Before watching the movie:
Well, I liked Hairspray, and Johnny Depp disappears into his roles entertainingly. A John Waters musical with Johnny Depp should be fun. Off the top of my head I can’t think of a movie where Depp seriously sang other thanThe Nightmare Before Christmas, so I can’t predict how well he’ll be able to lead a live-action musical.
As this is a musical set in the 1950s about kids in leather jackets and their relationships, I’m expecting a movie more like Grease than Grease was.
EDIT: I have been reminded that Johnny Depp was not in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Trying to hear him in Jack Skellington is probably part of the reason I have a hard time identifying him.
After watching the movie:
Allison Vernon-Williams is tired of her straight-laced, country club life, and completely taken with Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, leader of the teen delinquent gang the Drapes. He sees the rebel in her and falls in love himself, but Allison’s Square boyfriend Baldwin can’t believe she’d fall for him, and in jealousy leads his high society friends in an assault on the Drapes’ hangout/Cry-Baby’s home while Allison and Cry-Baby are together for their hillbilly talent show. The Drapes take all the blame for the gang warfare, and Cry-Baby, as the leader of the Drapes, gets sent to juvenile detention. With the media reporting lies spread by a tramp stalking Cry-Baby, Allison returns to Baldwin heartbroken. But the other Drapes are still rebels, Allison still isn’t comfortable as a Square, and Cry-Baby is doing his best to break out.
Outside of the Huey Lewis song, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “Square” being used with pride by the Establishment, or seen them take ownership of the name. That’s just one of many ways the Squares seem more like a gang, albeit a garden party gang, than the Drapes do. The Drapes get talked up as dangerous criminal scum, but on screen they’re just a small clique of friends with an interest in leather, weapons, and rock and roll and a problem with authority. The closest the Drapes came to being disreputable is when Cry-Baby and Allison are making out and he may or may not have been taking advantage of her, but that’s quickly forgotten when Baldwin’s underhanded gang of Squares starts vandalizing and torching the Drapes’ vehicles and attacking Cry-Baby’s friends and family.
On the one hand, the music fits the period very well, even the original songs. I’m fond of 50s pop music, and this adheres to the principles closely. On the other, it fits so tightly that, even though they’re original songs, there’s nothing that stands out about them. If these had been released as singles in the 50s, we probably wouldn’t remember them today. On a related note, I wondered above if Johnny Depp could carry a live action musical, but I found that his singing parts are dubbed by someone else. His physical performance is good though.
As I went through the film, I was surprised that it seemed to be the sort of musical where all the songs are either played over the action or part of in-story performances, which is the sort of reserved musical I never think of when I think musical. Then more than halfway through the traditional “drop what you’re doing and sing about your feelings” song showed up. Interestingly, there are four songs like this, without any in-world explanation other than “they live in a world where people just do that”, and all but one of them take place at the jail. While I was ruminating about what that might say about the jail being a limbo where the rules of reality break down, the final song came, which was the same sort of abstract, but far away from the jailhouse. Just an odd coincidence, I guess. I don’t like to attribute unobvious ideas to the writer’s intent, but it occurs to me that the traditional-style songs are made possible by the power of Cry-Baby and Allison’s love.
Johnny Depp may headline this film, it felt like Allison’s story. Allison has an emotional struggle choosing between the Square and Drape lifestyles, Cry-Baby is Cry-Baby. He falls in love, he tries and fails to break out of jail, he’s cool. Meanwhile, the story is frustrating me most of the way through because it’s made possible by people not talking to each other because nobody will listen. I was surprised late in the film when Allison’s high-stationed grandmother takes Cry-Baby’s side, but then I realized it was because she actually believed Cry-Baby’s courthouse declaration of love for Allison, which seems to be the only time in the movie anybody listened to someone they were prejudiced against.
And for a friend, I would like to say that I must admit Johnny Depp is a very pretty man in this movie.
Watch this movie: for a very modern tribute to growing up in the 50s.
Don’t watch this movie: for the songs you’ll be singing all week.