This is a biased review. I’m putting it out there early because it’s going to become pretty obvious pretty soon. I’m a huge musical lover, do live theatre and musical and have a particular love of The Prom stage production. I remember watching this show and not only feeling the laughter but also the undeniable importance mixed with a heart that so few stage productions can seem to master. Put simply, when you can merge a message with genuine heart and comedy, that is a recipe for success.
But all musicals don’t necessarily translate well to the film environment. Sometimes there is just that undeniable magic that live theatre possesses that, for any number of reasons, just plain fails to transfer in front of the lens. I’m happy to report that this is not one of those circumstances. Ryan Murphy has faithfully adapted this Broadway hit while changing what he must to make it work. It’s not devoid of issues, but it’s a damn fun ride.
The film follows lesbian teenager Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) in a small town in Indiana who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom. Seems easy enough but the overzealous PTA President (Kerry Washington) decides to cancel the entire prom rather than get into the civil rights fight that would follow from barring one student based on their sexual identity.
Meanwhile in New York City, the new Eleanor Roosevelt musical starring stage legend Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and perennial also-ran Barry Glickman (James Corden) has opened and closed on the same night after scathing reviews for its two stars. Drowning their sorrows at Sardi’s the duo is joined by out-of-work Juliard grad Trent (Andrew Rannells) and forever chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman) who has just quit after being passed up to play Roxie Hart yet again. The quartet decide what they need is a cause to rehabilitate their selfish public perception and they find it in the young Emma.
But Emma isn’t exactly having an easy time. She’s already a pariah being an out teenager in a conservative Indiana town but now has an even bigger bullseye being the cause of the prom being cancelled in the students’ eyes. One student feels differently however in student President and over-achiever Alyssa Greene (Ariana Debose), Emma still closeted girlfriend of over a year. Oh and that PTA President happens to be her mother.
The Broadway stars descend on the town with a vengeance but fail at every turn in trying to help Emma’s cause including crashing the PTA meeting to shame the townsfolk and bombing at a monster truck rally in fantastic fashion. The more they try to help, the worse the situation gets. It paints an interesting picture about who the script is really critiquing here. The cast is rounded out by Kevin Chamberlain as Dee Dee and Barry’s overwhelmed publicist, Mary Kay Place as Emma’s grandmother and Tracy Ullman.
Now being a musical much of the success has to depend on how good the songs are. This has been one of my favorite Broadway scores in the last decade because it has an incredible amount of pep and heart. Some might find that a little too cutesy but Chad Beguelin’s lyrics contain a good amount of edge not just with language but also with some very cutting satire of both bigotry and the pompous coastal elite mindset. Still at its heart its a score that is meant to entertain and boy does it.
The flash is in strong supply here whether it’s Dee Dee’s shame on you townspeople song “It’s Not About Me”, Trent giving a dose of Biblical truth to the teenagers of the town in “Love Thy Neighbor” or the pure adrenaline of getting ready for the big night in “Tonight Belongs To You”. But the score brings the heart in big terms as well. Emma’s opening solo “Just Breathe” is about as good of an introduction to a character as you can ask for and automatically endears us to the newcomer Pellman. The duet “Dance With You” is easily one of the best romantic musical duets of the last decade and if you’re not wiping away tears by the end of “Unruly Heart” you really might want to check your pulse.
But I have to call out specifically what I think is one of the best musical finale numbers of all time with “It’s Time To Dance”. I don’t want to give anything away but what composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Beguelin do with this energetic look forward to a better future is so infectious it’s the one part of the movie that I’ve watched more than a dozen times. I literally cannot get enough of this number.
Murphy is a Hollywood mainstay at developing shows and films but he hasn’t stepped behind the lens as much. However he shows a deft touch here with pacing. You would expect the creator of Glee to be able to stage dynamic looking musical numbers but it’s the smaller moments that show a great touch such as when Dee Dee and Barry lament their lost loves in a hotel room or when Emma is confronted with her biggest challenge yet. Murphy films these very close to the actors and lets us feel every amount of the anguish and heartbreak.
The actors are fully committed to the act and in a movie musical boy is that vital. Meryl Streep has become the defacto mature movie musical leading lady in recent years and she very suited to playing the pompous if conflicted Dee Dee Allen. Seeing Dee Dee transformation is one of the highlights of the film as it seems we’re almost a little better at critiquing the “woke” persona more than the “country folk” one. Kidman also is relishing in her role as the always-passed-over showgirl and has a great role as Emma’s source of strength in the second half of the film. Rannells is predictably entertaining and Corden shows his stage chops aren’t gone at all despite working behind a desk every night.
But the standouts here are Pellman and Debose. These two craft a very believable and very tender relationship and have the musical chops to stand out even from the stacked cast listed above. If there’s one big complaint it’s that the movie does seem to drag ever so slightly when these two aren’t on screen. That bodes very well for their future prospects as both are so endearing to the viewer in these roles. I’m very much looking forward to Debose’s turn as Anita in Spielberg’s West Side Story next year after seeing her performance here.
The film isn’t perfect but it’s got enough raw entertainment factor and showmanship to overcome any potential pitfalls. It’s been quite a winter season for films about inclusion and making a world where the gender of who someone loves truly just doesn’t matter. It’s always that line from the finale that sticks out to me, “…where music blares, and no cares, who your unruly heart loves”. It’s a great ideal to be sure and when that gets coupled with the pure razzmatazz of a boisterous musical, the combination isn’t just entertaining, it’s vital and cathartic. That’s something the world really could use now. Do yourself a favor and get a taste by watching The Prom on Netflix.
THE PROM drops on Netflix December 11th.