Billy Elliot Live (film)

  • Billy Elliot Live (film)

12/12/14 (Fri), Tokyo

A film of the live broadcast of the London musical that was shown on UK screens back in September. I hadn’t seen the show since it first opened in 2005 and, my memory being a bit fuzzy, thought it was a good chance to get reacquainted. 

I remember telling a television interviewer outside the theater when I first saw the show that I wished the music was as good as the book, and that opinion still holds. I suppose the radio-pop sound does meet the 1980s setting (not surprising given that Elton John is the composer), but it is generic (ditto) and fails to define the individual scenes. The lyrics are middling other than the interesting “Merry Xmas, Maggie Thatcher”; wishing her dead was tasteless but probably an accurate reflection of the times. The songs are otherwise plagued with mundane lines like “I’m flying like a bird / Like electricity” (what does flying like electricity mean?) and misplaced accents like “SolidariTY”.

The book, in contrast, is outstanding: establishing the setting (even for events within such recent memory), defining its characters, setting up the lousy songs, offering realistic dialogue. The gay kid in the dress was way overdone – his best friend never noticed those proclivities before?? I hate being hammered on the head with this type of thing, which is sadly par for the course these days (though the kiss at the end was a lovely touch). Also, Billy’s reaction to the letter informing him of the big decision was not very believable in the context of his personality to that point. Still, the blemishes are forgivable given the book’s overall strength. It’s a shame it didn’t have a score to match.

Elliott Hanna in the title role gave the best kid performance I’ve ever seen. Almost constantly on stage throughout the three-hour show, he was amazingly poised and natural in both his acting and dancing (and even the cute pre-show introduction). He could have a big future ahead. Liam Mower, a past Billy performer who is now a big Royal Ballet star (shades of the movie), appeared at this performance in a thrilling scene along Billy as the boy’s future self staged specifically for this film. I was wary when the flying started, but it was quite moving – making this Elton John’s second flying musical after Lion King.

Ruthie Henshall was perfect as the teacher, and Billy’s father (Deka Walmsley) and elder brother (Chris Grahamson) were very fine, especially in their big confrontation when the former decides to break the strike for Billy’s sake.

One problem with this live showing was the film itself. There were too many cutaways and an obsession with disembodied dancing feet, especially when tapping. The numerous overhead shots were meaningless for a normal stage production, which is not designed with this in mind. Also, the close-ups sometimes missed key moments, like when Billy’s mother disappears as he reads the letter. It was vastly inferior to the National Theatre and Met Live films, which give a better feeling of a live experience. The film director did not seem to have a sense of theater and tried too hard to make it cinematic and MTV-like. Fortunately I had seen the stage show, but I expected more. Still, while I feel no crying need to see the stage version again anytime soon, it was good to catch up with it, particularly with this cast.

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