Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Last Five Years: The Musical as Emotional Realism

Virtually every year since this blog began I've chronicled my feelings on Valentine's Day. In recent years sadness has turned into frustration, as I've moved past the need to be in a relationship for its own sake. Instead, the source of the misery concentrated on February 14th has been my failure to form a suitable connection that leads to the emotional intimacy I need, even it is brief.

At the end of the last year, I watched the trailer of The Last Five Years and discovered that it would be released in the United States on Valentine's Day. From that moment on I resolved to track down the first copy I could find on the internet, and attempt to watch it on that horrible day. I downloaded the movie on Friday the 13th, because sadly there is not yet a release date for the movie to premiere in Australia. The next day I had my first wonderful Valentine's Day.

As a devotee of the musical I knew that this movie contained something special. For me, the beauty of The Last Five Years is that the movie subverts the conventional musical, both in plot, and in tone.

I adore the classic movie musicals of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which were all about emotional uplift. Most of them followed the same basic plot pattern. Boy meets girl: cue the 'meet cute' song: girl crushes on boy: cue the longing ballad, an obstacle emerges: cue the song that restates the purpose of the protagonists' love affair, finally girl wins boy: 'LET'S PUT ON A SHOW'.  

The Last Five Years is not a musical about the boy and girl getting together. It is about the boy and the girl getting together, falling apart, reconciling briefly, then falling apart once more: forever. 

The Last Five Years is only about a single relationship (told entirely in song), between Cathy and Jamie. The story is told through alternate songs from each character. Cathy's perspective of the relationship is heard in reverse order, while Jamie's version is told in chronological order. The song are fractured and biased, with the true perspective of the entire relationship only becoming clear once the movie is finished. The genius of this structure lies in the fact that each characters' point of view only up matches once: for the duet in the middle of the movie.

Not only does the viewer understand why Cathy and Jamie fell in love, they also understand why their relationship was toxic for both of them. It tells the audience why they need the power of human connection to survive, but it also tells them the damage that this power can do. It demonstrates to me everything that I have been scared of for my last five years. I want the first blush of love, and the euphoria that it provides. But I am not prepared to feel the devastation that occurs when it all ends.

The Last Five Years perhaps represents the apex of musical sub-genre that I've become attracted to in recent times that does not conform to the traditional plot of a movie musical. Whether it be God Help the Girl or Begin Again, the three best musicals of the past 12 months tell its audience that a few delightful songs cannot cure emotional devastation. This conforms to my worldview wholeheartedly.

Yet, my favourite movie of all time, Singin' in the Rain, is the pure opposite of this archetype. Seeing Singin' in the Rain for the first time was a revolutionary experience. I saw the movie at the beginning of 2011, right in the middle of my darkest depressive episode. Gene Kelly's unbridled optimism in the midst of loneliness helped convince me that I could become well again.  That feeling ignited my passion for musicals. Seeing The Last Five Years for the first time both reminded me of, and surpassed, my experience of watching Singin' in the Rain four years earlier.

I can only speculate why this is so.

Perhaps it is because The Last Five Years was the kind of empathetic musical I was waiting for?
Perhaps it gave me an insight which allowed me to forgive myself for the horrible mistakes I've made?
Perhaps it normalised those mistakes?
Perhaps it represented kind of rational argument I needed to allow myself to fall in love again?
Perhaps it is telling me that I've moved on from the idealised version of love I've held on to?
Perhaps I can't explain why I connected to The Last Five Years at all?

Perhaps that is beauty of the movie?

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