a show that helped solidify my love for the musical form. It is a brutally honest, passionate, smart, and sometimes funny look at a five year relationship, built on one of the most beautiful scores ever put on a stage by Jason Robert Brown.
When you see the show, a film adaptation is not something that generally springs to mind. The way the show is constructed is in a series of, essentially, sung monologues bouncing back and forth between struggling actor Cathy (here played by Anna Kendrick) and successful novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), meeting for one duet in the middle. The reason for this presentation is that when he sings, the progression of the relationship is moving forward in time. When she sings, it is moving backwards. Typically, people complain about a film being too vocal, not letting the camera tell the story. This show is entirely vocal, so how does one translate that to the big screen?
LaGravenese takes the approach people who make movie musicals should take. He lets the score tell the story. Filmmakers sometimes get so scared of the musical numbers and feel the need to give them a distancing effect. The songs will take place in a character’s head or will only be performed on a stage to an audience. Yes, film is (mostly) a visual medium, but when you have material this rich and honest, you have to embrace it, otherwise everything will feel false. LaGravenese steps back and lets the actors perform these beautiful songs. You can tell he respects and admires this story so much, and that makes all the difference.
Because he takes a step back, he places a heavy load on the actors’ shoulders, and Kendrick and Jordan are more than up for the task. The two are asked to sing most of their songs live, and the rawness of the moment hits you extremely hard. Kendrick lamenting the end of their relationship in “Still Hurting” (not a spoiler; first scene of the movie) had my heart in a knot. Not only is it the first test to see if the film will work, it is a song filled with so much sadness and resentment which Kendrick plays perfectly. I can say that about every moment she is on screen. She has been someone I have loved for a long time, and this is her finest, most mature performance to date. I hope she gets recognized in some way for it because she more than deserves it. Jordan is no schlub either, bringing fiery anger to “If I Didn’t Believe In You” (done entirely in one take) and regret and self-loathing, while also knowing he has no other option to do what he did (which I won’t say) in “Nobody Needs To Know“.
As I said in the intro, the film is also quite funny, and this is when LaGravenese decides to have a bit more fun with the style. Songs like “Moving Too Fast” and, what was a showstopper in my theater, “A Summer in Ohio” showcase how affable and charming these two are, and you can totally understand why they would fall for one another. LaGravenese gives these songs dance choreography and fun cutaways to liven up the mood. He knows when moments need to linger and when they can be cut up for fun.
What makes all of these numbers even more resonate is Kendrick and Jordan sound beautiful when they sing. I enjoyed Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les MisÃ©rables, particularly for using live singing, but I think we all can say the cast they assembled were not the greatest singers. One in particular got a lot of flack, which this film has some fun with. Here, the two sing full voiced and never sacrifice a single ounce of emotion. They do not “act-sing”. They are acting and singing simultaneously, which is what someone performing this kind of material should be able to do. They trust if they sing Jason Robert Brown’s score the way it was meant to be sung, it will do a lot of the work for them, and it does.
What I love most about the score is how brutal its honesty is. In the aforementioned “If I Didn’t Believe in You”, Jamie has a line which shakes me every time I hear it: “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy. I will not lose because you can’t win.” It is such a harsh thing to say to someone, particularly someone you are emotionally involved with, but it is the kind of venom you could only muster up to spit at someone you love. This film is filled with countless moments like that. You think about all the horrible things you have said to a loved one, all of the best moments, your own insecurities, and every emotion under the sun when it comes to a relationship.
I do not know how this will play to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the musical. I don’t know if they will get the interconnected moments between songs, such as lyrics repeated in very different contexts. I do not know if this very tell-heavy approach will work for some people. I do know it worked perfectly for me.
The Last Five Years is a movie I have wanted, and have wanted to make, for a long time, and I think Richard LaGravenese delivers the film this show deserves. Is it the “best” film I have seen this year? No. Is it the one I will want to watch over and over and probably sit at number one on my top ten list at the end of the year? Yes.