Thursday, December 18, 2008

Big Screen Beck

To thrive in talk radio, you have to be entertaining. With over 300 stations syndicating his three hour radio show and a new television show debuting on Fox News in January, Glenn Beck is clearly doing okay for himself. Obviously, he knows something about entertaining an audience. Still, his ability to carry a one-man stage show came as a bit of a surprise last night in Fathom Events’ live theater simulcast of Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater (trailer here).

Based on his bestselling novel, Sweater is an odd hyrid of cinema, theater, and variety show, based around Beck’s emotional reminiscences of his fateful twelfth Christmas. Still grieving his father, Beck, then known as Eddie, is hoping for some consolation under the tree. Unfortunately, all his hard working mother can afford is the yarn for a sweater. Disappointed, Eddie hurtfully withdraws from his mother and grandparents, setting in motion a story of tragedy and more importantly, redemption.

While Beck supplies all the drama, he is not alone on the stage. He is accompanied by strings and woodwinds, as well as Chanta C. Layton, a show-stopping gospel vocalist with an enormous voice. Her musical interludes help the show avoid the pitfalls of one-person shows, which often seem like one long unrelieved monologue (as indeed they usually are). In fact, an early performance of the favorite hymn of Eddie’s late father plays an important role in Sweater’s character development.

Sneer and scoff all you wish, but Beck shows some genuine acting chops in Sweater. Though not singing or dancing, Beck brings a real physicality to his performance, literally working up a sweat on-stage. Deliberately blurring the lines of fiction and autobiography, Sweater often feels like a confessional, as Beck essentially bares his soul on stage. Unquestionably sentimental, the story is also legitimately moving, up until the disappointingly contrived (but obligatorily happy) conclusion.

Although the energy flags a bit immediately following the ten minute intermission, director Don Brenner generally balances Beck, the music, and the projected background images quite well. Frankly, for what is essentially a concert film, Sweater has an appealing look (far superior to the flat Allah Made Me Funny, for instance).

Beck can actually act and he evidently knows how to hire people who can sing. He is also controversial, so no doubt many will find it difficult to get past their preconceived notions of the radio host. However, he deserves credit for a revealingly honest performance. Though Beck scrupulously avoids the political in Sweater, arguably one can see in it the values of family and faith which shape his world view.

Produced by Fathom Events, known for their Metropolitan Opera simulcasts and special anime screenings, Sweater is an unusual cinema experience, more closely akin to the legitimate stage. I'm not sure what I really expected either, but those with an open mind will be impressed by Beck’s screen presence. Look for Fathom’s encore screening tonight at these theaters.