September 26th, 2022
MOVIE: PLEASE BABY PLEASE
STARRING: ANDREA RISEBOROUGH, HARRY MELLING, DEMI MOORE, KARL GLUSMAN
DIRECTED BY: AMANDA KRAMER
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
If there was anything that stood out about Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story last year it was the lavish production design which pulled the musical a bit out of the staginess present in the 1961 original. But the narrative was basically the same and still felt a bit dated and not particularly relevant to the struggles our culture faces today. Amanda Kramer’s Please Baby Please updates the premise into something which is still set in the late 1950s/early 1960s and yet seems to address gender discussions that make the film so much more in line with where we are today.
The film begins with a clear homage to West Side Story featuring a street gang, the Young Gents, leather jackets, studs, and dance moves as they walk the dark street of an urban neighborhood. The brassy sound of the opening number would feel right at place in either version of the previous film. A murder then occurs which is viewed by clarinet player Arthur and his expressive wife Susan. They are similar in a sense to the innocent characters in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Brad and Janet, stumbling into a world that is foreign yet enticingly intriguing to them.
In this case, Arthur, who resembles a cross somewhere between Darren Criss and John C. Reilly, is instantly attracted to the gang leader Teddy, who clearly is a version of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, complete with a white biker cap. What ensues is an exploration of gender identity. Specifically, what is a man? A woman? What does sexy mean? Marriage? Can people transform themselves into something else or are we relegated to the gender roles established to us at birth? These ideas are examined throughout the film. At one point, a character says, “what is the world of men but a series of comparisons and measurements.” Arthur wants to escape the norms. It is even questioned whether the biker gang reflects a standard for masculinity that is really only covering up what they’d really like to do with other men.
Hence the film is many steps ahead of what West Side Story has been expressing for over 60 years. I did, in fact, like most of last year’s remake. But this film feels much more present even if it is just as stylized. There’s more substance in the writing which is intriguing and insightful in its ideas.
The look of the film is definitely part of the charm here though. The sets do look like stage pieces but they are beautifully lit in jazzy blues and fiery reds when necessary to capture the smoky, nighttime atmosphere. Costumes and hairstyles are also meticulously designed and appropriately flamboyant. The overall production design provides a noir-esque feel, complete with murder and a femme fatale. This is not the bright shiny atmosphere of a musical like Singin’ in the Rain or even something more recent like Rocket Man. This is the kind of film for late night viewing, with a cocktail or glass of wine in hand. The pacing is deliberately slow which might irk some who are looking for something bigger and wilder. But that’s not the point of the film. Big action pieces would take away from the writing and its relatable themes.
The inclusion here of Demi Moore also deserves a mention. While she only appears in two scenes, she’s a major force to be reckoned with. Surprisingly this isn’t the Moore we’ve seen in films like Ghost or Disclosure. In fact, Moore’s costume and hairstyle here makes her look a bit like a geisha. She also speaks in a much higher register than we’ve seen before, coming across a bit like a brunette version of Jennifer Coolidge. It’s a pretty revelatory performance from an actress whose major star faded long ago but now suggests she should be given more meaty character roles like this where she can really shine again.
Please Baby Please isn’t so much a musical (there only four-ish musical numbers) but a campy homage and updating of all that made films like West Side Story, The Wild One, and even Rebel Without a Cause, so culturally significant for their time. It’s a film that will no doubt speak to younger audiences today who find those works and their messages dated and out of touch with today’s reality.
PLEASE BABY PLEASE PLAYS TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27TH AS PART OF REELING: CHICAGO’S LGBTQ+ FILM FESTIVAL AT LANDMARK’S CENTURY CENTRE CINEMA.
Written by: Dan Pal