My anxiety levels were high going into “The Prom,” Ryan Murphy’s latest kitschy Technicolor extravaganza for Netflix. After all, this is a film in which Meryl Streep raps – and the only things below that on my nightmare list are “Get stuck in a lift with Yair Netanyahu” and “Let Stephen Miller babysit the kids.”
Well, the good news is that Streep’s rap (sample rhyme: “If somebody starts in with new drama / Just go high like Michelle Obama”), only appears briefly over the end credits in this shamelessly over-the-top musical that folks are either going to love or loath.
It’s as subtle as a Sean Hannity monologue, albeit a lot less hate-filled, and you’ll know within about 90 seconds whether this glittery confection is for you.
Here’s a simple test to see whether you’ll like it: If I tell you that the songs and performances are infectious, like a cross between “The Book of Mormon” and a gay “High School Musical,” and you respond “Infectious? You mean like COVID-19?” – this is probably not the film for you. Luckily, there’s a documentary coming up on the Yorkshire Ripper that sounds more your kind of thing.
In truth, there were fleeting moments in “The Prom” when I thought a musical about Peter Sutcliffe might actually be preferable to Murphy’s remorselessly feel-good, embrace-the-cheese tale. He does have an unerring ability to make audiences cringe with some of his on-screen antics (a few scenes here achieved the rare feat of making me cringe and cry simultaneously) – whether that be in the “Glee” TV show that established his brand or the recent Netflix messes that were “Ratched” and “The Politician.”
Overall, though, I was surprisingly swept up in this unabashed paean to gay rights and the right of all thespians to camp it up as if RuPaul were their acting coach.
You’ve got to hand it to Murphy, at least, for breathing new life into a dying genre: the film musical. In the same way that the decline of print media must have played havoc with kidnappers trying to dispatch ransom notes, it must be increasingly hard to persuade anyone to green-light a Hollywood musical these days – especially since an investment in the manufacture of gramophone players offers about the same rate of return.
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The list of high-profile flops over the past decade is so long it’s visible from space: “Cats,” “Les Misérables,” “Into the Woods,” “Burlesque,” “Nine” … unless your soundtrack was penned by a couple of bearded Swedish guys who last had a hit when Ronald Reagan was president, it’s probably smarter to just leave it to the public and stick the end product on TikTok à la “Ratatouille.”
The truly remarkable thing about Murphy is that stars gravitate to him like moons around Saturn. In addition to Streep – who really does seem to be choosing her new roles based solely on how much pleasure they’re going to give her, never mind the audience – “The Prom” also stars Nicole Kidman in a lesser role where she channels her inner Marilyn Monroe as a perennial chorus girl. It’s not a big part by any means, but the fact that Kidman was willing to go along for the ride highlights Murphy’s pulling power (okay, and the bottomless money pit at Netflix).
It’s Streep who gets all the killer lines, though – “I understand furious townsfolk; I did ‘Beauty and the Beast’” – as narcissistic, aging Broadway star Dee Dee Allen (Patti LuPone, call your lawyer). As a sign of that narcissism, she’s not averse to whipping out her two Tony awards in an effort to impress the locals in an Indiana backwater called Edgewater.
What’s she doing there? Well, she and her co-star in a musical flop about Eleanor Roosevelt realize they desperately need to boost their public image. So, they hit upon the idea of becoming “actor activists” on behalf of a schoolkid, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellmann), who’s being denied the opportunity to attend her school prom because she’s gay. And no, you do not need to wait long before a song couples “thespian” with “lesbian.”
You also won’t need to wait long for another musical about LGBTQ rights and proms to come along – the British “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” follows early next year. The two films are likely to be chalk and cheese, however: The money spent on lighting alone in “The Prom” is likely to be greater than the entire budget for “Jamie.”
Strangely, the casting of James Corden as Dee Dee’s “Eleanor” co-star Barry Glickman shouldn’t work at all in “The Prom”: The British actor is nearly 30 years Streep’s junior, even though he’s playing FDR to her Eleanor in the Roosevelt musical, and is perhaps the most assimilated Glickman in American history.
Yet I found that his performance – which seems to be modeled on the note “Like Liberace, but campier” – gave the film some actual heart and (mostly) kept it just the right side of mawkish. He also has great fun with lines like “I am as gay as a bucket of wigs – a bucket of them!” and “You could wear that [dress] to the prom. Or keep it in case there’s a remake of ‘Little House on the Prairie.’” (Corden, of course, also starred in “Cats,” so if “The Prom” also flops, he may have to officially changed his name to Corden-off.)
If quite a few of the lines are zingers, the same isn’t quite so true for the tunes, which are witty rather than whistleable – this is definitely more “Roosevelt: The Musical” than “Hamilton.” The brassy orchestration, meanwhile, is very much the Great White Way way (the original stage version of “The Prom” first premiered on Broadway in 2018.)
Still, for anyone looking for seasonal cheer and a Day-Glo-colored message of inclusivity at the end of this wretched year, “The Prom” is just the thing.
Any great music documentary has to do two things:
1. Make you care for the performer/band, even if you don’t necessarily care for their music.
2. Feature a classic rags-to-riches-and-back-again arc in which success is achieved against the odds and then frittered away due to band rivalries, jealousies and feuds, fueled by more pharmaceuticals than in a Pfizer warehouse.
