It wasn’t so very long ago that I checked out Ryan Murphy’s last addition to his growing Netflix canon in the form of his Producer credit for The Boys In The Band, but this here is the real deal, his first directorial feature for the streamer on the back of that megabucks deal. The subject matter seems just about perfect for the man too, given his background: a musical about tolerance, acceptance, LGBTQ+ people struggling in bigoted communities and lots of style. I had never seen or heard anything to with The Prom but I was excited enough for it, given its stage reputation, the man responsible with bringing it to the screen, and the cast that he had been able to assemble for it.
Musicals are very much my thing right now, with my Spotify recommends littered with unlistened to cast recordings. Hamilton knocked me out of my seat earlier this year, and West Side Story and In The Heights are just some of the adaptations I am bound to see in the next 12 months, restrictions permitting. But what is good on stage is not necessarily good on-screen: not everything can just be a stage recording like Hamilton was, though perhaps more of them might be inclined to try after its success. A certain kind of sameyness in production is always the price for saturation of a genre. Is The Prom ahead of that trend, or already mired in it?
In small-town Indiana, high school student Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) finds herself in a battle when she tries to gain the right to go to the prom with her girlfriend, closeted Alyssa (Ariana De Bosse), whose PTA-leading mother (Kerry Washington) leads the conservative fightback against the more-progressive minded Principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Peele). When a quartet of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors – self-obsessed Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), narcissistic Barry (James Corden), out-of-work Angie (Nicole Kidman) and arrogant Trent (Andrew Rannells) – find out about the story, they travel to Indiana hoping to latch onto Emma’s cause for some good publicity, unknowingly stepping into a larger battle for acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.
I really wanted to like this movie, given that there is so much about it that I should like: the excellent songs, the inner message about tolerance, most of the glittering cast, be they Hollywood royalty or little-knowns. But I just could not get into The Prom properly. I think there are a few key reasons for this, other than a general malaise about the production that radiates off the screen, and the most important is probably the way that the inner message is communicated.
It’s hard not to feel a little bothered by the way that The Prom goes about its business an acceptance, inclusivity and tolerance. The film uncomfortably straddles a line between cold-hard drama in its plot about a bullied homosexual trying to gain the same rights as anyone else – based someone on real events in a Mississippi high school ten years ago – and fantastical comedy where Broadway types are practically winking at the camera. Because of this you get things as, to be frank, insultingly mis-pitched as “Love Thy Neighbour”, where Rannells, such a great talent (check out the aforementioned The Boys In The Band for a better Netflix effort on LGBTQ+ themes starring him) is able to convince a bunch of small-town Bible-belt bordering teens to enthusiastically embrace tolerance in roughly three minutes of singing, or how the Emma character, with the well-intentioned but overly-saccharine “Unruly Heart” seems to fix LGBTQ+ angst about coming out in one Youtube video. That’s when you aren’t wondering just why we are spending so much time on some self-obsessed celebrities when the actual plot is happening elsewhere. Emma seems to just decide to go with it when it comes to the four interlopers, and is never even made clear that she has a fondness for musical theatre.
The Prom is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to show us a realistic world where conservative elements rail about the “life choices” of LGBTQ+ people while persecuting them in an abhorrent manner, but then wants the space to handwave it all away in a song and dance at the end to make us all feel better. Well, I didn’t. This is as musical theatre is to persecution as The West Wing was to politics: something that has to be acknowledged, despite its positives, as a self-serving exercise enthusiastically preaching to the choir. There’s even a song, “We Look To You”, sung by Key, that has this idea as its thesis, that we need fantasy musicals to make us feel better about our crappy lives.
Perhaps I should acknowledge that, in not being LGBTQ+, this fantasy might not be aimed at me, but I still find it an unhealthy, and unhelpful, manner of approaching the issue. “It gets better” is a good message, but not when, like in The Prom, it is followed by “immediately”. It’s like The Simpsons episode where an impromptu musical number saves the burlesque house from an angry mob, only there it was meant to be stupid. “Love Thy Neighbour” might as well include a line about how “We put the ‘Spring’ in Springfield”. Celebrities are all we really need to conquer our demons it seems.
