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The Fantasticks
Special Edition

review by Anthony D.

Rated PG

Studio: MGM

Running Time: 87 minutes

Starring Joel Grey, Brad Sullivan, Teller, Jean Louisa Kelly, Joe McIntyre and Jonathon Morris

Screenplay by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
Music by Harvey Schmidt
Lyrics by Tom Jones

Directed by Michael Ritchie

Retail Price: $24.99

Features: Commentary with Director Michael Ritchie, Deleted Songs, Full Length Songs, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby 2.0, Spanish Dolby 2.0, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

A funny thing happened on the way to the dvd. Five years ago, United Artists, finally got around to filming the longest running theater musical of all time - - 40+ years, and still going strong, "The Fantasticks." The musical's authors contributed a rethinking of their fragile tale, which could reasonably filmed on a limited budget by director Michael Ritchie.

Armed with a Panvasion camera, Mr. Ritchie spent a good deal of time filming stunning "Oklahoma!"-like panoramas inhabited by sideshow freaks, fastidious fathers, young lovers and a "Carousel"-inspired carnival barker. Theatre people were abuzz at the fact that this popular small musical would finally receive big-screen musical status, and waited patiently for the day when "The Fantasticks" would play at a neighborhood theater. Alas, the dear world waited. And waited. Then waited some more. Finally, because of a clause in the authors' contract, United Artists found that before "The Fantasticks" could become a straight-to-video release, their small-budget musical would have to be released as a feature film. Not knowing how to sell the picture, and fearing a financial flop along the lines of Disney's "Newsies," the producers called in Francis Ford Coppola to trim the barely 118 minute film down to a mere 87 minute feature! The film then was shipped out to a few cities, given no promotion, and after week, pulled from theaters entirely. The Francis Ford Coppola-approved cut has now been given a more than deluxe treatment on the dvd released by MGM.

What was a true testament to the power of "theater," no set, basic costumes, an eight actor cast performing to only piano and harp, allowing audiences to fill in the blanks, in the hands of Michael Ritchie becomes an approximation of a 1950's musical adaptation. A carnival sweeps into town, led by the mysterious El Gallo (Jonathon Morris). The carnival attracts the attention of the young lovers (the exquisite Jean Louisa Kelly and the superbly miscast New Kid on the Block, Joe (formerly Joey) McIntyre who mistakenly believe that their widower fathers (Brad Sullivan and the always excellent Joel Grey) have forbidden them to fall in love. It seems that the fathers have been plotting this romance for all time, and now is the time to make The Boy/Matt a hero in The Girl's/Luisa's eyes by purchasing a literary rape staged by El Gallo, during which Matt may save Luisa and carry her off to a happy ending. All goes as planned, with several beautiful songs thrown in for good measure, until the morning after. What at night seemed oh so scenic has been cynical and bitter. The boy and the girl go their separate ways to explore the possibilities in the "real world." Their return, bitter and disillusioned, brings the affairs to a close with an ending more than ringing of "The Wizard of Oz."

Pictorially speaking, this is an excellent film. Vistas of the Arizona locations, also used for 1954's "Oklahoma!," are given great depth in the disc's anamorphic Panavision presentation. Colors leap from the sideshow tents and remain true. Accurate fleshtones, whether by day or night, or during exterior or interior shots, are very pleasant to see. Night scenes offer nary a trace of grain, blacks remain solid and the contrast level is just right. Detail is exceptional: check out the white stripes on the red sashes during "Round and Round" (Chapter 12). The minute details are present in every scene, making this one of the best discs, visually, from the MGM catalogue.

The audio presentation is every bit as detailed and well balanced as the film's transfer. Making excellent use of the surround channels, and a strong 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Fortunately, it is not just the music that makes use of the rear channels, ambient sounds, occasion dialogue as well as sound effects sweep through the listening area, creating a multi-dimensional sound stage. Jonathan Tunick's full orchestrations of the score, normally performed by piano and harp, is Oscar-worthy: he won once before for lesser work, modifying his own theatrical arrangements of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." Both French and Spanish Stereo Surround (2.0) mixes are also available for the truly metropolitan viewer. The songs themselves were actually recorded with the filming, no pre-recording nor lipsynching here, as well as mixed with some post- production recording, BUT they are so well recorded, one would be at a loss to actually hear where on-set recording stops and post-production work begins. This is one truly fantastic aural presentation.

