The movie musical has an expected disposition, especially in the modern age where it seems only the realm of lavish stage adaptations with glitzy spectacles and glitzier stars trying to compensate for the notes they barely carry past the camera operator.
Other than also being an adaptation from a stage show, Richard LaGravenese’s The Last Five Years avoids all of these frills, making for a strikingly intimate and stripped down affair—an indie that lives up to its Off-Broadway pedigree by resting solely on the performances of its leads Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, two performers who can more than carry a tune. Indeed, they fling them across an eclectic range from tragic to revelatory while still finding time to take a few deserved jabs at Russell Crowe’s singing voice. And they earn it too.
Playing the theatre world’s equivalent of Annie Hall (though at far higher stakes with the amount of time raised in this half-decade relationship), the two actors respectively embody the characters of Cathy and Jamie to soulful effect. Their reversed reflections on a shared love and marriage, and its ultimate disintegration (which is revealed in the first scene), commands the bright hot spotlight of Jason Robert Brown’s music, lyrics and book; it’s a private study for a couple whose love story got only solos, seemingly oblivious for both parties that it needed to be duets all along.
Like its title suggests, The Last Five Years chronicles a New York couple that has been together since right after college for the better part of a decade and married for several of those years. However, it’s all over when the picture opens with Cathy coming home to find that her lover is gone for good, leaving only a “Dear John” note in his absence. After a raw piano ballad about “Still Hurting,” we are treated to an intriguing narrative knot: Cathy begins recalling their love story in reverse—from the bad times to way back when, during their heavenly first Brooklyn date. Each of these sequences, which is colored in by Cathy’s singing voice alone, is contrasted with how Jamie remembers things during his solos with a chronological order of alternating scenes that start at their beginning–and for Jamie that is of course from the first time they went to bed together.
With two separate perspectives and singing voices, we are constantly bearing witness to narrative confessions, harmonizing through a vocal mise en scene their pain and the joy of an eventually failed marriage. The only time the actual voices mingle is at the film’s midpoint where there is a proposal and a wedding; for a brief moment, they’re in perfect accord.
The nonlinear approach of The Last Five Years aptly plays to the film’s minimalist vantage, which puts a strong moratorium on dancing extras, save for Cathy’s scenes as a struggling actress who bounces from one failed audition or community theater production to the next. The technique for the most part wisely underscores the “independent” nature of both the film and its Off-Broadway source material, but it should be noted that that besides the engagement, the characters of Cathy and Jamie never shared the stage in theatre. Rather, they are singing to an invisible partner and before a judging audience. The film shrewdly takes a more straightforward approach to this love story, as the imagined fights and reactions are captured onscreen, finding a necessary vitality.
But lest musical theatre fans recoil, there is a strategy to how these characters interact with one another in a script that includes Cathy and Jamie talking to many friends, colleagues, and even one another, yet almost everything that comes out of their mouths seems a lie or a denial. They are never speaking their mind unless they’re singing it, and that is when the passion and romance, as well as the tears, really flow in a nearly wall-to-wall musical.
Showcasing a very 20th century poppy sound, these characters retain Jason Robert Brown’s songs that feel intentionally rooted in the songwriter grooves of the 1970s. Jamie very well may have been born around the block from fellow New York storyteller Billy Joel, as there is a piano key rocker DNA to all of the highly descriptive melodies and lyrics, such as when Jamie, a successful novelist by trade, enchants his girlfriend (while talking about himself and his stories) during “The Schmuel Song.”
The film’s one drawback is that while the songs pulsate with life, either by design or budget, LaGravenese’s direction does little to compensate for the majority of the sequences taking place in an Upper West Side apartment. Mostly panning back and forth, the camera usually does not get much more of a cinematic workout than that of the aforementioned dinged Les Misérables. Otherwise, the traditional Manhattan Love Story iconography is heavily relied upon to fill in the margins. Luckily, they know where their advantages lie too.
Neither Jordan nor Kendrick is a stranger to musical theatre, but the latter is determined to resurrect the phrase “movie musical star.” Kendrick got her start with a Tony nomination for a musical at 12-years-old and has since crossed over to the pop ballads of Pitch Perfect movies and the more impressive Stephen Sondheim adaptation Into the Woods. But it’s with The Last Five Years that Kendrick really announces herself as a powerhouse, handling Brown’s music with ease for a film musical that was recorded live on set—at apparently 15 to 20 takes a song, according to press materials. Without ever seeming to be in want of a studio’s protection, Kendrick’s vocalizations alternate from playfully aggravated and unapologetically romantic, and Cathy gets the best musical moment of the film during a hellacious community theatre montage that finally gets out of the apartment (and finds the big laughs) for the showstopper, “A Summer in Ohio.”
Jordan, also hailing from theatre (as we have reviewed in the past), brings a similar choral powerhouse to Jamie, plus a needed boyish charm. However, he seems somewhat restrained in utilizing his charisma since Jamie’s inherent narcissism both handicaps the character in terms of sympathy and also sinaglone appeal during the film’s very stuffed 94 minutes.
The Last Five Years offers a layered and adult vision for relationships and why they can end, leaving plenty of the blame at both parties’ feet in the process. But it also achieves this through a Valentine’s Day charm that never feels anything less than romantic or even sweet, in spite of the early taste of bitter. But its most impressive accomplishment is that it’s a dramatic musical about real people with a song in their heart and, for once, in their voice too.
The Last Five Years is in theaters and on VOD on Feb. 13th. In the meantime, join me for a few notes on Twitter.