Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Boy Friend

Article first published as DVD Review: The Boy Friend (1971) on Blogcritics.

Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend is a giddy thrill ride for musical fans. This is no gateway musical film and audiences only so-so on the genre should probably stay away. But those who love the blatant artificiality and the unabashed camp that have gone hand-in-hand with large pockets of the film musical world since the genre’s heyday in the ’30s will find a lot to love here.

Like a number of Russell’s films, The Boy Friend has been hard to come by on home video, but its release on Warner Archive is a bit of a bittersweet blessing. It’s fantastic to have the film finally available in its original aspect ratio and its non-truncated running time, but this is a film that deserves a lavish Blu-ray edition. Still, the remastered Archive release looks rather great, with the film’s bright, bold colors bursting off the screen and damage reduced to minimal occurrences.

The film is an adaptation of Sandy Wilson’s 1950s musical, but rather than attempt a straightforward filmization of the material, Russell opts for a backstage tale of a theater company putting on the show without its lead star. The backstage musical conceit has often served as a way to ground a film in real life and make the numbers seem more plausible, but Russell takes the opposite approach, falling headlong into fantasy number after fantasy number, and the results are spectacular.

Twiggy stars in her film debut as Polly Browne, the stage assistant and de facto understudy who is forced to go in the place of lead actress Rita (Glenda Jackson) when she hurts her foot. The stakes aren’t exactly high — there are more people on stage than in the audience for this performance — until famed film producer De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal) shows up and everyone kicks it into high gear. Polly does her best to fake her way through it, even if a number of her fellow cast members aren’t so helpful.

Meanwhile, Polly is engaged in a tentative flirtation with leading man Tony (Christopher Gable), but she’s unsure if his romantic inclinations extend past the constraints of the stage and curtain. Twiggy’s wide-eyed and guileless performance makes her the innocent center to a world where everyone’s trying to get ahead.

Russell keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, where backstage relations play out in a whirlwind of excitement and adrenaline and onstage numbers often trip over into a fantasy world where the actors become mythic divine figures engaging in a bacchanalian feast or lovers spinning away on a massive record player or gnome-like denizens of a mushroom-capped village.

Russell pays homage to all variety of 1930s MGM musical entertainments, but it’s his Busby Berkeley recreations that astound. All corners of media have seemingly co-opted Berkeley’s signature overhead kaleidoscopic shots at one point or another, but I can’t think of a more satisfying set of nods toward the musical great than what Russell achieves here. He doesn’t just create overhead patterns using female legs; he captures the bizarre and fanciful spirit of Berkeley in scenes such as a collection of tap-dancing human dice and the aforementioned record player number.

Even the numbers that are played as straightforward, onstage set pieces are directed with verve, like an early Charleston that features the wonderful Tommy Tune.

The Boy Friend is a remarkable musical-lover’s musical, and even though it deserves better than a burn-on-demand disc, I’m just glad it’s available in this solid presentation. The DVD includes a vintage eight-minute featurette on the making of the film, and while a lot of it is film clips, it’s worth watching solely for a shot of Russell and Twiggy singing together in the studio.

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