In this week of Avengers: Age Of Ultron mayhem, something that I have little to no interest in whatsoever, I decided my weekly cinema trip would involve a picture very much more suited to my area of geekdom, the mighty musical. Released long ago in the US but only just reaching British shores, it was finally time for me to be able to see the big screen adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s 2002 Off-Broadway hit The Last Five Years. Having never seen the show and knowing very little about its premise, I went in with the hope that the film would give me a new soundtrack to purchase and new lyrics to learn.
And boy, it really did. The Last Five Years is something of a minimalist work, containing very few characters and telling the story of the five year relationship between aspiring performer Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and up and coming writer Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). The affair begins at a breakneck pace and the besotted pair quickly become inseparable, all whilst Jamie’s writing career begins to take off and Cathy finds herself in a rut of audition rejections and multiple years of summer stock theatre in Ohio. The audience follow them through the years and witness their once ideal and romantic partnership turn over time in to one full of obstacles and pedantic conflict, punctuated by a series of serious and potentially deal breaking occurrences along the way. Like any great musical, these events and emotions are relayed through the use of song, and The Last Five Years incorporates a number of different musical styles and genres throughout to keep the device fresh and interesting for the audience from start to finish. In many ways, the film and show can be compared to RENT for it’s humanistic tone, it’s eclectic musical variation and it’s reliance on lyric to convey its message rather than speech. There is very little actual dialogue in the picture, with the songs mostly serving as plot progression instead of acting as pleasant melodic interludes like so many more traditional musicals tend to do. And as with any musical, it is the strength of the songs that make or break the piece, and The Last Five Years has absolutely nothing to worry about on that front. With a few of my personal favourites being A Summer In Ohio, Shiksa Goddess and A Part Of That, the film boasts a plethora of high quality numbers that are both insanely catchy and impactful enough without being too over the top and upsetting the story’s tone and atmosphere. Perhaps what is most impressive about the film is that, given its relatively small universe and principal storyline, it manages to feel very big in scale and important, dragging the audience through the distance of the couple’s relationship from beginning to end, addressing several wider themes along the way but never feeling particularly heavy or overly bleak. The audience become invested in both Cathy and Jamie and like all good romantic drama, can find faults in both, all the while tapping and humming along to a killer set of musical numbers.
The quality of the cast in a picture with as few characters as The Last Five Years is absolutely vital to the overall success of the film, and in Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan that filmmakers have put the story in great and capable hands. As young literary prodigy Jamie, Jeremy Jordan has to show the audience a progression from young, fresh faced writer at the beginning to a more cynical, affected soul by the story’s conclusion, and the actor does a fine job of embodying these separate personalities and all the flaws that arise from the changing character. Of course, his singing voice is stellar and there is a low key quality about Jordan that really helps to ground the film and keep it feeling authentic. There is no denying, though, that the shining star of the film is Anna Kendrick in the role of Cathy. Kendrick’s background and upbringing in the theatre has served her well here, her singing voice being absolutely impeccable. The film begins and ends with Cathy, and Kendrick’s excellent performance really is the linchpin of the entire picture. Just as Jamie’s goes through a character transition, so to does Cathy, turning from an optimistic audition going performer in to woman seriously considering her situation in life with regards to her career ambitions. Throughout this change, though, Kendrick never fails to steal the attention in any shared scene or song and her equal prowess for acting, singing and dancing makes her a true triple threat, a sadly dying breed in today’s film industry.
Overall, The Last Five Years can almost be described as the type of film that rarely has the chance to be made anymore. In this era of blockbuster comic book franchises and chances only really being taken on well known, universally acknowledged properties, it is so refreshing to see a film that, whilst admittedly being a remake of something, is nonetheless relatively unknown but fully deserving. Add to that the fact that non-jukebox musicals are rarely ever given a chance on the big screen and you have something that is truly an unlikely, against the odds treat. The star power draw of Anna Kendrick will hopefully attract a wider audience than the film may have gotten otherwise, but believe me when I say that it is not just the actress that is enjoyable about the picture. A great modern musical with a subtle, human story and a soundtrack to remember.