“The Go-Go’s” – finally arriving in Israel after debuting at Sundance at the start of the year and airing on Showtime over the summer – is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. Period.
What’s not to love about a story that includes a veritable “greatest hits” of rockumentary quotes, including “In the space of a year we had gone from playing dive bars to Madison Square Garden”; “I basically learned all of their songs on a coke binge”; “Being in a band, you become each other’s best friends and each other’s worst enemies”; and, of course, the all-time classic “We didn’t speak to each other for five years after that.”
The five-piece, all-girl group fronted by Belinda Carlisle remains the only female band to write their own material and reach No. 1 with their debut album. The group proceeded to sell millions of records before imploding in the mid-’80s as various band members struggled with addictions, life-threatening illnesses, depression and – the silver bullet for every single band since time immemorial – the huge wealth disparity between the songwriters and the spear (aka drumstick) carriers.
The Go-Go’s emerged at a key moment in music history, of course: at the tail end of punk and the emergence of MTV. And it’s fascinating to see their transition from female punks learning on the job to semi-slick pop stars in the space of a few years.
Along the way, there are the trademark betrayals (original band members unceremoniously given the push), tales from the tour bus (any documentary that features the line “Bridlington was pretty shitty” will always have a special place in my heart, referring to the band’s baptism-of-fire England tour in 1981) and wonderful sense of camaraderie that still shines through in the present-day interviews – done separately with all of the members, surviving and ex, and their original manager – some 35 years after the group’s heyday.
I would have liked a few more female voices to tell us why The Go-Go’s mattered and how they truly changed the music industry, but the wealth of footage of them as they emerged from Los Angeles’ punk scene at the end of ’70s and their subsequent tours is a joy (and I write this as someone without a single Go-Go’s record to his name).
As well as compiling the evocative footage, director Alison Ellwood also deserves praise for getting the bandmates to talk so frankly about where it all went right – and wrong. (Ellwood also directed another brilliant music documentary this year, the two-part “Laurel Canyon,” which is also essential viewing if you can track it down.)
Which band member proves the most outlandish and recounts the most memorable stories? To quote a certain Go-Go’s title, our lips are sealed. You’ll just have to watch the documentary and decide for yourself.
HBO continues to be an amazing source for documentaries that paint a disturbing portrait of America. Most recently it was “Baby God,” about a Los Vegas fertility specialist who used his own sperm samples to impregnate an as-yet-unknown number of female patients over the course of five decades.
Now it’s “Alabama Snake,” an unnerving tale about Pentecostal preacher and snake handler Glenn Summerford, who was accused of attempting to murder his wife by forcing her to stick her hand in a box of rattlesnakes (twice) in October 1991.
Our guide for this in some ways mundane and in some ways extraordinary tale is Thomas G. Burton, a folklorist (great occupation in case they ever resurrect “What’s My Line?”) and “closet anthropologist” who has spent over 40 years studying the mountain people of Appalachia, with a particular interest in Summerford’s case.
Ophidiophobia is defined as the abnormal fear of snakes, but personally I don’t find anything abnormal in fearing a reptile that can kill you in various unpleasant ways. But while I didn’t have a problem watching the amazing archive footage of snake handlers waving around rattlesnakes during church services, people who really hate snakes may find some of these scenes unwatchable.
Mind you, it’s not just the snakes that are hard to handle. Some of the stories recounted here about the Summerford family are grueling to see and hear: brutal childhoods, tragic deaths – and we haven’t even mentioned the state of some of the interviewees’ teeth.
This is a rural, dirt-poor world where sentences like “A raccoon jumped out of the purse” and “I hit him on the side of his head and his eyeball come out on his nose” are just par for the course. Then there’s the family member who’s interviewed literally hanging out at his “man cave” in the woods.
With its stories of demons, serpents, alleged incest and “psycho preachers,” director Theo Love’s documentary won’t do much for tourism in Scottsboro – the Alabama city around which most of the story revolves, and which already had something of an image problem given the events of 1931 and those “Scottsboro Boys.”
Mind you, even the Southern city comes out better than the Pentecostal church we see in footage from the ’60s and ’70s, with congregants being bitten by snakes and in various states of hillbilly craziness.
I wouldn’t necessarily call this particular “Snake” a charmer, but it’s impossible not to be gripped by its portrait of a little-seen, widely ridiculed community. Indeed, it’s indicative of how these communities are usually represented on our screens that it’s nigh-on impossible not to occasionally add your own “dueling banjos” soundtrack to the many woodland scenes, just like in “Deliverance.” There’s a reason “Appalachian Stereotypes” has its own Wikipedia entry.
“The Prom” is out now on Netflix. “Alabama Snake” is available to download now on Cellcom tv, Hot VOD, Yes VOD and Sting TV, and airs on Yes Docu this Monday at 10 P.M. “The Go-Go’s” airs on Yes Docu this Wednesday at 10 P.M. and Hot 8 at 10:05 P.M. It’s also available to download thereafter on Yes VOD, Hot VOD and Sting TV.