Admittedly I’m not a big fan of musicals, and while I don’t exactly avoid them or anything, I won’t seek them out either. I’m not sure what led me to watch this adaptation of the counterculture Broadway musical, but boy am I glad I did! This is an excellent movie from beginning to end: It’s never easy to translate a stage play into an effective cinematic experience, particularly one that’s both historical and sung almost all the way through (like 1996’s simultaneously pompous and underwhelming “Evita”), but director Milos Forman knows exactly what he’s doing here. Weaving the narrative as a variety of episodic, one-off sections can sometimes lead to a cinematic structure that boils down to “and then this happens,” but it’s the right move for this one given the nature of the stage show. Expository dialogue is communicated via song lyrics, and how Forman intermingles protagonist John Savage’s exploration of the New York City hippie underground culture of the late 1960s in sharp contrast with his middle-American upbringing and Republican ideals manages to develop the character extremely well without being either pedantic or condescending. Additionally, Savage’s co-star Treat Williams is perfectly cast as Berger, a charismatic hippie who instantly shares a warm connection with our protagonist: It’s easy to see why Savage’s Claude would be taken with Williams, which adds unexpected emotional verisimilitude to the movie’s climax (indeed, their relationship often borders on the outright homoerotic). The musical numbers are well choreographed and directed, and the cast knows exactly how to sell the movie’s ultra-entertaining classic folk-rock sound, resulting in a tremendously entertaining and emotionally affecting classic that’s survived the passing of time despite its dated subject matter.
Rating: ★★★★★ (out of 5)