Who doesn’t love a good musical? Soulless ghouls, that’s who! The spectacle of heightened reality. The spontaneous (if not contagious) breakout of fantastical dance choreography. Oh, and the relentless diegetic earworms that beg for the whole soundtrack album to be bought. Some of the finest of these can be found in the quintessential Broadway musical. A culture that has a fine tradition of making both highly entertaining and deeply provocative works of art in the name of progress.
For those who can’t afford a ticket, both in the air and in front of a stage, the next best thing is film or TV adaptations. They are the high arts made accessible to the regular joes. Think Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s “Hairspray” or Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”. Two great examples of rich, textured Broadway musicals adapted for the common man.
Sometimes, the medium of polish studio production works to the source material’s advantage. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was made for the silver screen. Other times, they should have been left on stage. Looking at you “Cats”. So where does Netflix’s adaptation of “The Prom” fit in the Broadway adaptation canon? Simply put, it belongs in the bargain bin. While we’ve never watched the original theatre show, we can wholeheartedly attest to the sheer mediocrity of its film adaptation. It isn’t even the fun kind of awful, it’s just bland bad. The kind you can’t even brag about watching.
The plot of “The Prom” mostly follows the story of Meryl Streep’s Dee Dee Allen and James Corden’s Barry Gleckman. Two washed-up Broadway stars looking to revitalise their public image through the plight of one Emma Nolan, a lesbian high school student who was not allowed to go to the prom with her girlfriend. Though her principal played by Keegan-Michael Key is supportive of Nolan, PTA head Ms Greene and her army of conservatives aren’t having it. So Allen, Gleckman alongside two other jaded actors decide to crusade on behalf of Nolan. Along the way, what started as a vainglorious project becomes a genuine cause for the four of them. The town of Indiana is about to have their first LGBT inclusive prom!
There is nothing subtle or meaningful about “The Prom” or its premise. In spite of the film’s holier-than-thou-art air, it has surprisingly little to say about the LGBT community or the issues that plague it. Where films like “Moonlight” dare address the painful reality of violence and dehumanisation of sexual minorities in intercity communities, “The Prom” reaches for the lowest hanging fruit.
The archetypal story of “brave” social rebels battling against the bigoted and ignorant religious conservatives. It didn’t fly in “Freeheld” and it certainly doesn’t work here. If anything, it comes off as trite and unbearably sanctimonious. The film is the musical personification of liberal, white privilege. They might as well have called it “First World Problems: The Musical”.
To be fair, the film does try to call out the vapidity of faux-activism. It doesn’t take long though for the film to abandon its critique by having these well-to-do New York elites turn into Nolan’s fairy-god parents. They might as well be seeing that some of the performances here are painfully cartoonish. The most egregious offenders are Streep and Corden. Look up the word “over-acting” and you’ll see these two in a thesaurus.
While we get that “The Prom” is meant to be a musical comedy, we can’t help but feel that the humour undercuts any real dramatic stakes here. The flimsy premise and tone-deaf writing is bad enough but now you make us endure Corden’s agonising brand of comedy? Have you learned nothing from 2019’s “Cats”! Stop putting him in films, we beg of you.
Nicole Kidman does a decent enough job of playing a believable human being, though the dialogue given to her does her a great disservice. Keegan Michael-Key’s performance as the likeable Principal Hawkins feels hampered as well. Occasionally, the comedian’s charisma makes “The Prom” slightly more watchable. Surprisingly enough, the greener cast members add some redeeming qualities to the film. Yes, Jo Ellen Pellman does play your typical adorkable social outcast but she wears it well. Her romance with Ariana DeBose’s Alyssa Greene does make for some sweet moments, even it does border on melodrama at times.
Then, there’s the music. There’s a rule when it comes to good storytelling: show, don’t tell. Some of the most thematically resonant pieces of art are often the kind that allows the audience to interpret the meaning for themselves. Sometimes, they’ll line up perfectly with the author’s intent. Other times, they may see a divergent perspective. That’s part of the fun and beauty of art. “The Prom”, however, does not embrace this approach. Instead, it chooses to simply spell out its message with zero ambiguity in its music.
Songs like “Changing Lives” and “Dance with You” are the stuff of freshman performing art students. Lyrically infantile with forgettable composition. The most irritating one has got to be “Love Thy Neighbour”. Ironically enough, it’s a painfully preachy number about religious hypocrisy that feels like it belongs in a children’s show. That being said, there is some mindless fun to be had with the film’s finale number “It’s Time to Dance”. Listening to it, you can’t help but feel major “We’re All in This Together” vibes. “High School Musical” fans will know what we’re talking about.
For all of the film’s good intentions, Netflix’s “The Prom” proves to be an utterly ineffectual, if not joyless, affair. Its story is as generic and pathetic as its cast performances, trading any potential depth for cheap, commercial catharsis. As a musical, it is woefully juvenile in its conception. As a comedy, its efforts are laughable. Ultimately, “The Prom” is a very expensive pat on the back for faux activists and liberal elites everywhere. Cheap lip-service to a cause that should demand higher standards and greater quality in its representation.
“The Prom” is now streaming on Netflix but if you’re looking for a proper musical to satisfy that Broadway fix, we strongly recommend you check out “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”.