The Boy Friend is equal parts throwback and time capsule - an homage to the great Warner Brothers musicals of the 1930s choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley, and a record of an era in filmmaking (1971 to be precise) that fostered experimentation beyond the traditions of the Golden Age studio system - even at major studios such as Warner Brothers, which financed and distributed Ken Russell's adaptation of Sandy Wilson's smash Broadway musical.
Twiggy, fashion icon of the 1960s, stars as Polly, the assistant stage manager at a second-rate theater in an English seaside town. The troupe is in the midst of its run of "The Boy Friend," except that it is short its leading lady, who has recently been injured. So, Polly is thrown in as a last-minute replacement by the troupe's ambitious director (Max Adrian), out to impress the visiting Hollywood director De Thrill. The performance goes on, with Polly gamely struggling to keep up and ultimately stealing the show by virtue of sheer unpracticed charm. Her convincing performance is aided immeasurably by her real crush on the male lead, Tony (Christopher Gable), whose level of reciprocation appears to be ambivalent throughout.
Russell's conception of the whole is as a play-within-a-movie, an old-fashioned Hollywood musical with fantasy-like dance numbers that extend well beyond the world of the film's setting. In sequences that rhapsodically depart from the creaky stage of the troupe's run-down theater, dancers perform as dice, as the characters on playing cards, as mushroom-dwelling forest gnomes, as Classical libertines, and as bits of kaleidoscopic glass that move upon gigantic revolving turntables. These numbers are made whole thanks to show-stopping music (Wilson's score was ably adapted and supplemented by Peter Maxwell Davies) and infectious, energetic choreography and dancing. The Boy Friend is easily the best Busby Berkeley musical that Berkeley never made.
Taking their cue from silent cinema as well as Hollywood musicals of yore, the cast hams it up appropriately. Gable is toothy and a touch too pretty as Tony. Adrian is anxious and greasy as the director Max. Glenda Jackson appears in a wonderfully modulated cameo as the injured leading lady, letting Polly know she'll never measure up, only to follow that with restrained encouragement. Tommy Tune has a featured role as a predictably dance-savvy cast member. As Polly, Twiggy embodies some of the same qualities that made her so influential in fashion - quiet humility, innocence, and easy, effortless charm - something like a female Oliver Twist.
Russell is known as an excessive director,
and although The Boy Friend is never excessive in its content,
it is rather long. I suspect a judicious editor could easily shed 20
or more of the movie's 138 minutes and not harm the film's narrative
flow or spectacular dance sequences. Still, that is the only real
caveat I can think of. The Boy Friend is old-fashioned filmmaking
that captures a classic feel while pushing the cinematic form of the
musical forward in ways that still look clever forty years later.
Image and Sound
The Boy Friend holds up well as an impressively mounted and consistently entertaining musical, buoyed by the charming lead presence of Twiggy. An energetic cast and terrific musical numbers make up for the overlong running time. Recommended.