The Prom Review: Heartwarming, frenetic and dazzling fun

Despite the controversy surrounding James Corden’s casting, Ryan Murphy delivers a blockbuster spectacle

Starring Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Ariana DeBose, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Chamberlin, Mary Kay Place, Kerry Washington, and Jo Ellen Pellman

Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, and currently Netflix’s wonder child, has done a spectacular job of adapting Broadway’s The Prom into a dazzlingly energetic and uplifting movie. It does not sacrifice anything of what made the stage show so special, but manages to add to it in the way of scale that a Broadway budget simply cannot satisfy. This is also clearly a story very close to Murphy’s heart, on the basis of his comments about being unable to take a date to his own Prom in his youth in Indiana. Unfortunately, however, the decision to cast James Corden as one of the leads has completely overshadowed the brilliant work on display here.

Most of the press surrounding The Prom has revolved around Corden’s performance as overly theatrical and camp, mincing around the screen and with an unconvincing accent to boot. All of this, it must be pointed out, is also how the part is written, and was performed by Brooks Ashmanskas on Broadway. Some have claimed that writing a stereotypical or regressive picture of a homosexual man is a crime in itself. Personally, this reviewer believes that to reek of its own internalised form of homophobia: gay men shouldn’t have to behave as straight-passing to be palatable to a cinema audience. It’s a valid portrayal, and for a musical that was written by gay men, and was originally performed by a gay man, it derives from a place of humour and not ridicule.

The issue instead becomes one of a straight performer playing a gay character. Corden’s portrayal isn’t even necessarily bad. The part is significantly more fleshed out on screen that it was on stage, adding in elements of Barry’s relationship with his mother that was sorely lacking before. Even though it mostly seems like Corden showing off his ability to cry on cue, it isn’t as one-dimensional as lots of reviewers made it appear. However, straight men have been using stereotypically feminine caricatures of gay men as a tool of ridicule and prejudice for years. Even within the last few decades, effeminate men have been used on film as the butt of a joke in themselves, and while that isn’t the case for Barry, having a straight man perform this role feels like a mockery, even if that’s not what is intended.

It isn’t regressive to portray a homosexual man as theatrically camp, as there are plenty of homosexual men who do behave in that way, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, as that’s also the portrayal that has been used to mock and belittle gay men for years, it’s not exactly the reclamation of the stereotype if a straight man is performing that role. Hollywood is still an industry where many performers are pressured into not revealing their sexuality as it may harm their career. Putting a straight guy into a role means you are celebrating their performance for something that the industry itself is discriminating against. What’s more, the struggle and the trauma presented as part of Barry’s backstory would be far better performed by an actor who could actually understand what that is like having lived through it. Of course, having experienced something isn’t necessary for you to be able to portray it, otherwise fantasy films simply wouldn’t get made, but it would add a layer of nuance, and a greater sense of solidarity for those audience members who have had similar experiences, instead of casting somebody who simply cannot comprehend the nature of that struggle.

It’s also vaguely baffling considering the care that has been taken by casting two queer women as Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) and Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), to then completely ignore this when it comes to the leads, especially since there are many homosexual, or LGBT, performers who could have played Barry, such as Nathan Lane, who the part was essentially written for. It’s not that Corden is bad, it’s just that he has no business being involved here. It’s a party that he shouldn’t have an invite to, and the blame for that lays squarely at the producers’, and at Ryan Murphy’s feet. That’s not to diminish his performance in any way, as it is well played, but for those audience members who have sat through harmful portrayals of gay men by straight men in the past, whether on screen or just down the street, it feels awkwardly like being made fun of, instead of being celebrated.

It’s a shame, of course, that so much of the online narrative about The Prom has been marred by this incredibly avoidable controversy – especially since drama has surged around James Corden’s presence ever since he was first announced, and there was plenty of time to listen to feedback and modify – as there is plenty to enjoy about The Prom.

Based off the Broadway musical (review of which can be found here) with book by Bob Martin, and music by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, Netflix’s The Prom (which was adapted for screen by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin) follows exactly the same plot. Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) find their vehicle, a musical entitled ‘Eleanor!’, close on their opening night as a result of poor advance sales and a negative review from The New York Times. Besides, as their publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Kevin Chamberlin) points out, they’re just not likeable. Indeed, dripping in narcissism, Barry and Dee Dee must find themselves a cause to make them appear selfless. Teaming up with perpetual chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and I-went-to-Julliard-and-won’t-stop-mentioning-it Sardie’s bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), the theatrical group discover from Twitter the plight of Indiana schoolgirl Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose Prom has been cancelled because the PTA refuse to allow her to take a girl as a date. Arriving in Indiana with the non-equity cast of Godspell, the plot is complicated further by the fact that Emma’s girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) is the daughter of Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), the head of the PTA. Even with the school’s principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) on board with Emma’s plight, it’s apparent that the ideals of the small Midwestern town will not be easily altered, and the quest to achieve justice for Emma has a profound effect on each of the Broadway gang.

A lot of the humour that really made the stage show soar is still found here. From the hilarious, selfish attitudes of Dee Dee and co, to the way that she brazenly presents her Tonys on the reception desk at the hotel in exchange for a suite, only to then be entirely perplexed by Barry’s Drama Desk Award, the film buzzes along at a friendly pace. What’s more, the witty lyrics are preserved, and the musical numbers are used purposefully throughout, advancing the relationships between our characters or moving the action forwards.

