It ain't about the money, Dave
I remain baffled that Newsies even exists: An original live-action historical musical created by Disney, aimed at families, about the unionization of newsboys in 1899. (Labor disputes and negotiations — the stuff of all great childhood cinema.) It stars Christian Bale, who hasn’t appeared in a musical since and claims he didn’t even know it was a musical when he signed onto the role. It features multiple scenes of teen males attending burlesque shows and smoking cigarettes; again, this is a modern Disney production aimed at kids. Why did they green-light this?
Audiences were baffled, too. The film pulled in a paltry $2.8 million at the box office against a budget of $15 million. But in the ensuing 31 years, it’s become an object of fascination and — to many — adoration. Some combination of the memorable talent involved, the unique premise, and the film’s handful of undeniable strengths have given rise to a generation of fans who largely discovered it by word of mouth. I include myself in that group (thanks for introducing me, Colton).
Though I have come to love Newsies, it’s not a film that benefits from overhype. There are enough flaws and underdeveloped ideas such that anyone promised a hidden gem is likely to be disappointed. Newsies is the first film directed by Kenny Ortega, and his inexperience shows: segments are alternately inert and chaotic, Ortega’s knack for crisply capturing large-scale group choreography still nascent. It’s an oddly stagey film, too; one friend noted that it somewhat ironically looks a lot like a film hastily adapted from a stage show (ironic because Newsies would eventually be adapted the other direction, from film to stage as a successful Broadway production).
The script, too, while ambitious and heartfelt, is on the sloppy side. Conflicts don’t follow clear arcs, scenes abruptly end, and various characters come in and out of focus at unpredictable cadences (e.g. a Newsie named “Crutchy” is set up to be a main character before disappearing for the second half of the film; a love interest for Bale’s character flips from tertiary to lead in the closing half hour). And it features some truly miserable scenes centered on mustache-twirling capitalist Joseph Pulitzer, written as a Scrooge McDuck money-grubber and delivered in a catastrophic performance by Robert Duvall.
It’s got a lot of flaws, but… Newsies is still kinda great? Eighteen-year-old Bale is remarkable as Jack Kelly, the heart and soul of the ad hoc newsboy union. As a vocalist, he’s expectedly limited, yet incredibly invested and emotive. As he would with Christopher Nolan’s great Batman films, Bale pulls the film’s various themes and conflicts into a single moving performance with rich interiority (even with that goofy New York accent). The film has a recurring motif of Kelly as a cowboy-at-heart who longs to move to wild west Santa Fe; Ortega even dresses up Bale in cowboy garb and makes him do a dance while riding a horse in the middle of the streets of Manhattan. It should be silly and campy, and it is, but it’s magically touching, too, thanks to Bale and the swelling music.
Despite the often-wonky script, the story of a bunch of poor kids rising up against the fat cats is genuinely stirring. There are lots of fist-pump moments of victory that are all the sweeter because of the darkness baked into the conflict. The film, to its credit, gives shading to the dynamics of a strike, with lots of inter-newsie tensions and scabber defections. During a terrific late stretch, Kelly himself reasonably questions the cost of collectivism at the expense of the individual for someone with no safety net like himself. It really is sophisticated drama for a Disney kids film.
Yet thus far I have talked around the film’s biggest strength, the main reason it looms large in so many fans’ esteem: The masterful score composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman, plus high-energy dancing choreographed by Ortega and Peggy Holmes. Menken was at the peak of his powers circa 1992, filling Newsies with some glorious numbers: “Santa Fe” ranks with “Reflection,” “Part of Your World,” and “God Help the Outcasts” among Menken’s most heart-rending ballads. (As much as I adore Bale’s swelling, heartstrings-tugging take, “Santa Fe” belongs to Jeremy Jordan, the star of the Broadway staging.) “The World Will Know” is a rousing miracle. “Seize the Day” is a phenomenal call-and-repeat anthem.
The film’s crowning jewel, though, is opener “Carrying the Banner,” and it might be the finest song Menken ever composed. The suite-style song (its title both a descriptor of hawking papers and foreshadowing to carrying picket signs) is both an introduction to the newsies and their busy world, intermingled with character moments and instrumental dance breaks and tone shifts. It’s heavily influenced by “Rhapsody in Blue,” and sets up that the turn-of-the-century streets of New York will be a key piece of the film’s flavor. It’s a seven-minute, full-ensemble, complex-harmony, singalong banger. My six-year-old has declared it her favorite song in the world (she’s performing in a kiddie rewrite of Newsies in her drama program this fall, where she gets to deliver the opening “extra, extra, read all about it!” line).
Unfortunately, the soundtrack is heavily weighted to the film’s first half. The final hour of the film is nothing but a few reprises and one pre-climax tension-raiser, which makes the two-hour runtime feel awfully long down the stretch.
Despite some lumps and quirks, this is a unique and special film, an oddity with long cultural tendrils. It presaged some of the magic of both the Dark Knight trilogy and the High School Musical trilogy in very different ways. Bill Pullman gives an inspiring speech even though there’s no aliens and he’s a reporter, not president.
Newsies is uneven, but for my money, as great as it is baffling. Ain’t it a fine life, indeed.