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" And do you want me to be a man? “
“Only in that one way. "
— Jane Wyman & Rock Hudson, All That Heaven Allows

MRQE Top Critic

Ballroom

An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

Trividic et al haunt the Ballroom

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I recently watched That’s Entertainment!, a tribute to MGM musicals. From the 1920s through the 1950s, the studio churned out hundreds of them. Whether they were of the cookie-cutter variety or grand Technicolor spectacles, it’s clear that MGM knew how to make a good-quality, entertaining musical.

In 1992, Disney tried to revive the genre with Newsies, which was avoided by audiences and panned by most critics. I’m glad to report that Newsies isn’t as bad as its reputation, but watching the movie only reminds me that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Based on a True Story

Christian Bale jumps for joyAccording to the DVD bonus materials, Newsies is based on real events. A century ago, newspapers in New York City were sold mainly by young street vendors. The kids would buy the “papes” from the publishers at 10 for a nickel and sell them for one penny each. In 1899, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the two biggest newspaper publishers in New York, decided to charge the vendors six cents for 10 papers. The newsies, who were barely eking out a living, went on strike.

Christian Bale is charismatic as Jack Kelly. He’s the unofficial older brother of the newsies, and he becomes the leader of the strike. David Moscow rarely cracks a smile as David, who provides the brains behind Jack’s leadership. Robert Duvall, who does not sing in this movie, is appropriately gruff as Pulitzer. The supporting cast of youngsters gives a spirited performance, though none of the characters really stand out.

The plot follows a predictable route through gains and setbacks. A romance between Jack and David’s sister feels obligatory and adds little to the story. Even the happy ending seems hollow. While one can’t expect a high degree of realism from a Disney musical, they movie brushes aside troubling questions about child labor.

Song and Dance Boys

It’s easy to forgive a predictable plot if a musical has great production numbers, but Newsies falls short. Aside from the ballad Santa Fe, performed with spirit by Bale, the songs are unmemorable. Composer Alan Menken (who has composed songs for many Disney animated features) attempts to give some of the tunes a period feel, but the results are mostly bland.

The cast’s dancing is impressive considering that most of them had no prior experience. They put a lot of energy into the routines but the choreography lacks imagination – perhaps because of the young actors’ inexperience. Watching the one ensemble piece after another left me wishing for a solo by someone who really knew how to dance.

DVD Extras

This special edition DVD features a commentary by Ortega, his co-choreographer Peggy Holmes, screenwriters Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, and producer Michael Finnell. What stands out is their enthusiasm for the movie. The commentary is less boring than on some DVDs and offers some interesting tidbits about the production, but it will probably only be of interest to serious fans of Newsies.

A short feature about the actual newsboys’ strike of 1899 provides some interesting historical background. The DVD also contains two behind-the-scenes featurettes which are noteworthy if only because they show all the training that the cast had to go through to perform in the film.

The DVD also features a storyboard-to-scene comparison sequence with audio commentary by production designer William Sandell, two theatrical trailers, and a sing-along feature, which puts subtitles on the screen during songs. There is also a section which translates the newsies’ slang, although many of the words need no translation for American audiences. The disc also has a Spanish language track and Spanish and French subtitles.

Picture and Sound

Newsies is presented widescreen with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The sound is Dolby digital surround. Both picture and sound are crisp and clear. The surround sound stands out in some of the street scenes. As this movie is only 10 years old, the picture and sound should meet the standards of any home theater.

Conclusion

Some unintentional insights into the movie’s shortcomings come from Ortega, speaking on the DVD’s commentary track. He was grateful that many of the technicians on the film had worked in Hollywood for a long time. Most younger people working in movies these days, he said, just don’t know how to film musicals.

Ortega also talks with reverence about a visit by Gene Kelly to the set. Kelly told Ortega that when he was making movies, as many as six weeks would be spent working on a single musical number. By contrast, the cast of Newsies had just five weeks to learn how to sing, dance and fight. While I can’t fault the film’s ambitions, maybe Hollywood just doesn’t know how to make a good musical anymore.