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‘Historical’ musical ‘1776’ doesn’t stand the test of time

Date: 6/11/2015

A raunchy funny look at Hollywood and a memory revised are in this week’s film review column.

On Blu-ray: 1776

The debate and design of the Declaration of Independence does not sound like the subject for a musical with comedic and romantic undertones, but in 1969 “1776” was a huge success, big enough that legendary producer Jack Warner – yes, an actual Warner brother – bought the rights to the play for more than a million dollars and brought it to the screen.

I remember seeing it in 1972 and liking it. My tastes have since changed.

 “1776” is not a history lesson. While elements of it are true, the authors of the play and subsequent screenplay boiled down the complex story into several main characters: John Adams (William Daniels) as the firebrand, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) as the voice of reason and romantic lead and Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) as the comic relief.

Clearly director Peter Hunt had a problem that confronts many filmmakers saddled with a theatrical property. How does one “open” film up? The last thing one wants to see on screen is a filmed version of the stage play. Yet with one primary set used for most of the scenes, Hunt’s efforts were defeated and the look of the film, as well as some of the performances, suffer for it.

The stars were all recruited from the stage production and at times it is very clear. Hunt tends to shoot in medium shots to capture the meeting room, giving audiences a similar perspective of what they would have seen in the Broadway show. The actors too often walk around the set to give themselves something physical to do. They also play their roles far too broadly for film.

As a history buff, I really wanted to renew my acquaintance with the movie in a favorable way. I just couldn’t stand it, though. The songs are not memorable and are largely done by performers who can’t really sing. Seeing Jefferson, Adams and Franklin dancing about bordered on some sort of “Saturday Night Live” bit.

There are many familiar faces in the production, one of who is John Cullum who played a delegate from South Carolina in opposition to independence. His hair and costuming make him look like a Liberace double, something not appropriate for the film.

This film comes in two versions: a director’s cut and an extended versions. Warner had previewed the film to President Richard Nixon, a friend of his, and Nixon suggested changes, which Warner made without the director’s approval.

In theaters: Entourage

I had never seen the HBO series and I would probably have passed this film up if Chicopee native Sabina Gadecki hadn’t been in the cast.

I’m glad I went though as it’s a funny, raunchy look at modern Hollywood.

The premise centers around Vince, a kid from Queens, NY, (played by Adrien Grenier) who is catapulted to stardom and brings his brother “Drama” (Kevin Dillion) and two best friends, “E” and “Turtle” (Kevin Connolly and Jerry Ferrara) along for the ride. Helping to guide his ascent to stardom is super agent Ari, played with great intensity.

Writer and director Doug Ellin, who created the series, returns for the feature film and does an excellent job in setting up the characters for those of us new to the story.

The plot revolves around Vince directing his first movie, while “E” is trying to figure out his love life, Turtle is wooing mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey (playing herself) and “Drama” is struggling to land acting parts. Ari, now a studio head, has given Vince the green light for his movie, but must deal with the Texas billionaire (Billy Bob Thornton) and his interfering son (Haley Joel Osment) who are bankrolling it.

Part of the joy is the series were a parade of cameos of various movie stars and celebrities playing themselves and the film gives its audience the same thing. The result is a lot of fun.

Ellin is adept at giving his principal cast equal screen time, but for my money Dillon steals the show as the older brother looking for some professional respect.

Gadecki is memorable in a small part as a woman who refuses to let “E” off the hook after he dates her.

Overall, it’s a solid summer comedy about the foibles of show business.