Monday, May 16, 2011

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock n' Roll Musical (2003): or, Some Things are Not for Us to Sing

It often seems to me, parishioners, that making an independent horror movie is like running a creative marathon--just finishing is a praise-worthy accomplishment. The only cause for shame would be if you give up before reaching the goal, or took such shortcuts as to sully the glory of the unearned participatory medal at the end. I try to think of independent filmmakers as self-trained, self-sponsored marathoners, determined to get their vision out there through hours of sweat, tears, and sore muscles. Even if they're limping badly in the last mile or soil their spandex through an ill-considered over-exerting sprint, I still have to applaud their efforts.

I can only imagine, then, that making an independent horror MUSICAL must be like training for the abovementioned marathon, but with a 50-lb. sack of flour strapped to each leg and a 1930's Victrola around your neck. Why would anyone want to do that to himself?

But ours is not to question why--ours is but to watch and judge. If director Andre Champagne and actor/songwriter/script writer Alan Bernhoft are driven by some inscrutable passion to create a rock musical based on one of the horror genre's most-filmed properties--in 2003, forty years or more since the heyday of the American movie musical--I can only say "Go Team Dreamer!" and wish them well. Then crack open a beer, plant a tubfull of extra-butter popcorn in my lap, and watch the race begin. (MORE MADNESS!)

Mr. Cellophane Shoulda Been His Name

We open in Bournsemouth, England, 1885--or at least that's what the titles say, despite showing us an aluminum-sided, storm-windowed mini-mansion in Los Angeles. Inside, author Robert Louis Stevenson is tossing and turning and making groaning noises underneath his sumptuous quilts, which means he's either having a nightmare or wrestling with Long John Silver, IYKWIMAITYD. He cries out loudly and awakes (?), then sees a vision of a sweaty man with bad teeth hunkered down by the mantelpiece. When the phantom vanishes, RLS walks downstairs in his nightgown, his gait that of a man warring against cloacal incontinence, or else coming to terms with his defeat in said war. Downstairs he sits at his writing desk, looks out over his driveway, and begins to compose--no points for guessing what tale. Cue the RAWK GUITAR overture!

That Stevenson has quite an imagination, for next we're whisked away to a laboratory in modern-day LA, where philanthropic doctor Henry Jekyll (Bernhoft) has his smoke machine turned up to eleven and his beakers bubbling to beat the band. Wasting no time, the doctor introduces himself in song--"My name is Henry Jekyll! And I feel a bit unsure..."--then continues to croon about various doubts and uncertainties while mixing vials and drawing up a nasty looking syringe. Less than a full verse in, he jumps right to the crux of the story:

"I don't know just what I'm after,
But somewhere hidden deep inside
I seem to hear an evil laughter--
And its name is Edward Hyde...
I'd like to meet this Edward Hyde...

"I've done it! I've finally created the PERFECT Jell-O Shot!"

Never mind the fact that he's already named his alter-ego before even learning whether his potion will kill him or not--a quick injection and a few 1980s public-access video effects later, the doctor is transformed into a hideous monster! And by that I mean into an exact likeness of himself, only with more facial hair, a slightly worse complexion, and bad teeth. Oh, and an English accent. For some reason.

Changing into Victorian street urchin gear--which I'm sure Dr. J has lying around from last Halloween, nothing weird about that--Hyde goes window shopping through LA, rocking it (the fuck) out.



"Good Heavens! I'm GAWGEOUS!"

But wait, the filmmakers seem to say at this point, we're getting ahead of ourselves! So we flashback to TWO WEEKS EARLIER to find Jekyll and his colleague Dr. Lanyon (Terence Marinan), stumbling drunk down Hollywood Blvd. on their way home from the club. Somehow they break into a closed-for-the-night dinner theater and take to the stage for a Randy Newman-esque number in which Lanyon helpfully informs us how great and brilliant a humanitarian Jekyll is, and how worried he is that Jekyll is spending so much time on "Some Godforsaken project, if I may be so bold!" Then they dance with a mannequin. Scene.

Now I have more than a glancing familiarity with the American movie musical as a genre, and I understand that a lot of modern viewers have trouble with it. The musical, it seems to me, is at bottom a hyper-stylized fantasy, with its own special tropes and conventions, perhaps not unlike opera or Japanese Noh theater*. You can't go in expecting realism; emotions are turned up to the maximum, and character is developed through music and motion more than dialogue or subtle mannerisms. And of course in the golden age of musicals, you had musicians and lyricists like Jerome Kern and choreographers like Busby Berkeley, genuine geniuses of the form who could transport audiences with their art to another, sunnier, more colorful realm of experience.

*Neither of which I know anything about.

"It's the premiere screening! I thought at least my Mom would show up!"

Unfortunately Bernhoft, bless his little heart, is no Jerome Kern. The songs thus far are pretty much characters singing exactly what they're thinking or doing at the moment, with simple rhymes and next to no poetry. They get the job done, in an entertaining if clunky way--a bit like voice-overs with a beat. And Fred Astaire might have been able to bring the mannequin to life in a dance duet, but Berhoft and Marinan--not so much.

The first half-hour of the movie is pretty much all about Jekyll being close to some discovery, and how worried all his friends are about him. His attorney Michael (John David Heffron) and best friend/roommate Poole (Robert Ricucci) both express that sentiment, the latter in a show-stopping chicka-wicka rock number while pumping iron shirtless, for some reason. We also get a couple of numbers from Jekyll's fiance Anne--played by smokin' hawt redhead Lisa Peterson--about how much she loves him and how great he is and how worried she's been. These are staged like K-Tel commercials, with romantic fireplaces and walks on the beach set to plaintive guitar soft-rock.

