For many viewers (including this writer for a long time), the majority of movie musicals, Broadway, Disney, or otherwise are often too often long, redundant, grating, poorly structured, and insufferable. That’s just one opinion, yet it’s a hard one to sway for those non-fans. So, when a strikingly and surprisingly good movie musical does come around and impress, the only thing to do is shout and sing its praises from the proverbial mountaintops, just as the main characters would have the proclivity to do.
The Last Five Years, the 2014 adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway hit, is a delightful keeper within the genre and an underseen gem. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. This was the real film the date movie crowd should have been seeking out over Valentine’s Day weekend that year instead of the whips, chains, and handcuffs of a certain monochromatic thriller that spawned two sequels.
Richard LaGravenese, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Fisher King and Freedom Writers and the romantic adaptation specialist behind The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, P.S., I Love You, and Water for Elephants was the captain steering this translation to the silver screen and pulls double-duty as the director and sole writer. Produced in 2013, the film had its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival before returning to its birthplace of Chicago a month later as one-half of the Festival Centerpiece feature presentation (coupled with Bill Murray’s vehicle St. Vincent) of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.
Both the play and the film have a unique dual-perspective structure and order to its narrative. Essentially, The Last Five Years follows two New York City lovers, Cathy and Jamie, and tells the story of their whirlwind courtship, culminating marriage, and eventual break-up over the course of, you guessed it, five years, from ages 23 to 28. In song and in words, each tell their individual perspective on this time together, but in opposing order. One goes forward and one goes backward.
The Last Five Years starts on Cathy Hiatt, played dynamically by the perfect Anna Kendrick, at the bottom and end of the relationship reflecting on what it all meant. She is a struggling actress tired of casting calls and wallowing in summer stock theater out of state over the summers. Her story goes in reverse to gradually work back to when she met her greatest love.
Jamie Wellerstein’s arc, embodied by Broadway star and Supergirl TV mainstay Jeremy Jordan, is the one that moves forward from the glowing beginning to the embattled end. He starts as an aspiring writer who pens a big hit and then lets the success go to his head. Their stories are blended back and forth for a smooth 94 minutes. Cathy and Jamie’s stories converge in the middle at their marriage in a show-stopping peak duet of “The Next Ten Minutes” before diverging and finishing in the directions they were initially set on.
In the film, our two lovebirds start out at the same level as two struggling artists. Over time, Jamie’s career takes off while Cathy’s never catches fire. Between them, that creates a slow-burning animosity and comparative judgment. It’s not a jealousy or a gender role battle between the labels of breadwinners or sidekicks, but more the personal ominous feelings of riding the other’s coattails, unequal success, unequal attention, and uneven creative fulfillment.
Because steady work is difficult and because she feels like “the girl” Cathy is always there for Jamie’s successes. She takes on that stalwart wife and cheerleader role. He, however, becomes busy and popular and puts career first too often. He doesn’t reciprocate Cathy’s level of support towards her work and acting.
As a play, these scenes were acted predominantly in isolation by each performer. In the film, Kendrick and Jordan share more company together, but the songs and moments are still exclusively their own internal and external monologues. The chemistry between the two leads is incredibly engaging. You really feel for this couple and see the substance behind all the song and dance theatrics.
There is a sincerity and a lack of sarcasm overall that makes these two and their story approachable and devoid of extra fluff or cliche. Their combined stories, balancing the shifts and reversals that occur between melancholy and euphoria, hold your attention every step of the way. How you react and how you relate to their story isn’t formulaic or cut and dry. It begs for your own interpretation.
One key here to make this play (or any play really) translate into a film is the acting between songs. That can be a double-edged sword in movie musicals from a casting and quality standpoint. Not everyone is Julie Andrews and Gene Kelly. You either hire singers than can nail the performances, but aren’t natural actors for simpler scenes, or you hire actors that can convey presence and personas, but can’t sing. Russell Crowe from Les Miserables anyone?
That aspect is one of the soaring successes for The Last Five Years. Jeremy Jordan has a great and contagious youthful energy that carried over when he’s not showing off his Broadway-trained pipes best known from Newsies and Bonnie and Clyde. He’s a singer who can act. Jordan was capable of continuing his charisma in between musical numbers and it works next to his big-time costar. If all you’ve ever seen of Jordan are his quips in front of a computer screen on Supergirl, come marvel at his full abilities.
The tremendous casting coup for this movie is how Anna Kendrick counted as a huge headlining star for a 2014 film of this size and scope with a paltry budget of just $2 million. Next to Jennifer Lawrence, she was the biggest ingenue “It girl” around at the time. This was Anna at the peak of her powers and social adoration. This movie deserved to become a bigger hit than its minuscule theatrical time.
Best yet, of course, Kendrick is an actress who just happens to sing really damn well. Greater than her popular singing stints in Pitch Perfect and Into the Woods before this, The Last Five Years squeezed the most out of Kendrick’s immense musical talent, maybe more than any film since as well. If this plucky performance boosted by song doesn’t make you endlessly impressed by her, there’s nothing else that can be done. She’s that good and, arguably, hasn’t touched this level since, even in her big hits.
After these stellar performances, it all comes down to the music and how it can be expanded to a wider visual palette fit for the big screen. The single-setting play leaves the apartment and splashes its romance and storytelling across sunny exteriors and locations. The Last Five Years is shot like a movie and not a play, so it employed the movie musical trend of that moment (thanks to Les Miserables) of the frequent, tight close-ups and moving camera during performances. Some people hate that style, while others like that intimacy. In another cinematic quality, there’s a whole stylistic theme going on of viewing and shooting through windows that is used to a beautiful effect.
The cinematic style present properly serves the music of The Last Five Years. Jason Robert Brown, the original playwright, lyricist, and composer (who cameos as an audition pianist in the film), stayed involved with LaGravenese and brought all of his piano-centric musical sequences to the film version and, again, their emotion and intimacy work. Just as a good movie musical should, the songs sink in. Catchy at one moment and then poignant in the next to match the shifting narrative, you get it all. You’ll smile, blush, laugh and cry. The story structure gives you the roller coaster of transitions where no musical number feels the same or repetitive. They know their limits and serve the plot as effectively as they entertain.
The emotional takeaway value of The Last Five Years is very strong. We see that not all relationships or marriages work or are meant to be, no matter how much work goes into them. That said, that doesn’t mean a failed or broken relationship or marriage was a waste of time. Good ending or bad, both parties grew in character, in love, and in wisdom from the time spent together. You won’t forget the good times as much as you won’t forget the scars. The other person grew too. You learn about yourself coming out of that shared experience and give yourself a new foundation for your life going forward. Sure, you can’t get those years back, but they weren’t wasted if they built a new foundation for your life going forward.
In this film, five years go by very fast. We know that same feeling follows us in real life. When you make it a point to stop and reflect, what do you see? How do you remember things happening? Would your answers match your partner’s? They don’t have to, but that notion of reflection, both personal and shared, with your significant other is hugely important and conveyed beautifully in this movie musical.