★ ★ ★ ★ ½
One theory says that the characters in musicals sing because they are so overcome with emotion that speaking simply can’t express the magnitude of their feelings. Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of composer Jason Robert Brown’s two-person, sung-through musical The Last Five Years is certainly full of big emotions, but it avoids going over the top because of the brilliant lyrics, catchy melodies, inventive visuals, and pitch-perfect lead performances. It’s one of the most grandly entertaining and strikingly original movie musicals ever made.
The story unfolds as a series of songs that chart the evolution of a relationship between two creative-minded twentysomething New Yorkers: aspiring actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and ambitious writer Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). The movie ping-pongs back and forth between the two performing songs, as Cathy’s numbers work backward through the relationship—her opening tune “Still Hurting,” a glorious evocation of resentment, hurt, and heartbreak, is the last song chronologically in the couple’s story—while his move forward through their time together—his opener “Shiksa Goddess” is a bouncy ode to eternal young love.
Although the duo initially seem happy and right for each other, trouble looms as Jamie’s writing career takes off. Meanwhile, Cathy finds herself stuck in Ohio doing summer-stock theatre for long periods of time, never able to catch a break in the world of Manhattan.
The Last Five Years is an example of a talented writer/director not just getting out of the way of superior material, but figuring out how to make it work on the big screen. LaGravenese is acutely aware of how uncannily conversational Brown’s songs are, and so he often shoots the action with a handheld camera that gives the entire movie an intimacy that’s rare in musicals. You don’t miss the lack of spoken dialogue, because it feels like these characters are always talking to each other; they’re just doing so melodically and while rhyming more often than we do in normal conversation.
Kendrick has already proven her musical chops in the surprise hit Pitch Perfect and her excellent work as Cinderella in 2014’s Into the Woods, and she’s just as radiant here. She brings out the humor, sadness, and selfishness in these lyrics without ever seeming like a diva who wants and expects your praise. She’s acting, but she’s also singing while she does it. Jeremy Jordan, a Broadway musical vet getting the biggest and best part of his film career so far, has natural charm and a singing voice that can be either playfully warm (“The Schmuel Song”) or movingly dramatic (“If I Didn’t Believe in You”). Both alone and together, they are outstanding here. And they have to be for this conceit to work, as there aren’t any other major characters of note—nobody else gets to sing, and hardly anyone else even speaks.
The creative direction and terrific performances are there to serve Brown’s songs, which are written in a wide array of musical styles. This isn’t one big Broadway show tune after another, but a thrillingly diverse set of rhythms and sounds that somehow feel like they fit organically into the tradition of the American musical. Rock, pop, jazz, and even Jewish Klezmer elements work their way into the songs without feeling gimmicky. The entire score is a compositional triumph, without a single tune that feels like filler to get to the next big number. The Last Five Years feels like how they used to make ‘em, as well as something that’s never been made before. It’s a funny and bittersweet look at a love affair gone bad, a sensitive portrait of how jealousy can hurt creativity, and most of all, a glorious testament to the power of music to reach the deepest parts of our souls. LaGravenese ends with the same shot that you see in the opening frame, prompting you to re-experience it right away like you do with a great record, or just keep turning it over in your mind like the memory of your own most heartbreaking relationship.