Musical 52

Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.

1776 (1972)

I’m not a musical guy and American history bores the piss out of me, so let’s try to pretend there’s a modicum of suspense as I tell you what I thought of 1776, a singsong cinematic retelling of the birth of the Declaration of Independence. Can John Adams (William Daniels), Ben Franklin (Howard Da Silva), and Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) join forces to break away from England and make a ton of lame sex jokes along the way? Spoiler alert: nope, the movie radically differs from historical events and the United States never becomes its own country—OF COURSE IT FUCKING DOES, LET’S WATCH THIS.

Agh, politics are hard, you guys! Government is complicated and dumb and Congress sucks! It was a real struggle to become America! But that’s not interesting enough for a movie, apparently, so we also need a bunch of tedious minutiae about life in the 1770s and an unfunny amount of “go home and fuck your wife” gags.

You must know at all times that these men were dicks and had dicks.

I think this story fizzled for me because it wanted to be so many things and failed in every direction at once. A peek into the lives of all the men of Congress? There are just too many of them, so they’re reduced to Pop-Up Video-style factoids rather than engaging arcs. A recreation of the lead-up to American independence, down to the temperature of the very room the Declaration was signed in? That’s not very cinematic, and would read better as a book. A campy, over-the-top comedic romp? Eh, that would have been the best choice, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough; this movie’s idea of riotous sex comedy is Adams in a huff about Jefferson porking in the middle of the day. I say!

Benny likes to watch.

Lest you think I’m being needlessly hard on this movie just because it revolves around a subject matter that I don’t give a shit about (see: Lord of the Rings), I want you to know that Cinemanaut John joined me for this viewing solely because he is a huge American history buff and had never seen 1776 before. He agreed that it’s entirely flawed in its story and pacing… and it’s also inaccurate: “They’re eschewing historical facts for shitty jokes that aren’t funny. Like, the jokes are so bad that they’re unrecognizable as jokes.” I’ll take his word on the truthfulness of events; all I know about history I learned from National Treasure. And Lincoln. Wait, yeah, Lincoln did an okay job of a bunch of white men arguing over paperwork. What’s your excuse, 1776?

You had almost 200 years to write this!

Much like the story, the acting in this film could only be reserved or ridiculous, and the performances sadly also fall somewhere awkwardly in between. William Daniels is probably the most watchable as the determined John Adams, but I think that’s only because he’s the best thespian of the bunch. I wish his acting skills told us that he was a fearless believer in voting for independency louder than his obvious dialogue and lyrics, but he does the absolute best he can with the words he’s been handed.

On the bright side, you can close your eyes and pretend he’s a car.

Benjamin Franklin should have been your big, goofy favorite uncle, but he ends up like your third favorite uncle who’s just kinda fun to visit, but only because he has a pool. (Nailed that comparison!) Howard Da Silva is surprisingly boring for what seems like the most unfuckuppable founding father, but while his performance isn’t necessarily grating, he doesn’t have the oversized personality to match his reputation as a cock machine.

His expression here matches my exact reaction to his character.

I was almost asleep by the time Thomas Jefferson did anything worth talking about, but the parts I woke up for were forgettable. I wish that was a joke. I think he played the violin a bit. Good for him. My guess is that Ken Howard was trying to portray him as a colonial rock star, but he never made it above “Phil Collins” on my Rock-O-Meter.

The Declaration’s first draft had lyrics about someone named Sally on the back.

Behind every successful revolutionary politician is a lady back home that can’t vote, and Virginia Vestoff does an admirable job of playing Abigail Adams. She provides emotional support to John via mail while also organizing all kinds of important causes back in Massachusetts, and it’s great to see her hold her own in debates with John.

Nicely done.

On the other side of the spectrum, Blythe Danner’s Martha Jefferson is simply a pretty lady suitable for fucking.

Also nicely done.

The film stars a shitload of other people that are mildly entertaining from time to time. Let’s get to the tunes!