"Sure, you're surprised, but you don't have to shower with him every day."

At almost EXACTLY the 30-minute mark, Jekyll gets a bit of inspiration from a patient named Amanda Lennox (Susannah Devereux), and rushes home to try his new formula. We get the transformation again, this time with stupid musical number, "The London Fog," in which a Victorian fashion-clad Jekyll walks in front of embarassingly greenscreened video effects featuring tourist postcards of London. At this point the narrative catches up with the prologue, and Hyde goes on his first rampage, killing a wino (played by legendary session drummer Hal Blaine) by beating him to death with a cane. Here we see that Hyde's fingerless "urchin" gloves are actually velcroed workout gloves, which he must have stolen from Poole. So that makes sense, anyway.

Hyde hooks up with hapless patient Amanda, who invites him into her home minutes after meeting him, despite the fact that he looks like nothing so much as a serial hobo murderer. Anne has another song, "I Love Him (That's All that Really Matters)," in which she imagines herself and Jekyll reenacting their favorite Harlequin romance covers while she sets the feminist movement back 20 years in 3 minutes. It ends with her having nonsensical visions of herself in Victorian attire astral-projecting into Henry's lab and looking confused. Flashback? Meta-commentary on the Stevenson story? Video FX masturbation? Who knows--with the exception of a brief musical interlude in the final third, in which she interacts with exactly NO other characters, it's the last we'll see of Anne the entire film.

Filmed on Location. Some location, anyway.
 Meanwhile, Hyde has sauntered down to his local pub, The Baked Potato, where drunken old men sing drinking songs and lingerie-clad whores array themselves on tables as if at a photo shoot. The punkish house band thinks nothing of it when Hyde comes in, jumps up on stage, and launches into "Little Girls," a creepy pedo-stalker song that would make 70s-era Alice Cooper shake his head. Hyde molests/borderline rapes one of the hookers during his solo, but lucky for him it turns out she's kind of into it. Ellie (Maria Anne Kress, also easy on the eyes in her bodice-baring bra-and-stockings ensemble) takes him back to her apartment, where they engage in some moderately exciting bondage play before Hyde starts smacking her around and then strangles her with one of her stockings. It's actually a fairly unsettling and horrific scene, and Kress plays it with a stupidity-giving-way-to-terror vibe that really works. The best bit of acting in the film, and the only bit of real horror that works. So kudos, I guess?

At almost EXACTLY the one-hour mark, things turn again, this time with Jekyll trying to get a handle on Hyde (and failing, of course). The world's oldest and most gravel-voiced detective, Inspector McCree (William Knight) starts investigating the hooker's murder, and Michael and Lanyon start thinking about staging an intervention for Henry. Hyde beats Amanda to a pulp, extorts drugs from Lanyon before revealing himself and then murdering the old man, and then has a final confrontation with Michael before an abrupt and frankly unsatisfying ending.

Hot Taters

So there are a lot things about The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock n' Roll Musical that don't work for me. The songwriting is pretty pedestrian and uninvolving, and none of the cast are very good singers, though to be fair none are spectacularly bad. Cinematography is periodically competent, but the terrible green-screen and 80s-style video effects sadly outweigh any goodness there. The near disappearance of Anne's character 2/3 of the way through is baffling, and I can only wonder whether Peterson quit the production and Champagne and Bernhoft soldiered on without her. (The DVD commentary might contain answers, but after due consideration I decided life was too short.) And in retrospect, the RLS opening was a complete throwaway; though judging from the super-extended end credits (slow-motion with a long "bonus" song over the text, and THEN each cast member gets a 30-60 second video character credit as well!), perhaps it was needed for padding.

Still, it's not all stinky. While I'm not big on his songwriting skill, I have to say that Bernhoft really throws himself into the Hyde role, playing it so over-the-top as to be entertaining; it's a pity his turn as Jekyll is so bland. Hyde's final show-stopping number, "Time for a Kill," also reminded me of Alice Cooper, but this time in a good way--it could easily be a bonus track on a Coop album. As for the other actors, Ricucci as Poole is a bright spot, even if his character is totally superfluous; he reminded me of a muscle-bound Mandy Patankin, and his musical number was among the best in the flick. Peterson is good, while she's in it, and Devereux isn't bad. The other actors range from competent to meh, though Knight gets special mention for his characterization of McCree as an elderly Columbo voiced by an evil Muppet.

"Screw this. I'm outta here."

So yeah, The Jekyll and Hyde Rock n' Roll Musical is pretty bad, but one thing you can't fault it for is its ambition. Champagne and Bernhoft were probably told several times during the planning and execution of their vision that it would be a hard sell in the best of situations, and they pushed on anyway, striving, believing. While I can't give the movie any more than 1.25 thumbs, I want to stress that I don't hate it. They finished the race--they made the film. So what if the result wasn't that great? As Robert Browning said, and I believe, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" And my opinion is just that--apparently the film won several small festival awards, and had its share of fans. Just check out the still-extant official site, if you don't believe me. (Which contains stills, some entertaining and mostly fictional talent bios, and the tease that Bernhoft is currently at work on a Frankenstein Rock Musical! Dream on, you crazy diamond!)

Test footage from next season's most talked-about musical comedy, Auschwitz!

Instead of more images, how about some music? Check out these numbers from The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock n' Roll Musical via YouTube!

Transformation Sequence -- If you watch nothing else, watch this!

"All That Really Matters" -- Anne Stands By Her Man

Official Trailer--featuring Ellie the Hooker and the Hot Potato Girls!

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