If ever we needed a musical, it is undoubtedly right at this very moment. Bereft of our options to take in a West End or Broadway show due to continued lockdowns and non-support from governments for the arts, watching one on our small screens (or big, depending on your tier and cinema options) is the best we can hope for right now. Step forward Ryan Murphy, the showiest, glitziest of directors – unless he is tackling OJ Simpson, of course – who brings his usual “Glee” to the table just when we need it most. But while The Prom is a product straight from its director’s grand repertoire, this is in no way the slam dunk you may be anticipating.
After their new musical, “Eleanor”!, based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt goes disastrously wrong on opening night, actors Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) want to stop all the negative press by doing something noble, albeit for their own gains. They happen across the story of Emma (Jo Ellen Perlman), a girl in Indiana whose high-school has cancelled their upcoming prom because she wanted to bring her girlfriend along. Seeing an opportunity to make a literal song and dance about it, the duo with friends Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) swiftly take their talents across the country.
No holds barred in its approach, The Prom looks, sounds and feels like you are stuck on a kaleidoscope: colours burst from every corner with glitter falling from the skies as we twist, turn, slide and spin through its unabashedly upbeat surroundings that are almost impossible to resist. Beautifully and articulately brought to life by Murphy and Matthew Libatique’s swirly, head-spinning cinematography that should come with a motion sickness warning, it simply doesn’t slow down. Pulsating songs, exuberant dance numbers, and frothy performances, its energy and va-va-voom are infectious, filling the screen with joy and wonder for all ages.
Dig deeper, however, and the problems start to arise, not least with James Corden‘s turn as over-the-top theatre actor Barry. Some of you that read this writer’s review of Cats or Ocean’s 8 may know of my dislike for the famed talk-show host but this, perhaps, is the worst thing ever to bear his name. For a film that wants to be all-inclusive, sexually positive, and full of exhortations to be yourself, whose wretched idea was it to cast a straight actor in a gay role? How is such a decision suppose to support and solidify the ideals and thoughtfulness that you are trying to amplify by taking such a decision? Frankly, it is both horrifically offensive and monstrously wrong.
Indeed, it almost derails the efforts of those in and amongst Corden, not least young stars Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose who are both superb and propel the film through its somewhat exhausting but undeniably fun ride. Streep, Keegan-Michael Key, and Andrew Rannells, too, are a joy but Kidman and Kerry Washington are, sadly, reduced to bit parts players feeding off the remaining scraps.
So, the verdict? Well, there is no denying the avuncular, at times kind of breathtaking spectacle that The Prom has to offer, with two star-making turns in there for good measure but for a film that wants to show how much mileage there is still to go in the battle against inequality, inclusively and LGBTQ+ issues, its decision at the core of its story is not the way to go. In fact, it feels like a huge step backward.
Comedy, Drama | USA, 2020 | PG | 11th December 2020 | Netflix | Dir.Ryan Murphy | Jo Ellen Pellman. Ariana DeBose, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerry Washington, Tracey Ullman.