Since the dawning of MTV in the 80’s, plenty of accomplished directors cut their teeth directing innovative music videos before they moved in to the world of film. Everybody from David Fincher (whose credits include the entirely uncharacteristic “Vogue” video for Madonna) to Spike Jonze made a name for themselves behind the camera on some of the most memorable pop promos of all time, building a recognisable style before moving on to narrative features.
Another director joining that lineage is Isaac Rentz, who has been making pop promos for almost the entirety of the YouTube age, for acts including Paramore, Blink 182 and (predominantly) Australian boyband 5 Seconds of Summer. There is a music video sensibility to Opening Night, his directorial debut, but it isn’t due to any visual quirks- instead, it is more about how the backstage world of a Broadway production find themselves lapsing in to choreographed song and dance routines at the tip of a hat, the fast paced comedy soon replaced by cover versions of famous one hit wonders.
Set backstage on the opening night of a new Broadway musical about one hit wonders, Opening Night stars Topher Grace as Nick, the miserable production manager of the show, just about managing to hide his disdain for the production and many of the people involved with it. As the show nears stage time, he struggles with the ego of his leading man, N*Sync’s JC Chasez (who really sells the pathetic egotism of being a former celebrity in his surprisingly funny performance), who he finds out has also slept with his former girlfriend (Alona Tal)- who just happens to be the understudy to the leading actress (Anne Heche).
Into this chaotic ensemble falls Malcolm (Taye Diggs), a backup dancer and best friend of Nick’s who is causing further backstage drama after being caught sleeping with the boyfriend of one of the female dancers – and this is just barely scratching the surface of the barely functioning chaos erupting backstage, with the curtain call just moments away.
I have to confess, I had pretty low expectations for Opening Night – especially considering that many of the supporting performers here have appeared in weak Hollywood comedies in recent years. Mixed with the cheesy excerpts of one hit wonders from over thirty years that are performed by the cast, I was expecting this to be a toe curling experience. I was pretty relieved to find that, despite the infrequent bursts in to cover versions of embarrassing tunes time has mercifully forgotten, the film succeeds outside of its high concept because it feels driven by character, even when there are many different narrative strands being balanced at once.
This is all due to the strength of the performances. There are no overblown musical theatre caricatures, despite many characters looking like archetypes when described on paper, including a central gay character who is entirely devoid of any stereotype. It feels refreshing and helps breathe life in to what could have been overwhelmingly cheesy in the hands of another filmmaker; the characters are ridiculous and have problems that you’d only expect to find in a high stakes comedy film, but they are written in a manner that seems believable instead of conforming to narrative expectations. Even the side characters who only exist to form running jokes, such as the orchestra member with a drug dependency, are written in a manner that makes you believe that they exist outside of the confines of the comedy.
With a plethora of memorable characters in ridiculous situations all co-existing in the same breathing space, the film easily manages to be consistently funny, never running out of steam in its race to the finish line. Even better, it manages to embed emotional arcs for the central characters in to the comedy, and not feel like a sentimental cop-out- for a first time director, Isaac Rentz has proved pretty skilled at juggling different storylines and different tones, helping them compliment each other and craft a film that is accomplished in its comedy and its storytelling ambitions. You really get a sense that this is all playing out in real time, and that is all through the expert direction, as well as the finely crafted screenplay from Gerry De Leon and Greg Lisi, which takes a high concept and transforms it in to a bitingly funny character piece.
Don’t be put off by the premise – Opening Night is a consistently funny and highly quotable directorial debut, which will likely wind up as one of the year’s most underrated films.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Wolfe Video