In Busby Berkeley’s ’30s extravaganzas, novice entertainers Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler sang and danced their way to stardom in Broadway revues. In the ’40s, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney marshaled their pals to mount knockout amateur shows in barns. Four decades later, Fame updated the formula, chronicling the showbiz aspirations of Manhattan high-school kids. And now we have Camp, an ensemble piece about a collection of teenage outsiders honing their performance skills while struggling with their failure to conform to social norms.
Writer-director Todd Graff based his screenplay on his own experience as a neophyte performer. When he was 14, his musician parents sent him to Stagedoor Manor, a theatrical summer camp in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. He ended up attending for five yearsthree as a camper and two as a counselor. Last summer, he returned to Stagedoor Manor, renamed Camp Ovation for the movie, to shoot his directorial debut on a tight 23-day schedule.
Camp’s plot, such as it is, involves misfit characters in skimpily developed inspirational vignettes of cringe-making sentimentality. There’s Michael (Robin De Jesus), a gay Latino who is shunned by his family and beaten up by classmates when he attends his junior prom in drag. Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) fares only a shade better at her prom: She’s so unpopular that she’s forced to enlist her brother as a date. Beautiful, frustrated Dee (Sasha Allen), by contrast, has no problem attracting menbut all of them are gay. And poor plump Jenna (Tiffany Taylor) can’t demonstrate her considerable vocal chops because her weight-obsessed parents have had her jaw wired shut.
Even the seemingly well-adjusted campers face challenges. Handsome Vlad (Daniel Letterle), whose audition number, a Rolling Stones song, inspires a gleeful counselor to laud him as a Camp Ovation anomaly, “an honest-to-God straight boy,” is secretly on medication for a learning disorder. Ambitious blond bombshell Jill (Alana Allen) gets her comeuppance when her drab toady (Anna Kendrick) turns out to be a conniving Eve Harrington. The camp staff also has its share of adult walking wounded, notably guest composer-director Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), whose failure to follow up a decade-old Broadway hit has rendered him a bitter alcoholic.
With rare exceptionsMeet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain spring to mindthe plots of musicals essentially function as a netting to support song-and-dance sequences; Camp’s is no different. With all these subplots (and others) to develop and resolveall happily, of coursethe narrative is a shambles. But the film is worth seeing as a showcase for fresh young talent. The kids perform more than a dozen musical numbers, ranging from vintage Broadway show tunes (including several by Stephen Sondheim, who plays himself in a benevolent cameo appearance) to a pair of rousing originals by composer Michael Gore and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. Allen sparkles in a high-stepping performance of the Bacharach-David “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises, Promises; the full ensemble nails Hanley’s comeback composition, “Century Plant” (actually written by Victoria Williams); and Taylor, her character’s jaw finally unshackled, brings down the house with the Gore-Ahrens “Here’s Where I Stand,” a showstopper that overshadows the remainder of the movie.
One number that doesn’t work, unless it’s meant to be funny, is Chilcoat’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from Dreamgirls. The sight and sound of an insecure suburban white girl in a Supremes wig attempting to sell leather-lunged Jennifer Holliday’s defiant signature song is nearly as risible as the scene in which Michael has his first heterosexual experience, with Dee. If for nothing else, Camp will be remembered as the first movie to suggest that musical theater can, albeit briefly, “cure” homosexuality.
Claude Lelouch, who scored an international triumph in 1966 with the glossy love story A Man and a Woman, remains popular in France, but only a fraction of his output has been seen in the United States. After Live for Life (1967), and Happy New Year (1973), American audiences grew tired of his highly pictorial, paper-thin romantic confections. But if his movies are self-indulgent and capricious, when it comes to casting spellbinding leading ladiesincluding Anouk Aimee, Catherine Deneuve, and Candice BergenLelouch has always been a master.
His latest effort, which he also co-scripted and co-produced, is unlikely to do much to restore his U.S. reputation, but it continues the Lelouch tradition of spotlighting feminine talent. Besides, the movie is just too weird to dismiss. And Now Ladies & Gentlemen is impossible to classify, unless drama/comedy/musical/travelogue/caper movie qualifies as a genre.
Jeremy Irons plays Valentin Valentin, a British jewel thief who claims to have been born on Valentine’s Day. A cunning crook, he’s pulled off daring daylight heists by posing as a police investigator and, improbably, in drag as an English dowager. Now, remorseful about his criminal past, Valentin purchases an imposing, sail-powered yacht and abandons his wife (Alessandra Martines) for a solitary ’round-the-world cruise.
French chanteuse Jane Lester (pop songbird Patricia Kaas making her screen debut) also longs for escape, after learning that her trumpeter boyfriend has taken up with her best friend. She accepts a gig as a piano-bar singer-pianist in a Moroccan hotel. Coincidentallyor fatefully, as Lelouch would have itValentin suffers a blackout and his yacht washes ashore in Fez.
Nearly an hour passes before Valentin and Jane meet. Seems that Jane is also suffering blackouts, and the pairfatefully againsee the same doctor, gobble the same blue meds, and mutually await the results of CAT scans to see if they have brain tumors. Meanwhile, Kaas warbles some lounge standards, Valentin is accused of stealing an Italian contessa’s gems, and the two make a pilgrimage to a holy shrine (highlighted by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn’s National Geographic-quality North African landscapes). Lelouch also introduces, then ignores, subplots involving Valentin’s wife and a shipbuilder, and a Moroccan boxer and his wife, and intersperses some amusing but distracting dream sequences to underscore the film’s pithy Albert de Musset epigraph, “Life is a deep sleep, of which love is the dream.”
Lelouch sprinkles the leisurely, two-hour-plus And Now Ladies & Gentlemen with a potpourri of the appealing, the exasperating, and the absurd. The dialogue is larded with such howlers as “The despair of the jet set is fathomless” and “There is an elegance in amnesia.” For cinema buffs, he includes allusions to classic movies: Claudia Cardinale’s contessa’s last name is Falconnetti, after the star of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the closing shot replicates the final image of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. His narrative, sometimes confusingly, scrambles chronology, and he overuses the visual gimmick of having the screen drain from color to sepia during Jane’s blackouts (or, more precisely, brownouts).
As in Camp, music is And Now Ladies & Gentlemen’s most satisfying element. Early on, Jane and a vocal partner, together known as the Sisters of Song, perform several lively new Michel Legrand bop-inflected duets reminiscent of the songs he composed for The Young Girls of Rochefort. Later, when she goes solo, Jane sings an assortment of lilting French standards, including “I Wish You Love,” “If You Go Away,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Beyond the Sea” and, in a brazen bit of Lelouch self-congratulation, Francis Lai and Pierre Barouh’s theme from A Man and a Woman. Kaas’ silky, sultry voice, with its undertones of Peggy Lee and Julie London, blends with her astutely understated acting and bewitching face to announce the arrival of a new screen goddess. CP