‘Last 5 Years’ Musically Reviews a Relationship

The camera pans in on a modest brownstone that, until recently, a once-happy young couple shared.

The heroine, Cathy, appearing washed out and shell-shocked after reading the note that her husband left her, sings, “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone; Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon … and I’m still hurting.” Flash back then, five years earlier, when Jamie and Cathy first met and couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

This film, The Last Five Years, is the big-screen adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical from composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown. Told almost completely through song, the movie chronicles a love affair and marriage over five years, as Jamie Wallerstein, an up-and-coming novelist, falls head-over-heels in love with Cathy Hiatt, a talented but struggling actress. 

Director Richard LaGravenese says, “I saw The Last Five Years as this generation’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” referring to the 1964 French musical film starring Catherine Deneuve that also involves a shattered love relationship.

LaGravenese is known for writing the screenplay for HBO’s Emmy-winning drama Behind the Candelabra, as well as for writing and directing films like Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You and the indie hit Paris je t’aime.

“I loved the structure of the storytelling. It was so original,” he says, “and I wanted to maintain the impact of the songs as being the primary storytelling device.”

What makes this musical different is that Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backward in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie’s songs start with their passionate meeting and move forward to the end of their marriage.

“In a way, it’s exploring how men and women are always singing different ‘songs’ in a relationship,” LaGravenese explains, “how men and women see love in different ways, even though they are experiencing the same relationship together.”

The result is fast-moving but emotionally potent.

For example, there’s a poignant kind of irony to Cathy’s “I Can Do Better Than That,” sung as she takes her new boyfriend Jamie to meet her parents in their plain New Jersey suburb. Even so, the enthusiastic, slightly defiant expression of her youthful idealism is bound to pluck at the heartstrings of many watching.

Later, Jamie’s “Nobody Needs to Know,” sung to his various one-night stands, signals his ultimate capitulation of the relationship, leading to a finale that is truly worthy of at least a few moistened eyes.

In the end, we flash back to the morning after the couple’s first ecstatic night together as Cathy, still bright-eyed and optimistic, joyously waves to him at the start of their new day, singing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” while simultaneously (but from a vantage point of five years later), Jamie sadly, tiredly watches his wife’s younger self, as he mourns their irreparably damaged relationship. While Cathy waves to the younger Jamie, his older incarnation simply, numbly bids the girl that Cathy was goodbye while leaving.

As amorous or bittersweet as the story is, the core problem with these two characters is their basic immaturity throughout their relationship. It’s no accident that Brown has chosen to keep most of their songs separate and individual; while each is pursuing his or her own careers and goals, they never really learn to meet in the middle --fairly and equitably -- and put the greater interests of them collectively before their own self-driven aims.

“Temptation is not a problem, it’s a challenge,” Jamie sings just after his wedding. The trouble is, as the couple’s relationship dissolves more and more into petty arguments and marital games of one-upmanship, he eventually just stops trying and embarks on several meaningless affairs. Meanwhile, Cathy pursues one supposed career-building project after another, putting her marriage and its growing problems on the back burner. It’s the stuff of terrific melodrama!

Nonetheless, LaGravenese and Brown also wisely throw in plenty of laughs -- often in the most unexpected places -- to keep the goings-on from being too gloomy. One such sequence involves Jamie trying to cheer up his discouraged wife on Christmas Eve by telling her a long but surprisingly hilarious story. They also knowingly send up some of the more notorious conventions of more celebrated musicals, like the montage when Cathy, holed away for the summer at a minor-league stock company in Ohio, tells Jamie about her stripper roommate and the woman’s pet python Wayne, or how the leading man in her current show is a “gay dwarf playing Tevye.”
The two leads could not have been better cast: Anna Kendrick is thoroughly delightful as Cathy, and the swarthy, charismatic Jeremy Jordan is Jamie.

Kendrick, one of the hottest rising stars around today, is well-known for her role in the hit film Pitch Perfect and her turn as Cinderella in the cinematic adaptation of Into The Woods. Her new film offers a fuller understanding of just how gifted and powerful this actress is.

Likewise, the ruggedly handsome Jordan is perhaps best known for his roles in the Tony-winning musical Newsies, as well as his recurring role on the hit TV show Smash. As Jamie, Jordan is perfectly cast as everyone’s fantasy boyfriend -- funny, smart, good-looking, and, by and large, supportive. (“If I didn’t believe in you, I never could have loved you,” Jamie tells Cathy. “But I can’t commit to losing just because you can’t seem to win!”)

He makes the most of this golden opportunity to showcase his rich voice. Moreover, with Jamie’s performance of “The Schmuel Song,” a tale of a tailor, he even gets to show off some character work.

Jason Robert Brown himself makes a clever cameo appearance as Cathy’s accompanist during one of her many auditions for Broadway musicals (for a role that -- once again -- she won’t get).

The film is shot on location in New York City, where it’s set, and Steven Meizler’s sprawling cinematography adds a distinct, urbane vibrancy to all the goings-on and opens up the action of this two-person stage vehicle very nicely.

Released for a limited theatrical run on Valentine’s Day weekend, The Last Five Years is for anyone who has loved, lost, and lived to love again -- and is must-see viewing for those of any sexual preference who adore a terrific love story set to music.

Simultaneous to its theatrical engagement, The Last Five Years is being made available on video on demand across most platforms, including Apple iTunes. For more information about this film, produced by Lucky Monkey Pictures and Sh-K-Boom Entertainment, including the releasing schedule, check out LastFiveYearsMovie."

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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