Around halfway through the film, after a musical number, a high-school principal (Keegan-Michael Key) says, ‘OK, that one got to me.’ Awkwardly, this critic thought the same – only much earlier, and more frequently. Murphy’s innate OTT flair, the accelerated screenplay, the infectious and hilarious original songs, and the powerful, inclusive themes: they all sing together in a colourful chorus of escapism.
Ariana Debose and Jo Ellen Pellman. Photo: Netflix
You’re pulled into the ecstatic madness straight away, opening with a wide aerial shot that sweeps across an Indiana high school during a PTA meeting. It’s not a musical number, just a show of hands. Even in basic scenes, Matthew Libatique's cinematography flourishes: Murphy clearly terrified of mundanity. Led by a stern Kerry Washington, playing a conservative homophobe, the PTA has forbidden gay pupil Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) from taking a same-sex date to the end-of-year prom.
Meanwhile in a liberal and glittery New York, a garish gaggle of Broadway stars – played by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden – want to revitalise their careers. They need a cause to show how good they are, then see Emma’s story in the news and hop on a bus to Indiana. Predictably, during their journey they learn to forsake their selfish ways.
Matthew Rannells, James Corden, Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman play the Broadway darlings. Photo: Netflix
The Broadway stars are indeed ‘ageing narcissists’ and deplorable as human beings, but they’re villainously fun and easy to turn round. Meryl Streep is especially ebullient as the Tony-winner Dee Dee Allen. Her co-star James Corden can’t keep up, not possessing the range for his character's complicated emotions – leading to some controversy over his casting. But he still creates an endlessly enjoyable presence on screen.
The runtime of 130 minutes initially feels excessive, but the time and energy given to each character and performance are vital. When you have so many big names, there’s always the risk of wasting them – their faces and brands used purely for profit. But Murphy knows the quality he has.
Jo Ellen Pellman also threatens to rip her co-stars’ stages away, playing the sweet and bubbly Emma. This kooky lesbian hero keeps her spirits constantly upward, smiling through the curled lips of prejudice. She even slices through certain gender expectations; when she puts on a prom dress, she asks ‘Are you sure it’s not too girly?’
The film exists in a camp, liberal ideal – where intolerance can be assuaged by the power of song. The tracks range from the importance of escapism (We Look To You) to dismantling biblical punishments (Love Thy Neighbor), performed with riveting rhythm as they power every scene. There’s never a dull moment, and Love Thy Neighbor's mantra to use 'common sense instead' is perfect for these times.
The Prom is so absurd and flashy and lovey-dovey that reason happily melts away. But there is some reality within its sprinkling, sparkling nonsense that tugs at countless heartstrings. The result is a beautiful union of everyone who’s ever felt different from the society they’re stuck with. All within a musical that transcends the runtime and boasts the visual alacrity of a loud musical on stage. Thank you, Ryan Murphy, for gifting such a dazzling torrent of joy this Christmas.
The Prom is out now in cinemas and available on Netflix from Friday 11 December
|What||The Prom, Netflix review|
11 Dec 20 – 11 Dec 21, ON NETFLIX
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