Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS Movie is a Marvelous Adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's Off-Broadway Musical

By: Sep. 08, 2014
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The film adaptation of "The Last Five Years," based on the musical by Jason Robert Brown, had its world premiere last night at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"The Last Five Years" is a musical chronicling a relationship taking place over a five year period. Jamie Wallerstein is a young, talented up and coming novelist who falls in love with Cathy Hiatt, a struggling actress. Their story is told almost entirely through song. All of Cathy's songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie's songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. They meet in the center when Jamie proposes.

After watching "The Last Five Years" tonight, I am pleased to report that the film is brilliantly produced and directed. The musical itself upon which the film is based never managed a long run in New York City, but was briefly revived in a production directed by Jason Robert Brown in 2013.

Director Richard LaGravenese treated this film as a drama, not a musical - and the result is a highly believable love story that just happens to be told through song. You can expect to see many ballads sung between the protagonists, and some brief musical staging set in the streets of Manhattan.

I have never seen a stage production of "The Last Five Years" and neither had LaGravenese. He said "at first, my only experience with the show was solely through the music. I was knocked out by Jason's score. It was beautiful and honest. It was emotional without being sentimental and it didn't take sides. Anyone who's been in a relationship - married or not - has gone through these experiences and feelings. I understood it."

Jeremy Jordan is well suited to the part of Jamie. His performance as the conflicted writer and husband of Cathy (Anna Kendrick) is haunting, leaving you completely unsure as to which partner is at fault in the demise of the relationship.

I initially had my doubts about Anna Kendrick taking on the role of Cathy. She proved she had singing chops in the film "Pitch Perfect," but I was concerned she may not be able to give Jason Robert Brown's complex score the treatment it deserves. Not only does Kendrick perform the score with great success from a vocal standpoint, she proves herself to be an impeccable actress capable of making you laugh in one moment and breaking your heart seconds later. Kendrick's performance comes across as if the material had been specifically written as a vehicle for her.

Jordan and Kendrick have incredible (and believable) chemistry together. The song "Shiksa Goddess" has been turned into a passionate love scene and during "I Can Do Better Than That" a car being driven by Jamie is pulled over to the side of the road so he can make love to Cathy. While nothing explicitly graphic is shown on screen, the heat of the moment and spontaneity manages to radiate over the audience.

While in the stage production Jamie and Cathy never interacted, in the film they both appear in each other's songs - which really works well as it removes the awkwardness of one person singing to the camera that has plagued some movie-musicals past.

"The Last Five Years" has a very simple aesthetic, with the look and feel of a college film. Based on the ages that the protagonists are supposed to be and their level of maturity, I think this adds a sense of realism. Don't expect any over-the-top production values - but do expect to be moved by the breathtaking story telling. I believe that one day, academics will use this film as an example of how to succesfully adapt a musical to the silver screen.

"The Last Five Years" is slated for release by RADiUS on Valentines Day 2015.

Follow Alan Henry on twitter at @alanhenryTO.