On misapplied formulas, the devolution of musical theatre, and the continued destruction of that Leonard Cohen song
Sing Universal Pictures
Director: Garth Jennings
Screenplay: Garth Jennings
Starring: The voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane, Taron Egerton, Peter Serafinowicz, Tori Kelly, John C. Reilly, Nick Kroll and Jennifer Saunders
Rated PG / 1 hour, 48 minutes / 1.85:1
December 21, 2016
(out of four)
When, about two-thirds of the way through the interminable runtime of Sing, a scene revolves around a cover version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," it feels like the universe is just piling on. The film, released six weeks after Cohen's death, has practically the entire pop-music catalogue of melancholy ballads to choose from, and it somehow chooses that one, hammering another nail in the coffin of a song whose use as dramatic accompaniment transformed into self-parodic meaninglessness a long time ago.
That a movie made in 2016 has the lack of self-awareness and lack of imagination to use that song - the latest of countless movies, television episodes and commercials to have used it in the fifteen years since Shrek made it fashionable again - is actually kinda shocking, like hearing a talk-show host or topical comedian tell a joke about something that faded from cultural relevance a decade ago. And given the timing, it serves as a sort of sardonic anti-tribute, as if writer/director Garth Jennings wants to posthumously reassure Cohen that he'll continue to be remembered with hackneyed fondness in perpetuity.
The "Hallelujah" scene is, like everything else in Sing, an act of dreadful redundancy. The film is modeled after the sorts of televised singing contests that have been a pop-culture staple for the last 15 years, but it's difficult to find any inspiration here beyond the simple familiarity of the format. It's about a theatre owner who decides to stage a singing competition made up of various characters whose talents and backstories we get to know over the course of the contest. Which ... I mean, don't actual shows like American Idol do essentially the same thing, but better? What Sing doesn't seem to understand is that, right out of the gate, its entire concept is superfluous. Reality-television shows like the ones this movie is inspired by are built on principles of fictional storytelling. They're built on semi-manufactured narratives and emotional arcs. I'm not a particularly big fan of reality TV in general, but those producers certainly know how to craft and play up narrative angles and give viewers a rooting interest. They're almost diabolically good at it. (The shameless structuring of the Susan Boyle backstory and on-stage triumph is a particularly strong, and distasteful, example.) Sing does basically the same thing, giving us a bunch of characters with life stories designed to prove what an inspiring champion each would be. This one is finally asserting her independence, this one is overcoming his checkered family legacy and defying expectations, this one is conquering her shyness, etc. And that's kind of it. The film isn't striking while the American Idol iron is hot or reflecting/building on something of cultural interest - it's simply reiterating a common formula, but with cute animals.
A sports movie wouldn't work if it behaved exactly like a live sports broadcast - or, say, a Bob Costas-narrated Olympic featurette. An election-year thriller wouldn't work if were scripted like a televised debate. And neither does a movie about a TV singing competition work when it behaves more or less like a TV singing competition. There's gotta be more to it than that, otherwise we all might as well just save our money and wait for the next episode of The Voice.
The connecting tissue tying together the film's characters and story is the theatre itself, and its beleaguered owner who sees the contest as his last-ditch effort to make something of himself in show business. Yes, this movie is not just about a singing competition but, in a plot lifted from every movie from the 1980s, about raising money to save a beloved theatre before it's taken over by an evil bank. Leaving aside the flimsy functionality of the plot, there's something deeply cynical about its attitude toward the performing arts. It accepts the failure of theatre, then celebrates its devolution into a glorified talent show - even suggests that said talent show is an easy, can't-miss proposition that even a loser wannabe impresario like Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) can pull off. Sing is a success story about the end of a dream - and it's curiously proud of this. Moon abandons his original productions in order to make a quick buck, and the story is meant to be an inspiring one. See? Even an abject failure can make it if all he's doing is rounding up unknown musicians desperate for their big break.
Or, perhaps the cynicism is mine, for believing that an American Idol-like program is an inherently cheap substitute for theatre - or film, for that matter. I stand by that assertion, but take it for what you will.
The film, in fairness, eventually has to break from its rigid formula - even a script as bad as this one knows it has to include some added conflict somewhere - but really only to the extent that it de-emphasizes the least interesting plotting and redoubles its focus on the emotional arcs. Not that those arcs are much more interesting. They're harmlessly gooey inspirational archetypes that - like the worst of this type of reality TV - end up being more patronizing than anything else. The pig, an overworked mother of 25 named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), who sneaks away during the day to try and finally realize her musical ambitions. The porcupine, Ash (Scarlett Johansson, using much better use of her singing voice than with that album of awfully misguided Tom Waits covers a decade ago), going solo in righteous defiance of her former boyfriend and much-less-talented bandmate. The cockney gorilla, Johnny (Taron Egerton), who's been along for the ride in his father's band of robbers but really just wants to hammer out old-fashioned ballads on the piano. (The Johnny character is the most clever visual creation of the bunch, always sporting a leather jacket that's a staple of old-fashioned movie toughs but also eternally associated with Grease.)
The handling of every character's kinda-sorta "journey" is clunky at best, incredibly lazy at worst. No one is fully formed, and as a result none of the characters' choices or turning points or moments of change ever seem motivated by anything but story mechanics. And I'm putting it as indifferently as I can here. The more unvarnished truth is that Sing feels like an act of acquiescence to the cheapest impulses of our entertainment culture. It is not a film about a singing competition, it is a singing competition. It is the cheerful degeneration from Broadway musical to pub karaoke. It offers characters designed to exist only in the moments in which they appear on screen - and only in the specific context in which they are framed - instead of living on beyond the show, beyond the beginning and the end. Outside the function they have as cogs within the competition, Sing - like the reality-television shows in the same tradition - has no use for them whatsoever.