There are two main problems with the songs in 1776. The first is distribution. Four numbers are blasted out in the first 20 minutes, three of them so close together they all seem like one song… and then suddenly we’re stuck listening to nothing but political debate for approximately 45 minutes. It feels like they changed their mind about doing a musical once they realized they couldn’t write songs for shit. And that’s the second problem.

Imagine a half-assed parody of a musical. Quarter-assed, even. You’re dicking around with your friends, somebody makes a joke about turning a terrible movie into a musical; let’s go with Sharknado. What happens? I bet one of your friends sings, “Sharknaaaaado!” Maybe another sings, “That tornado’s full of shaaaaarks!” Bottom line, nobody’s come up with a good tune yet; they’re just picking words relevant to whatever’s getting the musical treatment and extending one of the syllables.

That’s what the songs in 1776 feel like. “Vooooote!” “Independencyyyyy!” “Saltpeeeeeter!”

Don’t think for one fucking second that I’m kidding about a saltpeter song.

Whenever I encounterstaggeringly lengthy musical for this project, I usually only mention the songs that stick out for an abundance or lack of quality. Sadly, so many of the numbers in 1776‘s almost three-hour runtime (it’s a director’s cut) are entirely mediocre; I fear reviewing my notes will yield a lot of, “Oh, yeah, that one.” Regardless, let’s begin. We open on a trio of bland tunes: “Sit Down, John,” where all of Congress bitches at John Adams to open up a windooooow, “Piddle, Twaddle and Resolve,” in which John bitches about American politics, and “Till Then,” an exchange of letters between John and Abigail that starts off nice and ends with them bitching about goddamn saltpeter and pins. Because complaining is so much more fun when you do it liiiiike thiiiiis.

The guy facepalming down in front is not wrong.

“Okay,” I said at this point. “These are all going to be about tiny little historical footnotes.” But then I was introduced to the second type of song in 1776: the dipshitty lyrical experiment. Some crazy fucker by the name of Richard Henry Lee croons a tune about “The Lees of Old Virginia,” but he’s not talking about his family members… he’s talking about adverbs, because they end in “-ly.” Serious Lee. This Hasti Lee composed exercise in stupidity is Quick Lee forgotten and we Eventua Lee move on to “But, Mr. Adams,” a squabble over who will pen the Declaration that’s primarily an excuse for each character to rhyme with the state he represents. It’s kind of catchy, but John said it best: “This is the best song so far, but it would still be the worst song in any other musical.”

This is a song I think I shall refrain
From letting take up space inside my brain.
I am just a simple Cinemanaut from Maine.

This is when I pretty much zonked out on songs. The only ones that immediately spring to mind are “He Plays the Violin,” all about how Jefferson… plays the violin… and “The Egg.” Honestly, it’s kinda dumb; Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson are arguing about what the official bird of America should be, and the thought of hatching whatever bird is selected becomes a metaphor for the sort of nation the United States will become. They really try to force the joke of how hot it is in the Pennsylvania State House yet again and compare it to an incubator, but damn, whatever, it’s an interesting melody and the camerawork is nice and I was happy to recognize a trivia tidbit I actually knew about Franklin’s campaign for the turkey, so fuck it, best song of the movie.

Ironically the only one I didn’t want to give the bird.

Many of the rest of the songs are strangely dark for the tone of the film, including one about soldiers dying and another about slavery, but I’m pretty much done trying to figure out what the tone of this fucker is supposed to be. The filmmakers clearly never bothered.

Holy balls, as much as I hated just about every lyric in this eagle turd, I cannot get over the fact that we have to listen to John and Abigail Adams fight over motherfucking saltpeter and motherfucking pins in “Till Then.” What does that sound like? Why, let me transcribe these riveting lyrics for you…

“Well, we will not make saltpeter until you send us pins.”
“Pins, madam? Saltpeter.”

This movie fails to be memorable and I hope I’m not doomed to repeat it.

Tommy (1975)