These musical moments are made all the more entertaining by the way that they are presented. The energetic choreography of the stage show is once more present, with massive chorus numbers to really make a large spectacle. Casey Nicholaw returns as choreographer, and it’s a miracle that every cast member made it through without slipping a disc (maybe they did, who can say?), as they hurtle around the set with abandon. The camerawork also helps prevent the audience from getting bored, but often feels too frenetic, not allowing us to take in every single detail or linger for too long on a long shot. There’s a lot of directing of attention to particular areas, almost too prescriptively, in much the same way as Glee was known for giving viewers a similar level of whiplash.

The costumes and lighting is also gorgeous. The entire film has a very set colour palette. While Indiana is presented in various washed out tones, whenever glitz or glamour enters the screen, it makes a bold statement. The colours stick close to those used in the logo, with the lighting generally sticking to neon hues of purple and turquoise, with green and pink thrown in for good measure, as well as an aggressive amount of sequins. It keeps it visually engaging and palatable to watch throughout.

Finally, all of the songs, as well as being incredibly entertaining and funny in their own right, are also melodically sublime. There are very few that won’t be buzzing around the head of the audience afterwards, and they’ve never sounded better, with a Netflix budget nicely boosting the small Broadway orchestra to a massive, cinematic affair courtesy of Larry Hockman and Stephen Oremus.

The sense of scale that one can achieve with a Netflix budget is especially extraordinary, and allows the film to break away from the constraints placed upon the production while on stage. Large chorus numbers are not held back by the number of performers in the ensemble, and it makes triumphant moments like the finale all the more emotional because of the new, diverse faces that are being seen, instead of the recycled school pupils from the previous scenes. Though the action in Indiana is mainly limited to the hotel, mall and school, the sheer number of people involved, as well as well-rounded orchestrations, really elevate the material into something much more emotive and epic.

Being able to incorporate asides and other scenarios also really helps deliver on the emotion. Middling numbers such as “We Look To You”, “The Lady’s Improving” or “Barry’s Going To Prom” from the stage show are made more engaging through the use of flashback and close-up that’s just not possible on a large stage in the same way. As principal Tom reflects upon the significance that Broadway has had upon his life, it’s much more powerful to see him experience Dee Dee’s performance first hand, instead of hearing it related. Similarly, seeing segments of Dee Dee’s actual performance of “The Lady’s Improving” as she tries to win Tom over in his office is also a treat. We get to the heart of Barry’s trauma much more powerfully than in the stage show by actually seeing his Prom first hand, and his flippant comment in the song about phoning his Mum is made into an emotionally satisfying plot line.

Then, of course, there are the performers themselves. Boasting an all-star cast, there are many performances of note. Streep, predictably, delivers an assured performance, exuding confidence and brashness as two-time Tony winner Dee Dee Allen. Yet, she also mines an incredible vulnerability to the character, and these quiet moments are just as compelling as watching her belt her lungs out to a gymnasium full of shocked parents. Her relationship with principal Tom Hawkins is also massively believable, which is aided by the electric chemistry she has with Keegan-Michael Key.

In Key’s hands, the part which on Broadway came across as a character without much significance, is majorly elevated. He truly gives a sense of heart to the principal’s struggle against the PTA, and the tremendous, profound importance that Dee Dee has upon him and, in turn, the incredible impact he has upon her.

Nicole Kidman is also brilliant, and lends a real sense of warmth to Angie, who is curiously two-dimensional as written, while Andrew Rannells is reliably funny and engaging as Trent Oliver.

Kerry Washington is also wonderful here as homophobic PTA head Mrs. Greene. The additions to the source material serve her well, however, and add a massively earned and touching beat to the end of her storyline with daughter Alyssa that is really needed to bring the story to an emotionally satisfying and uplifting conclusion.

Then there are the couple at the centre of the action, who capably manage to hold their own even in the midst of the star-studded cast. Jo Ellen Pellman is simply a revelation in her film debut, imbuing Emma with a steely internal confidence and self-assuredness. She stands out even in scenes opposite the likes of Streep and Kidman, and does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting herself. Meditative “Just Breathe” is a brilliant introduction to the turmoil of the character and her tremendous endurance, while “Unruly Heart” tugs desperately on the audience’s heartstrings. The success of the entire movie rests upon her shoulders, and she carries it with seeming ease, with an angelic voice and winsome chemistry with Ariana DeBose.

DeBose, in her turn, has much less to work with than Pellman, but her own solo “Alyssa Greene” is a massive highlight. A Broadway alum, DeBose has such a hugely emotive voice, and brings her character’s struggle to be their authentic self to the fore of her performance. The relationship that she has with her mother is bound to resonate with many audience members and is truly the final act emotional sucker punch that will push viewers over the edge into inconsolable, happy tears.

With brilliant visuals, witty dialogue, accomplished performances, energetic choreography, toe-tapping songs and a highly emotive, grounded and relevant story, The Prom is practically the whole package, and it’s a film that will have enduring appeal, necessitating rewatch after rewatch, ready to join the pantheon of truly spectacular musical films.

The Prom is streaming now on Netflix.

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