Aside from that there is a lot to like in The Prom and its various sub-plots, but also some frustrations that crop up constantly. Streep’s Dee Dee is a fading star with an unexpected romantic opportunity in Key’s high school principal, which is fine, but then you have the eye-raising optics of one of the only POC characters of consequence existing solely to help a white women learn how to be a better person. Corden’s Barry sees something of himself in Emma because they both come from unaccepting parents, but the pay-off for this is as trite and predictable as it gets. De Bosse’s Alyssa is the gay daughter of a conservative perfectionist; guess who is right as rain about gay people at the conclusion of the show, without even the need of a song (it got bumped to the end credits)? The same girl is promising to come out at the titular dance, but the pressure she is put under to do so by Emma, a potentially juicy thing to explore, is not adequately covered by the end: Alyssa is portrayed instead as a morally bankrupt weakling for not wanting said coming out to be as public as possible. Time and again The Prom puts a strong foot forward, and then takes two very decisive steps back.
If you are here just for the odd laugh, then you will probably enjoy The Prom a bit more. It’s overflowing with references and in-jokes about the Broadway industry, right from an opening number where Streep and Corden lament their shutdown production of what sounds like a very tacky musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, all the way through to a very self-serving song ironically titled “It’s Not About Us”, wherein they failingly attempt to keep the metaphorical spotlight away from them (while very much insisting on a real spotlight to remain in place). “I read three-quarters of a news story and had to come” is the perfect glib summation of vapid celebrity activism from Dee Dee. This stuff is fine, and in terms of the director reminds me a fair bit of the comedy style of Glee, it’s just that it meshes horribly with scenes of orientation discrimination and horrendous bullying.
But of course you can overlook a lot if the music is good, and I do think that the music is decent in The Prom. Decent, but not brilliant: there’s more to forget than to remember here. The songs are best coming out of the lesser-known cast-members, like Pellman and De Bosse in “Dance With You”, and when the more famous faces get going I was mostly taken with Kidman when she belts out “Zazz” or even Ranelles “Love Thy Neighbour” (it might have a stupid plot point, but it’s catchy and upbeat). The Prom otherwise lives and dies on its medley’s, most notably the show-closing “It’s Time To Dance”. Street, Corden, Key and others are less noteworthy, saddled with unappealing songs or not giving it the required effort. Corden especially, putting on a ridiculous accent, proves himself a better actor than a singer here, and not for the first or even second time: after Into The Woods and Cats, one wonders how much longer he’s going to get pushed in this role. One thing that you can’t get beyond is some of the, shall we say, syncing of pre-recorded music to the live-action characters, which The Prom does not do a stellar job with: De Bosse especially suffers with this, with any time she is singing marked by a feeling almost that somebody else is providing her voice, such is the obviousness of the inserted audio. One hopes Spielberg does better with her when she plays Anita in West Side Story.
On a similar level, the choreography and cinematography for The Prom is of a decent level, if you can get beyond its use for a weak plot. Those sections are like a 2020 Singin’ In The Rain, with more floating camera shots. The film is full of colour when it wants to be, with musical numbers suddenly transporting us from small town America to a Broadway stage as part of the film’s frequent recourse to fantasy, before we inevitably get brought back down with a bang. Murphy can direct musicals in a magnetic way, it’s something that he has demonstrated time and again, and his love for the material is obvious (he apparently first saw the stage show in January 2019, and had a cast, crew and green light for this adaptation within a month, though the stage actors apparently didn’t get a look in): here the weakness comes in the plot and “book” that he has inherited, and doesn’t feel minded to change.
It’s been a year where a musical film is topping my “Best of” list, but The Prom is certainly not going to be challenging for a spot in the Top Ten, let alone the #1 position. It has decent music, a nice look when it is minded to and a few cast members who are giving it their all. But it also has cast members who are sleepwalking through the production, some very questionable changes in tone and the manner in which it tries to execute the presentation of its main theme is bound to be off-putting to some if not downright offensive to others. It would be a very nice world if we could sing away prejudice and intolerance, but I feel that it is relying too much on the healing power of fantasy to even entertain the notion that it is so. If this was made ten or twenty years ago it would have been seen as a monumental contribution to gay-rights-through-film, but nowadays feels shallow and, well, safe. The Prom is perhaps better viewed as a two hour distraction where its notions of being a civil rights experience should be downplayed in your own mind: for me though, that’s too hard of an ask. Stick on the soundtrack instead. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).