Happy Birthday America, and happy B-day to me, too (well, I’m today, July 3 🙂 )
Anyway, in the spirit of the time of year, here’s a movie review that fits very nicely. By the way, all movies I’ll review (now and in the future – I plan to talk about movies a bit more, as I’m a real “Cinema” buff) are available on DVD.
If one looks at movies as a magical multi-hour escape from reality, then the musical genre ranks near the top of the list. I mean, what could be more escapist and fantastic as ordinary people bursting into song and dance as they interact? The musical has been a big part of film history, with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and even street gangs singing and dancing their way through the rain, on ceilings, and in almost any other imaginable scenario. It seems nothing was too ludicrous to put to music. But even knowing how full-blown and over-the-top musicals are, one could still find the concept of a musical starring the Founding Fathers a bit silly. If I didn’t like this movie so much, I’d probably join in and laugh at it, too.
The movie I refer to is 1776, and it is indeed a musical about the Second Continental Congress, which for those of you who failed history, convened in 1775-1776 and formally created America. The movie was adapted from the play of the same name, and indeed features many of the same actors who starred in the Broadway production. For those of you who are thinking a movie with a singing and dancing Ben Franklin sounds like a terrible idea, let me dispel that notion right away – as silly as it may sound, 1776 is a first-rate musical, and one of my favorite movies of all time (I have about 800 “favorite” movies). But really, I love the film, I watch it yearly (right around July 4th, of course), and I always find it fresh and fun. I have recommended it to many people – and not one person has come away disappointed.
1776 tells a story most Americans don’t really know – how the Declaration of Independence came about. Oh sure, we all know the founding fathers got together in Philadelphia and declared independence, but most people don’t know much more than that. There are many familiar names in this movie – Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, etc etc, but how many people know Dickenson? Or Hopkins? Or how important they were?
1776 shows us the whole story, in an over-the-top manner that is both fun and surprisingly accurate (well, as accurate as a musical can be.) I’m a big fan of the revolutionary period, and I can only find a few minor things to nitpick about in this movie (such as the fact that they all didn’t sign it on July 4, etc). But for the most part, the “big picture” view of the events and congressional arguments depicted prettymuch happened. What I’m saying is, you can learn something watching this movie.
And argue these men do. If you think our present congress is gridlocked, wait until you see “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams (brilliantly played by William Daniels) and John Dickenson go at it. Or Ben Franklin lecture Edward Rutledge. Trying to keep peace is Congress president John Hancock, while Thomas Jefferson just wants to get the damn Declaration written so he can go see his wife. The Declaration did not come about easily.
These are famous men, and playing them requires some degree of acting skill. I’m stunned that nobody in this film got a nomination for any acting Oscar, as many of the portrayals are really well done (especially Daniels as Adams… hey, did you know he was the voice of KITT in the 80’s version of Knight Rider?)
Also depicted very well is the famous “Dearest Friend” correspondence between Adams and his wife Abigail. Taking many of the words/feelings right from their letters, the two are presented talking to each other while not really being together in a physical sense – it’s cleverly done. The film also uses a noted “play” prop in the huge calendar that depicts the date. When it needs to be tomorrow, someone comes in and rips the date off, and it’s tomorrow (err.. today?) These small elements translated very well to the screen.
I must mention the songs themselves, as they are really memorable, and jump right out at you. From the boisterous opening number “Sit Down, John” to Adams and Abigail doing “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve” to the hilarious “But Mr. Adams”, featuring Adams, Jefferson and Franklin prancing their way to conning someone (Jefferson) into writing the historic document, the songs are amongst the most “clever” I have seen in a musical (whew – that was a long sentence.) In fact, the actors clearly have fun with the songs, occasionally breaking form and chastising the singers for singing. Very funny.
1776 is a wonderful way to spend a few hours and learn a little bit about American history as well. It’s fun, it’s fairly factual, and it depicts the colonial period very well. Highly recommended, whether you think you’ll like a musical or not.