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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 28.57%
Average: 7.14%
Pretty Bad: 28.57%
Total Crap: 3.57%

1 review, 22 user ratings

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by John Linton Roberson

"'SWEET JESUS!'--from the film"
2 stars

I've gone on at length elsewhere about my aversion to THE PATRIOT and its Homer Simpsonesque, jarhead(and insultingly revisionist) view of the Revolution, but it has one merit--and only compared with this film--which is that it at least gives some sense of revolutionary fury & passion. Not here.

What is it about the American Revolution that eludes filmmakers? The French Revolution and all connected with it(usually if not set from start to end--and what film could do that?--then showing just how bad things were beforehand that made it so bloody & vengeful) seems to translate to film quite effectively, in films as varied as The Affair of the Necklace, Ridicule, Danton, or Marat/Sade.(the last of which is my personal favorite and which I plan to review as soon as I feel smart enough) But perhaps it's really the blood that helps, most particularly in the case of the latter two. But what, the Boston Massacre isn't nasty enough? Not a tense, dramatic situation that would start a film well?

Well, apparently not. Though the Revolution is something that cries out for a big, sprawling popcorn epic, THE PATRIOT or REVOLUTION seem to be the best Hollywood can do. The former is stupid, the latter flaccid & dull. Revolutions that go wrong seem to be better drama. (And indeed, in academia it's more proper to call it a "rebellion," not a "revolution." And rebellion just doesn't quite have the same foreboding ring)

Oh, and then there's this thing.

What is it? The story, with songs, of the arguments over the Declaration of Independence, the suspenseful part being the fact that it has to be a unanimous vote. Not bad grist for a play, certainly, and possibly okay for a film. But not this one. True, I'm not terribly fond of musicals, but here's an example of why that's hard to dispute.

The film, based on a stage musical, belongs to a pre-EASY RIDER Hollywood and seems odd when one takes it as a 70s film(and seems odder when you wonder why they didn't RELEASE it in 1976 where among all else connected with the Bicentennial it would have looked far less kitschy. You can see shot through it creators outside of their era trying to look cooler than they are by taking the same treacle they're always purveyed, and trying to add the lightest acidity to it. Its attempts at modern sensibility come off as either forced, vulgar(in a yucky sort of way), or cutesy.

The most glaring example is the attempt to show what a bunch of lusty cocksmen these Founding Fathers were. Granted, they probably were a bunch of hounds and braggarts, as are the members of any Congress. And this was the 18th century and that was a profligate time. But the sexism of these fellows seems not so much to show what sort of time this was as to show the sort of time in which it was made. It's creepy to see William Daniels go on about how he can "still jump through Cupid's garden with great agility"--I'm sorry, I'd really rather not picture that, I don't know about you. The manner in which Jefferson's wife is spoken of ("Give 'er a flourish for me, young feller," to which Ken Howard as Jefferson shoots back a knowing grin) is particularly offensive when one considers that at this time, his wife Martha was actually terribly sick and died not long afterward, and was not "sent for" by John Adams so that Jefferson might fuck and clear his mind for writing the Declaration, as this film has it, and of which it makes much.

Of course, without that we might not have the lovely shots of a young Blythe Danner, still more of a looker than her daughter ever will be. But her performance here is probably not helped by her having to sing the most sickening, clumsy, double-entendre tune in the whole film, "He Plays the Violin," which as near as I and many I've asked can make out, seems to be a heavy-handed reference to cunnilingus. It's cutesy & winking and, because of that, really rather gross, generating a feeling akin to the sort you might have if you heard your dad talk about what a good lay your mom was. I'd say that's the general tone of the amazingly frequent sexual braggadocio. And it goes on, like most of the songs in this film, for fucking EVER.

