I was talking with some people about movies that seem like they should have been made into stage musicals but for some reason haven't. I suggested Newsies (1992) and everyone agreed that it was a surprise no one had tried it yet. Now I just suggested the title, though—I actually hadn’t seen the movie. I was under the impression that Newsies had been a failure and not very good, but I found people who were really big fans of it, so I thought I ought to try it. Plus, as we all know, there’s nothing I like better than 19th/early 20th century labor strife.
Well, those are two hours of my life I’ll never get back (full disclosure: I did read and make some notes in a script during it). This was a pretty terrible musical and not even terrible in an enjoyable laughable way—more just roll your eyes, why are they doing this? kind of terrible.
Quick summary: The newsboys in New York City go on strike when Joseph Pulitzer raises the price newsies have to pay for a bundle of papers but didn’t increase the sale price to the public, thus cutting into the kids’ profits. The boys decide to go on strike, led by Jack Kelly (Christian Bale) and his friend David (David Moscow). Jack is an orphan on the run from juvenile detention; David has a nice family (including an attractive sister). With the help of a friendly reporter (Bill Pullman) from a rival paper, the kids get a lot of attention. When Pulitzer and other newspaper owners crack down on them, kids get hurt and the strike is in danger of fracturing. Worse, Jack is forced by Pulitzer to turn on his newsboy friends in turn for Pulitzer’s thugs not attacking David and his family. The newsies revitalize the strike when they bring in child laborers from all over the city—factory workers, delivery boys, garment workers. New York governor Teddy Roosevelt is alerted to the harsh treatment of boys at the detention center and Jack uses this to force Pulitzer’s hand. He drops the price of the papers and the strike is resolved. Jack almost leaves to follow his dream of going west, but decides he can’t leave his newsboy friends. The end.
In terms of history, here is what they got right: there was a newsboy strike in 1899. And that’s pretty much it. You could fill pages (and I’m sure people have) talking about the historical inaccuracies of this movie, so I won’t do that here. My main complaints, though, are these: that they implied at the end of the movie that the newsboys strike had a profound effect on child labor laws, but it didn’t; the newspaper owners didn’t drop the price of the papers to resolve the strike, but agreed to buy back unsold papers which had not been the previous policy; the majority of the newsboys (including the leads) were in their late teens and while I don’t have absolute assurance on this, I have to believe that boys that old had moved on to other kinds of work and that the majority should have been maybe 7-12 years old; most of the newsboys were immigrants and there was not a foreign accent to be found in the movie.
But these would all be small quarrels if the rest of the movie was satisfying. It isn’t. The choreography is awful, a random stylistic mess. The score is painfully bland, as if someone took all the musicals in the world, threw them into a blender and poured out the tepid, watery result. The lyrics are banal, so bad that you almost have to blink your eyes and wonder, “Did I just hear that?”
It’s all obviously filmed on a soundstage, with the art direction producing an incredibly sanitized version of turn of the century New York. Matte paintings don’t blend in well, making backdrops look like fake. Worst of all, the real newsboys were typically homeless, impoverished street kids, but in this movie, no matter how hard I looked, I swear I could not even find a frayed collar. Every kid had shoes, clean faces and hair, and dental work that makes viewers suspect that the newsies provided the first real boost to the cosmetic dental care industry. I’m not saying that the kids should have been made to look as grim as a Jacob Riis photo; it is a musical after all. But they could have at least added some signifiers to suggest that these kids were living a hard life (hey, I did two productions of Oliver! where the directors would have ripped holes into anything that didn’t have them). And annoyingly, the director decided that all the kids should speak in an old-fashioned, turn of the century New York City dialect--the type of speech made up of "dese, dem, dose," where "work" becomes "woik" and "hoity toity" turns into "hurty turty." While this may be appropriate (though again, hearing some Italian, Russian, or German accents would have been more appropriate), the kids can't carry it off; in most cases, it just sounds really forced, unnatural and distracting.
Worst of all, there never seemed any reason for this to be a musical. I grew up watching musicals, I’ve been in enough musicals, and I understand the basic question about every piece of musical theater: that it has to be done in a way that allows the audience to believe that the cast keeps reaching points where they have no other way to express themselves and tell the story other than singing and dancing. If audiences don’t buy that, then the whole idea of a musical fails. When I watched this movie, any time a musical number started, I just felt like saying, “why?” When, right before a big number, David questions whether they can go on strike because they don’t actually have a union, it seems like the answer is, “Of course they have a union, they all know the same song and dance steps.” Anytime you watch a musical and find yourself snidely thinking, “Oh look, they all know the same song and dance,” you’re in big trouble. This movie's biggest failure was that it did not make a case for why it should be a musical.
I can understand what Disney was doing—they wanted to find something that was kid oriented in order to appeal to kid audiences. The execution is just so bad, though, that it’s hard to imagine kids having much patience with this (I found myself after a while just scanning the cast and playing “name that ‘80s kid actor.” And oh, this movie illustrates why Christian Bale hasn’t pursued a career in musicals). It is actually an interesting story with some lively characters (the real ones, not the ones in the movie), and I wonder if it would have been better off as just a straight movie. Just because The Pajama Game made a fun musical out of striking workers doesn’t mean it’s going to work all the time.
Okay, I have gone on way too long, much longer than I ever intended; my promise not to write lengthy reviews of movies didn't last long, did it? But I just get so outraged sometimes when I see things done badly and lazily. Wish me luck on my next movie.