(directed by Peter H. Hunt, 1972)
**** (out of 5)
> Part brilliance, part doggerel, this musical about the founding of the United States is certainly not for everyone. As someone who has always enjoyed musicals, ever since my mother exposed me to Broadway soundtrack albums as a child, and then developed a great love of American history in later years, there was plenty here for me to enjoy, despite patches that were so spectacularly lame I could only describe as painful.
. The original Broadway cast was drafted for this film version, and while this provided actors who were clearly comfortable with the material, it also assured a few grandiloquent, over-the-top performances, more suited to stage than the intimacy of film. It did not help that the filmmaker chose to use flourishes of stage lighting. Designed to manipulate specific shifts of mood, the technique only served to make the viewer feel they are watching a staged play- not a movie. At these points, it doesn’t even aspire to be a movie.
. The three actors in the central roles as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Howard Da Silva, William Daniels, and Ken Howard), all deliver strong performances, and when the story focuses on politics instead of romance, it works surprisingly well.
. It seems clear where writer Peter Stone’s sympathies lie, when it came to the big philosophical divide this country has never been able to bridge over centuries: “property owners” (AKA the wealthy class) versus the average man- a conflict we now frame as a class war between Wall Street and Main Street. The representatives from the deep South seem reprehensible in the extreme, as epitomized by John Callum’s fiery pro-slavery song that attempts to glorify slave-trading scum, but ends up making this potent humanitarian injustice look bestial. (Too bad the lip-syncing was so terrible, it called in to question whether we were hearing Callum’s singing voice at all.) As a Socialist myself, I have no doubt that our brand of capitalism has failed the people miserably. This is not by any stretch of the imagination the “democracy” our forefathers thought they were creating. What we have now is a “kleptocracy”- a system where all profits accumulate within the primarily male, primarily white, moneyed class- leaving the majority of Americans to scramble for the crumbs dropped by the overfed rich. I am absolutely convinced what we call “the American Dream” is actually “the American Lie”. WE DO NOT HAVE UPWARD MOBILITY IN AMERICA. If you are born into poverty, the overwhelming odds say you will live in poverty and die a relative pauper. (Even rigidly class-based England has a better record of upward mobility than this basket-case of a country.) Stone seems to share my perspective on this, when he has one despicable southerner defend this harmful illusion with the line: “Most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.”
. Methinks Franklin, Adams and Jefferson would be absolutely furious to see what has come of the American experiment. History has clearly shown that the Federalists were correct in their power struggles with the backward “states rights” buffoons, who use this philosophy as a shield behind which they can oppress undesirable minorities, the poor, the under-educated, and anyone who does not blindly serve their interests. The essence of their absurd argument: we are a superior class of human, who believe we are entitled to everything, (including human property!) and everyone else should shut up and be thankful for what they are allowed to have…
> Safe to say, this uneven musical history of my morally-compromised country gave me plenty to think about!
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