While it won’t be considered “fresh” to those who saw it on stage any time after 2001, when it made its debut, the film adaptation of The Last Five Years certainly feels fresh to me, someone who lives nowhere near Broadway and gets to perhaps one play a year, if I get lucky. The film doesn’t even feel that much like a play to me, even though I’ve been told it’s a rather faithful adaptation. How interesting is that?
The reason that The Last Five Years feels fresh is because of the way it tells its story, which is one we’ve seen before but perhaps not often portrayed in this manner. We have two leads, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick). The film is about their five-year relationship, and all of the trials and tribulations that happened during it. But it’s told both from the beginning and from its conclusion. Cathy’s scenes go from the end to the beginning, while Jamie’s happen in chronological order. At one point they meet, but only briefly.
It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the relationship doesn’t work out. The first song in the film, sung by Cathy, tells us exactly that. You also have to figure out the way the story is told, as there are no indications given by the film, and movie audiences aren’t exactly used to it. The first “Jamie scene” might initially be taken as just a simple flashback, while in reality it’s the beginning of the relationship that we’re going to follow from both sides. I’d call it burning the candle from both ends except we get to follow both sides to their “conclusions”; we don’t just stop when we get to the middle, even though the overlapping parts wind up more abbreviated.
The method by which the story is delivered helps hide that it’s rather thin and not in the least bit original. There isn’t a whole lot to it or its characters. Perhaps audiences will be okay with that because it’s a musical. After all, musicals often have thinner plots and characters than films which do not require the actors to sing for 90% of their time on-screen.
Speaking of singing, all 14 songs from the stage have been transferred to the film. They’ve been left (almost?) unchanged, and what might surprise some people is that most of them involve a single singer. They aren’t dialogues; they’re monologues. There’s a bit of interaction — some of which I’m sure was added just for the film — but for most of them it’s just one actor singing about whatever’s happening, and then we move to the next scene and the other lead gets to sing about something else.
It’s a good thing that both actors can sing. Jeremy Jordan will be the name hardly anyone knows coming in, but he might be the one that everyone remembers after seeing The Last Five Years. He’s primarily a stage actor, appearing in only one film prior to this one, but he’s just wonderful here. He’s charming, funny, and can sure sing. We know Anna Kendrick can sing and act, so it’s less of a surprise when she’s great at both here. In the scenes the two share, there’s a good amount of chemistry between them, too.
The songs themselves are all fun. I enjoyed listening to them, and The Last Five Years contains one of the few soundtracks I’d consider buying, so that’s something. There wasn’t a single boring or dull song, and they’re all performed so well that even if the lyrics aren’t the greatest, the vocal work and the instrumentals keep them involving. I think my favorite is “See I’m Smiling,” but that’s from a single listen of each of them. It’s hard to pick, though, since they’re all really good.
The Last Five Years brings a stage musical and properly translates it to film. Does it work? Absolutely! It takes a pretty mediocre story with shallow characters and uses an innovate style to transform the story into something much more than it would be if it was told like most stories are. Mix in strong performances and wonderful songs, and you’ve got a film worth watching. It doesn’t feel like it was meant for the stage, which is a feeling lots of these types of things have. If you’re a fan of musicals, The Last Five Years is something to see.