While Hollywood keeps trying, they have yet to successfully revive the movie musical. Sure, Chicago and Sweeney Todd have captured critical attention, and efforts like Hairspray and Dreamgirls have garnered box office gold. But these are stage transplants, Broadway babies given a new celluloid shimmer. No, there are very few original cinematic song and dance offerings, and with good reason - if the motion picture industry is all about making money, trying your luck on some untested collection of tunes seems like an unnecessary gamble. If it raked in the cash on the Great White Way, however, there's a good chance it will translate into infinite turnstile twists (Phantom of the Opera excluded). So anyone, especially an independent filmmaker, trying to create their own rock opera, is definitely biting off much more than they might be able to chew. Strangely enough, that's the amicable if ambivalent way of describing Alan Bernhoft's wildly ambitious (and uneven) The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock and Roll Musical.
Author Robert Louis Stevenson, roused from a fitful sleep, suddenly bolts up in his bed. Immediately, he heads to his study, puts pen to paper, and begins to write the following: in modern day Los Angeles, clinic physician Henry Jekyll is on the verge of a great discovery. Through a combination of chemicals, he's managed to create a formula that separates man's wicked nature from his good. After several experiments, he takes on this new, disturbed personality. It's an evil, debauched man named Edward Hyde. Of course, his best friend Poole, his fellow doctor and mentor Lanyon, and his girlfriend Ann all worry about him. They also hate the murderous villain he becomes. When they learn of his fate, they fear they will lose Jekyll to Hyde forever. They may be right.
The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock and Roll Musical is either the most misguided attempt at putting songs to a classic story - in this case, the famed Robert Louis Stevenson saga - ever, or it's the bravest 'almost-success' crafted by a wide-eyed motion picture innocent. Straddling such a tenuous critical line is never easy, and begs a reviewer to step in and offer his or her own take on the material. But in this case, quintuple threat Alan Bernhoft (writer/ composer/ producer/ actor/ make-up designer) has poured his festival seating heart out in a collection of ersatz toe-tappers that, while not the greatest power chord epics ever created, do manage to fulfill the mandates of the genre quite nicely. Imagine wicked Uncle Ernie from The Who's Tommy given his own 90 minute showcase, complete with simplistic lyrical interludes and mock horror dynamics and you get a general idea of how this Jekyll and Hyde plays out. Bernhoft is not out to use his music as a means of unearthing the character's deeper emotional or psychological issues. Instead, this is outright operetta, straightforward narrative making up the majority of the songs' significance.
It has to be said that Bernhoft is an excellent craftsman. The music is generic, but still manages to cover all the rock and roll bases. Where he stumbles a bit is in the writing - both in script and verse/chorus. A tune like "My Ann" deserves better than the Moon/June sentiments of the stanzas, and the opening-closing theme is like a summary of the entire Stevenson storyline. Elsewhere, unnecessary tracks clog up the purpose. Producer/actor Robert Rucci plays the part of Poole (most of the characters here have a parallel to their literary basis) and his weird little song, performed during an unnecessary shirtless workout, is less about friendship and more about flexing. Odder still is a moment when Bernhoft, as Jekyll, does a pseudo-soft shoe with co-star Terence Marinan (who plays Dr. Lanyon) on the set of some community college stage show. Again, it's not the actual melodies or backing tracks that announce their oddness. All throughout The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock and Roll Musical there are sequences that stick out like a sore thumb. It's clear that the overriding editorial policy was inclusive, not restrictive.
Still, there's something about the audacity of it all, the complete and utter fearlessness of what Bernhoft and his directorial collaborator Andre Champagne create that ultimately wins you over. You don't mind the meaningless conversations, the dialogue doing nothing to draw us into this modern retelling of the tale. The surreal juxtaposition between characters becomes a mere part of the overall production plan (Bernhoft plays Jekyll as a kindly schlub, while Hyde is Keith Moon on a mucus and moonshine bender) while the found locations and elemental production design offer an intriguing amount of no-budget ambiance. The acting is uniformly good, with our maverick and his maiden (Kim Brouchard is the lamented over Ann) offering a recognizable amount of chemistry, leaving Marinan's Lanyon to do most of the heavy motion picture lifting. Even West Coast session God Hal Blaine (who worked with Brian Wilson on many a Beach Boy classic, amongst many, many others) is here as moral support and first victim cameo. It all adds up to a strangely enjoyable spectacle, like cracking open a naïve optimist's skull and witnessing his very own fever dream. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock and Roll Musical is far from perfect, but it still works in a concept album kind of way.
There is something very '70s exploitation about the way this film was shot. Part of it looks like an analog to digital cross over, post-production used to capture a cinematic look from a handheld video camera. Other parts look just like celluloid, if merely the short ends and leader kind of stock. Elite's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 letterboxed presentation is grainy, dark, and frequently scattered in its cinematography. Yet all of these factors - sans the full screen transfer - add to the film's tone and overall feel.
Perhaps most importantly, The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock and Roll Musical sounds excellent. The dialogue, while often amplified via post-production ADR, is easily discernible while the musical score - the most important part of the movie, frankly - is clean, crisp, and a solid sonic delight. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix isn't lo-fi or feeble. Instead, director Champagne does double duty as song producer and his efforts are excellent.
Elite also does this film a definite digital favor by fleshing out the disc with several interesting added features. There's an interview with Hal Blaine (explaining how he became involved), a look behind the scenes (via stills and Making-of footage), a list of the various awards and festivals the film was featured in, a test trailer (obviously, the original intent was a period piece) and the actual theatrical preview. Toss in an intriguing commentary track with Bernhoft, Champagne, Rucci, and Marinan and you've got a nice collection of content. As for the full length discussion, this quartet is clearly enamored of their work. Easy going and talking over each other from time to time, they provide a good level of detail into the production, the problems, and the homages to previous films and filmmakers. While a tad too self-congratulatory, it accents the DVD package well.
As with any review of an unknown quantity, the bottom line becomes this: was the movie effective in making its point without being too amateurish, too ambitious, or too awkward? While suffering from a small amount of entertainment ego, The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock and Roll musical manages to (more or less) avoid all three failings. Therefore, it earns an easy Recommended rating, and for those of you who are a tad more adventurous, something a little 'High'-er may be in order. Clearly, Alan Bernhoft is a man with talent, and Andre Champagne is a director and music producer of some skill. Together, they overcome a mountain of potential troubles to create an intriguing, interesting far from the mainstream musical. If you go in expecting too much you'll be sadly mistaken. But if you give The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock and Roll Musical a chance, you'll find your song and dance desires readily rewarded.
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