“I don’t know how anybody survives in this life without someone like you”
I’ve actually been sitting on this review since November, when I was lucky enough to attend a screening of New York love story The Last Five Years at the Prince Charles Cinema thanks to What’s On Stage. We weren’t told to strictly observe an embargo but rather asked to wait before writing about it until the film’s release in the UK. Now it came out in the USA on Friday and as per the below tweet from Jason Robert Brown, the writer of the original show on which the film is based, we could be waiting a wee while before we even get a release date here. Which is a shame, as Richard LaGravenese’s filmic adaptation of this almost entirely sung-through tale deserves a fair crack of the whip, especially as it could have ridden on the over-exposed musical theatre coat-tails of Into the Woods into our cinemas.
Anyhow, the conceit of the story is that novelist Jamie and actress Cathy’s relationship is played out from two perspectives concurrently – at the beginning we see Jamie in the full flush of new romance with the headily seductive ‘Shiksa Goddess’ but Cathy’s first song is the exquisitely bitter pain of ‘Still Hurting’, five years down the line when they’ve split up. Each then gives us their side of the story but moving in opposite directions in time, enhancing the bittersweet beauty of a love that just ought to be. Onstage it means there’s only one point in the show, their marriage at the midpoint, where the two actors co-exist in the same scene but what’s fascinating about the film is that in fleshing out both accounts, they’re both utterly present and interactive throughout the whole thing, and it works.
It would be interesting to see it with someone who doesn’t know the show in advance to see how they respond but for me, what we get in having the pair interact throughout the story is a real sense of real people in a real relationship. ‘The Schmuel Song’ (never one of my favourites) becomes a gorgeous moment of tenderness between the couple as he strives to give her the gift not just of a smile on her face but hope in her heart (her interjections in the song are absolutely inspired, they will make a fan out of anyone I’m sure of it). And turning ‘A Summer In Ohio’ into a Skype (almost-)booty call similarly reinforces the connection between them as her job (a rep season out in the sticks, brought vividly to life with some great choreography and visual humour) pulls them apart even as they’re newly married.
It’s a different take on the story, a thoughtful interpretation and one which is undoubtedly more cinematic. And as such, it makes a great advert for new musical theatre writing without ever feeling like a lazy replication of a stage show. It is helped of course by some excellent casting. Jeremy Jordan has a beautifully easy charisma that makes him a joy to watch even whilst Jamie is being a tool and Anna Kendrick continues to establish herself as one of the premier actors of her generation with a performance full of genuine heart and heartbreak and her effervescently gorgeous voice. It’s also great to see LaGravenese pay tribute to the show’s history – Jason Robert Brown himself gets a cameo as do the two women who’ve played Cathy Off-Broadway, Sherie Rene Scott and Betsy Wolfe.
Brown’s witty way with a lyric as well as his ability to convey heartfelt emotion through his music makes it an excellent musical, but it is Steven Meizler’s elegant cinematography and LaGravenese’s direction that has made an effective film and it’s one that I would highly recommend – both for newcomers to the source materials and for those who will be as excited as I was to actually get to see the midget, the stripper and Wayne the snake as well as the Wallensteins.