Musical theater mavens will find a massive amount of Special Features to dazzle them for hours. Every musical number filmed for "The Fantasticks" is here in its entirety, including the now-infamous 1960 version of "It Depends on What You Pay." Though seen on fuzzy videotape, the song sings out with 1990's political incorrectness on the subject of literary rape. I have always found this version to be the catchier, funnier and edgier version, and was delighted to find that Mr. Ritchie had filmed it, even though I doubt that he had ever planned to use it in the final film. The completely cut duet for the Fathers, "Plant a Radish," which was cut for no apparent reason, as well as the rest of the major musical numbers are presented in their original Panavision glory with Dolby 2.0 stereo. The major loss, in terms of the score, is the opening song - - and most famous from this gem-filled score - - "Try to Remember," used in the theater to set up the mood of the fragile tale: "Try to remember when life was so tender, that love was an ember about to billow...Deep in December, it's nice to remember the fire of September that made us mellow...Our hearts should remember, and follow." Relegating "Try to Remember" to the end of the film robs viewers of an opportunity to settle back and prepare their hearts and minds for the film that is to follow.Not only does it prepare the viewer, in the hands of El Gallo, it becomes a character song; introducing us to the all-knowing narrator and the magic he possesses. I urge viewers to "play editor," and access this particular number before watching the film.

For the intrepid viewer, don't fight the urge to mix and match the movie with its Deleted Songs, for a truer reproduction of Schmidt and Jones' score. In all, there is at least one-half hour's worth of deleted songs as well as scenes. Some of the scenes cut last less than ten seconds, while others several minutes. A superfluous character created for the film appears in three of the deleted scenes, while the roles of The Old Actor and The Man Who Dies are completed through their deleted scene.

The Jump-to-A-Song feature is disappointing, in that the movie continues to play following the song; something that can just as easily be done through the film's Main Menu.

There is a strange Theatrical Trailer; strange because never once does it mention that the film is a MUSICAL. United Artists were obviously aware of the difficulty of marketing a musical, and strove to cluelessly sell "The Fantasticks" as something other than what it is.

Michael Ritchie's Full-Length Audio Commentary is a valuable addition tothe title. Never once rambling, Ritchie details each and every element of his filmmaking choices, including the rarely done, though feasible feat of recording the musical numbers live. The last time someone tried to do this, the film met with a fate similar to "The Fantasticks:" the director was Peter Bogdonavich, who armed with the Cole Porter catalogue of songs, attempted to create a "new 1930's" musical film with the dubious vocal talents of Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shephard called "At Long Last Love." That film flopped big time, and reduced Bogdonavich's cache as a major-league film director. Ritchie's commentary is interesting in that in spite of what he says, the results seen are only succeed a portion of his intended goal.

I had high hopes for this particular film, which ultimately left me cold. The DVD, on the other hand belongs in the library of anyone who cares for musical theater. There is the kernel for a great film buried somewhere beneath all the unnecessary trappings thrown into the screenplay. "The Fantasticks" obviously belongs in a theater, being performed live, or at the next level: a television film preserving the title's theatricality. "The Fantasticks" WAS actually shown on television in the early 1960's, a rare occasion when a still-running play was presented, albeit edited, while it was still enjoying a healthy run. With all the theater groups capable of performing "The Fantasticks," and the Off-Broadway production entering its fifth decade, there are more than enough options for a viewer to explore other than the film.

Not without its merits - - Jean Louisa Kelly should be a major film star, given the proper vehicle (or in the case of "The Fantasticks"), the proper costar. I had fallen in love with Miss Kelly's voice in "Mr. Holland's Opus," and was excited by the news of her casting in this film. Kelly's voice soars through the rigors of "Much More," "Soon it's Gonna Rain" and "Metaphor;" she looks great, possessing an earthy sexuality rarely utilized by the director. Fortunately the DVD, in the supplemental section, presents a "The Fantasticks" as a film that might have worked, and sometimes just enough is better than much more.

Alright, faithful readers have waited long enough, knowing that this one was coming: "The Fantasticks" just isn't fantastic...but the DVD is.

(3/5 - NOT included in final score)




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