Discounting “The Muppets,” the movie musical has had a bit of a rough go as of late. Fans have a likely sumptuous, probably bloated "Les Misérables" to look forward to in December, a film that hopefully cleanses the palate of the disaster that was "Nine." Due to their grand scales and expensive price tags, they don't come along too often -- it's a huge gamble, and if Rob Marshall’s Oscar flunkee proves anything, it's that even successful Broadway shows don't mean a damn thing at the box office. So why not cut the fat? On the indie side we've seen a few touching, small-scale, and quite lovely films such as "Once" and "Guy And Madeline On The Park Bench" -- movies that were much more raw than the typical big-screen musical we're accustomed to but used the genre's elements in a different, refreshing way. Still, audiences enjoy the sugary-sweet vibes and generally sumptuous environments that musicals offer -- components that those admittedly great flicks didn’t include. So in that sense there’s this untapped demand, and it's quite a shocker that no one has poured their blood, sweat, and tears into a cheapie musical that incorporates the same ambition and tone of the fan favorites on a budget.
Well, better late than never! Raindance Film Festival winner "How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song" does just that, taking the micro-indie feel and injecting it with all the jubilance that a Kickstarter campaign can buy. Passionate, humorous, and containing meaningful dramatic stakes, the latest film from New York director Gary King will win your heart if you're open to it.
Leading the talented cast is the movie's namesake, Joe Schermann, a charismatic out-of-work songwriter whose confidence can sometimes lead human interactions down an awkward road. As he twiddles his thumbs working on a homegrown stage show, girlfriend Evey (Christina Rose) finds some success in a recent play and proceeds to drag him along to various after-parties and late-night schmoozing events. This is, of course, very uncomfortable for a man like Joe, who doesn't have an ass-kissing bone in his body. If not generally ignored, the mentioning of his musical ambitions fall on deaf, unimpressed ears.
Luckily his buddy Gunther (Mark DiConzo) comes to the rescue and recommends Joe for a new Off-Broadway production. After much pestering, Joe takes the gig, finally putting his musical prowess to (paid) work -- and best of all, he can even use his actress/singer girlfriend for inspiration! But as the creative process deepens, the songs lean toward a different voice -- specifically, a woman with golden pipes named Summer (Debbie Williams) whom he met at a random audition -- and when Evey catches the two working together (and likely gets a whiff of their sexual tension, another element that’s successfully utilized), Joe must decide whether he should cast someone who is perfect for the job (Summer) or keep the peace and settle for less (Evey).
It's a complicated dilemma that King gets a good deal of mileage out of, and you can feel the weight crushing the characters as they realize not one of them will come out of this unscathed. The subject of a talented, out-of-work artist might sound like an empty well at this point, but the filmmaker approaches every moment with honesty: the aforementioned party scene will hit close to home for anyone who's ever had little to show for their artistic ambitions, and even the cut-throat audition snippets are approached as if they've never been done before, and in result, sting like they haven't in a long time. That's not to say that King is working guilelessly, it's more so that he actually cares about the story he is telling instead of marking a checklist; he creates these scenes because there is still power and emotion there, not because they're "supposed" to be in this given plot. 'Schermann' wears its heart on its sleeve and of course runs the risk of being mawkish, but both King's earnestness and the cast's enthusiasm keep things genuine.
Yes, there is a level of cheese that comes with the territory, and thankfully the filmmaker fully embraces it all the same. Musical sequences are propelled with committed energy, and as the cast give their A-game to each song, King cheerfully embellishes each tune with split-screens, dance numbers, and the occasional twee SFX. One notably impressive scene in which Joe's employers frustratingly suggest changes to one of his ditties finds the protagonist imagining different shades of his song, which include mock versions of "Chicago," "Rock of Ages," and "Step Up," just to name a few. What's strikingly impressive is not only how well these succinct homages come out (in fact, watching them out of context would likely fool someone into thinking they're the real deal), but how they also illustrate the strained psyche of the songwriter. Each fabricated performance uses familiar faces from the cast, including Evey -- and mirroring Joe's conflicted feelings concerning the possible loss of their relationship, Rose's character is often seen in the background of these dance-numbers, giving a noticeable amount of physical attention to the male participants. What could just be the director's sharp calling-card for "Glee" actually contains a surprising amount of substance, an approach that is supremely welcomed for the genre.
A special notice goes to Joe Schermann himself, who not only carries the film with humor and legitimate pizzazz but also wrote all the songs that appear within. It's the icing on the cake that they're all terrifically catchy, with the real hummer being the bombastic title track "How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song." The amount of work put into this project seems incredibly daunting, but you'd never know it by his go-for-broke performance and pleasing tunes.
When the end is near, the movie sticks to its indie guns and refuses a fairy-tale conclusion, seeing the story out in a proper, fitting way. Retaining the indie sensibilities and freedom with the total pleasure of musicals, "How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song" is a crowd-pleaser, and if you're not a complete cynic, chances are you're going to be won over. [B+]