Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hunky Dory: Shakespeare Glammed-Up

Remember those high school teachers so desperate to be popular they insisted everyone call them by their first name?  Viv is not quite that bad, but she is obviously uncomfortable serving as an authority figure.  Although she has given up on her acting career, the new drama teacher still has not quite worked the show business out of her system.  As a result, she plans an ambitious glam-rock production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Marc Evans’ period high school musical, Hunky Dory (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The 1970’s were not such a bad decade for music as people might recall—at least until white leisure suits and strobe lights hit the scene.  David Bowie is a prime example of the era’s good stuff and Hunky Dory might just be his best album.  Naturally, “The Man who Sold the World” shows up in Vivienne Mae’s production (familiar to many thanks to Nirvana’s Unplugged cover) and “Life on Mars?” (again, a popular choice).  It is a shame though that he did not offer “Kooks” because it would have been perfect thematically for this Welsh tale of teen love, angst and music.  On the other hand, several ELO tunes are along for the ride, which is cool.

The year is almost over, but “Viv” wants the seniors’ last big show to have special meaning for them.  Music will play a major role.  Bowie, ELO, and Beach Boys tunes will all factor into her musical version of The Tempest.  Unfortunately, her afterschool rehearsals have major competition from the local swimming pool (“the lido”) and general teenaged hook-ups.  One by one, cast members drop out, most notably her sensitive but disturbed Caliban.  Eventually, she is forced to recruit the headmaster to play Prospero.  Of course, the show always goes on, even when apparent disaster strikes.

We are honest-to-Betsy assured Evans and his producer were working on this concept well before Glee came around.  Fine, but comparisons will be inevitable.  In truth, Hunky stacks up rather well.  To its credit, it avoids preaching politics, except perhaps for the hammer & sickle clearly visible in the assembly hall mural.  Dude, what’s up with that?

As Viv, Minnie Driver is relentlessly likable and resilient in the face of life’s bummers.  She is pretty much right on target for a lightweight musical soap opera.  One of the film’s nice surprises is the sympathetic treatment of Bob Pugh’s headmaster, an old military veteran who turns out to be far more kind hearted and understanding than we initially expect.  His deepening professional relationship with Viv is one of the film’s more pleasant subplots.  However, the teen drama is pretty standard issue (the closeted Bowie fanatic, the sensitive working class kid spurned by the school princess, the garage band struggling to stay unified, etc, etc).

Evans (who previously helmed Patagonia, the UK’s best foreign language submission two Oscars ago) stylishly stages the climatic pageant.  The kids’ “Life on Mars?” is particularly cinematic.  Frankly, the Hunky Dory Orchestra consistently sounds full bodied and rather groovy.  The resulting cumulative impact is appropriately bittersweet and nostalgic.  Modest but endearingly earnest, Hunky Dory wears its niceness on its sleeve.  Moderately recommended for children of the 1970’s out for a trip down memory lane, Hunky Dory opens this Friday (3/22) in New York at the AMC Village VII.