Netflix’s The Prom Review: A lot of potential tanked by too many personalities
The latest film in Netflix’s jam-packed December release schedule, director Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar’s musical The Prom, is unfortunately not the sum of its parts.
When I first heard that the latest collaboration between Netflix and Murphy was going to be an end of the year musical, it was hard to have flashbacks to Cats. Maybe it was because James Corden was in both films or that Cats left such a nightmarish impression that any musical that comes out around this time is going to give me those anxious chills of facing a similar fate. However, after seeing the star-studded cast, Murphy producing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band that was excellent, and the really great trailer, there was something about The Prom that won me over and gave me some hope that it could leave 2020 on a more energized note and it does do that.
Considering how absolutely abysmal this year has been for the most part, The Prom makes it end of a happier note – visually, musically, and narratively. The combination of big splashes of color and fantastical musical sequences really make the film this energized and positive-minded experience that’s comforting to watch and leaves you on a heartwarming note. The songs are strong with a lot of them adding zazz, as the film would say, and an upbeat message that’s hard to resist. There’re definitely some corny and overbearing songs like “Love Thy Neighbor,” but they’re easily outweighed by much more vibrant songs like “Tonight Belongs to You” and “Dance With You” as well as more emotionally connective songs like “Alyssa Greene” and “Just Breathe.” The film’s anthems, definitely being “Unruly Heart” and “Time To Dance,” are easily the film’s best songs and “The Acceptance Song” is actually really nice and unique with its “country-fied” vibe. All of this energy and good music comes together in a story about love and acceptance.
Following four down on their luck Broadway stars that travel to Edgewater, Indiana to help a young girl named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) who’s prom has been canceled because she wanted to go with her girlfriend, the film’s story hits some nice beats that express the struggles of coming out in closed-minded environment. The best moments the film has to offer are when it really delves into Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who has not come out to her strict mother (Kerry Washington), dealing with the backlash they receive and their feelings for one another. There’s a lot of relatability to their coming-of-age feelings of love and wishing to be accepted by those around them and it all comes off incredibly genuine. Pellman and DeBose give great performances and it’s easy to understand their laments about the world around them not accepting them. There’s even a great subplot with Barry (Corden) as he reconciles with the backlash he got from his parents when he originally came out as it hits hard emotionally and nicely parallels with what’s happening with Emma. Honestly, when the film takes a more personal approach to showing its main LGBT characters, it has a lot going for it.
However, the film never devotes enough to time to fleshing out its LGBT themes of acceptance and understanding and makes other mistakes in constructing its musical plot. Oddly enough, the film makes the same mistakes as Cats with how it balances songs and story. There’s never enough time to get to know the characters outside of songs since the film just blasts through songs at breakneck speeds and it ultimately leads to many characters and ideas feeling half-baked or unnecessary. Honestly, it’s hard to say why certain characters, like Julliard graduate Trent (Andrew Rannells) and constant chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), and storylines, like the odd and unnecessary love story between school principal Tom (Keegan-Michael Key) and the narcissistic Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), are even in the film. They don’t add a whole lot to the themes or messages within the film and constantly just feel like they’re there to move to the plot along or add in some song. Even worse, they just steal time away from Emma’s story and it feels like the film focuses too much on its familiar faces and ends up losing out on a great opportunity to flesh out its themes and central location.
There’s constant mentions of how the town of Edgewater has big beliefs and practices and even that Emma’s parents threw her out when she came out to them, but none of these things are explored. The town’s culture and beliefs are kept to minimal mentions and the film never has incredibly deep conversations about Emma’s experience or these clashes in views. Rather it just has both sides throw incredibly unimpressive stones at each other like cavepeople and tries to makes all of the film’s thoughts about religion and hate towards the LGBT community not as powerful or impactful as it thinks. Not to mention, all of the time not spent with Emma makes all the times that the film tries to have Emma and the Broadway stars’ stories collide feel disingenuous because they’re never really together even though the film makes their connection seem like they are. Overall, it’s a film that has too many unnecessary plot threads and characters as well as half-baked messaging that mostly tanks a lot of the potential the film has to be more impactful.
There’re also some questionable choices within the songs and Murphy’s filmmaking that really break the momentum from time to time. In a lot of the earlier songs, like “Tonight Belongs to You,” it’s almost like there isn’t a distinct ending. The song just abruptly ends, and it really tanks the momentum the song builds. Also, sometimes Murphy ends the songs or captures the actors in a way that isn’t the most flattering and there some strange faces that really take you out of the moment – the end of “Just Breathe” comes mind. It’s also a shame that the film couldn’t utilize “You Happened” better to create some imaginative and fun promposals since the song sequence just comes off underwhelming. Worst of all though, very cheap storytelling and weak character growth from a majority of the supporting cast botches the film’s big pivotal moment and is only saved by the great final two songs.
The Prom definitely lifts your spirits in a necessary way with some emotional moments of LGBT acceptance and anguish as well as some delightfully upbeat music, but ultimately can’t make the whole ride enjoyable with it’s underdeveloped themes and too many personalities trying to steal the spotlight.