An inability to know when to quit mars some of the best performances, like NORTHERN EXPOSURE's John Cullum's otherwise lacerating "Molasses to Rum," which starts out fine explaining the hypocrisy, given the supposed principles of the Revolution like "All men are created equal," of allowing the infamous Triangle Trade in slaves(and slavery is one of the few things this film really gives much weight, to its credit). The music gives it a full bite; Cullum's performance is genuinely horrific--and then it devolves into an extended baritone vocal solo which stops when someone says "Rutledge. Enough," my words exactly.

A few I'd say are also too cutesy to bear listening would be "The Lees of Old Virginia," which has more puns on the name "Lee" than, I think, are allowed by the Geneva Convention; "The Egg," which indeed shows all the tedium of waiting for the decision of the Declaration; and all of the cloying duets between Adams and his wife, meant to represent their letters. On the other hand, occasionally there's a real heartbreaker like "Momma, Look Sharp," an elegiac ballad about the soldiers dead in the war, or most of "But, Mr. Adams," about just how Jefferson ended up writing it--because, as the film repeats as many times as it can(and these were in fact the exact words used in Adams' lifetime), Adams--the most educated among them--was "obnoxious and disliked" and thus might have ruined the vote by writing it simply due to the others' personal animus against him.

Much of the casting is quite nice. Ken Howard comes off as rather fey, but William Daniels, one of the most fascinatingly unlikeable and snobbish character actors(in his performances, I mean; I know nothing about him as a person) is absolutely perfectly-cast as John Adams. Howard DaSilva works well as Ben Franklin, in whom a certain amount of good-natured cutesiness isn't totally out of place. The scenes in which they're actually arguing about the Declaration are well-acted and do have a real energy and tension to them, but then this begs the question of why add songs to it in the first place? They only dissapate whatever the spoken scenes manage to build.

I would relegate this to the trash pile but it does have a certain campy value, so it gets two stars. Watch it on the 4th of July when you're very, very stoned.

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originally posted: 02/01/03 21:02:45
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User Comments

8/13/15 Hope One of my favorite movies/musicals, just not for everyone 5 stars
2/05/15 Den Powerful as theatre & not bad as history. Great performances, strong numbers. 4 stars
9/19/13 Annie G Not a bad musical, but only average on historical accuracy. 3 stars
5/05/11 zenny fast forward by the singing and enjoy your history lesson 3 stars
7/07/10 David Sergeant Ingenious, honest, if watered down version of history 4 stars
6/22/10 D.B. Wilkerson Highly underrated; best musical of the last 40 years. 5 stars
8/04/09 the dork knight Oh come on, pull your heads out of your ass. The songs are better than most musicals. 5 stars
2/28/09 brian Horrible music, Adams unlikely to have taken God's name so lightly; otherwise terrific. 4 stars
12/31/08 APUSH Victim Had to watch it in class. Great when you watch it a second time. Really. 4 stars
5/15/08 Pokejedservo This is pretty much one of the best musicals ever made really. 5 stars
5/03/08 Pamela White plot limited and songs forgetable 2 stars
8/21/07 ashley worst movie/musical EVER!! 1 stars
7/02/07 ahnold Better like musicals or dont watch. Good drama & just forget sexual innuendos either. 4 stars
4/18/07 zenshark Not for everyone, but enjoyable. 4 stars
10/08/06 Griswald Great musical about history of our country - take the lyrics for facts not sexual innuendos 5 stars
7/29/05 Jed To Mr. Roberson: Dude, get a grip. It was a 4 stars
7/04/04 Mark Jeffcoat A fun retelling of our precious history that reminds us that our heroes we indeed human. 5 stars
5/31/04 Nobody Saw it in school. Funny! Benjamin Franklin steals the show 5 stars
2/06/03 Historygirl Give it a chance - and remember when it was filmed 5 stars
2/01/03 Charles Tatum Surprisingly entertaining 4 stars
2/01/03 John Linton Roberson Yuck. 2 stars
4/25/02 J One of the best musicals ever made, pure & simple. 5 stars
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