'Newsies' Review: "You Got Yourselves on the Front Page"
As we near the end of Singin' September, it occurs to me that we've succeeded in talking about musicals that buck the trend of mainstream films. We've talked Stage Fright (a horror musical), Interstella 555 (a musical film with no dialogue), and Reefer Madness (a musical parody of a 1930's propaganda film), and now, Newsies. I went into the film with no information other than the poster that features a teenage Christian Bale doing the splits and that it was made by Disney. I'm glad that I went in with no expectations, because it exceeded all of them.
The film follows the New York City Newsboys Strike of 1899, focusing on the the orphaned children that sell newspapers for Joseph Pulitzer, specifically Jack "Cowboy" Kelly and David "Davey" Jacobs. Jack Kelly, played by teenage Christian Bale, incites the newsies strike when Pulitzer increases the price of newspapers by ten cents in order to compete with William Randolph Hearst. The newsies take to the streets to "soak" the scabs, fight scheming newspaper barons, and enlist the help of Bryan Denton, acted superbly by the always excellent Bill Pullman. Their trials and tribulations make up the bulk of the film's running time, with some refrains for a romantic subplot that feels a tad tacked on. There are times when it seems like Disney was trying to cover all bases with the film, but thankfully, the thin romantic subplot doesn't get in the way of the main story.
The performances are fantastic, particularly those from Bale and Pullman. Most people haven't had much exposure to Bale's early career, but he was acting long before American Psycho or Batman Begins. Watching Bale in this film, as well as in Empire of the Sun, it's not hard to see why he is one of most talented actors of the last thirty years. He has a surprising amount of range outside of the straight dramatic acting, or playing the tortured soul of Bruce Wayne. His turn as Kelly is the highlight of the film, but with the amount of talent he has, that should come as no surprise. Before watching the film, I didn't realize Bill Pullman was even in it,, and I'm glad I didn't know it ahead of time. Pullman is my one my personal favorite character actors, and one that I wish was in more things. He delivers another charismatic and energetic performance as Denton, the de-facto mentor/confidant to the newsies. Whenever he is on-screen you can tell he is having a hell of a time singing and dancing with the rest of the cast. Special attention should also be given to Robert Duvall's role as Joseph Pulitzer, which allows him to embrace his inner curmudgeon as the millionaire newspaper tycoon.
The music in the film is extremely well done and memorable, along with the choreography, which can be attributed to the first time director Kenny Ortega. Ortega would go on to be one of Hollywood's premiere choreographers, working with the likes of Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan. His talents are shown off with some of the larger numbers, specifically "Carrying the Banner" and "Santa Fe". It would be easy to make the joke that Newsies is about Batman singing show tunes, so how good could it be? However, Bale absolutely nails his vocal performances. It helps that Alan Menken plays to not only Bale's strengths, but also the entire cast, who are not classically trained singers. Much like in the acting portion, Bale and Pullman are the musical standouts, which is a welcome surprise, as no one would expect either of them to be able to belt out their songs with such skill. They both manage to do so in impressive fashion. It also helps that a majority of the songs in the film are performed by the newsies ensemble rather than focusing on one sole performer, which takes some of the weight off the main cast. The best numbers in the movie are "King of New York" and "The World Will Know", primarily due to the frenetic energy from both the music and the choreography.
There is a reason Newsies has become a bonafide cult classic, and one that is still paying dividends for Disney twenty plus years later. While the film was a commercial failure on its initial release, Disney would produce a stage musical based on it in 2011, which would go on to have a run on Broadway and win multiple Tony awards, including Best Choreography. Bale himself said that if "you say something bad about Newsies then you have an awful lot of people to answer to", and I have to agree with him. It's the biggest surprise of this month so far, and it's a film that will find a place in permanent rotation among my musical library.
Final Say: Watch It