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Lost In The Stars
cast: Brock Peters, Melba Moore, Raymond St Jacques, Clifton Davis and Paul Rogers

director: Daniel Mann

94 minutes (PG) 1974
inD / Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Michael Bunning
Lost In The Stars is a film version of Kurt Weill's musical version of Alan Paton's novel Cry, The Beloved Country: a novel set in 1940s' South Africa, in which a country pastor, Stephen Kumalo, journeys to Johannesburg to find his son Absalom. After a long search, he finds Absalom's pregnant girlfriend living in a shantytown, and discovers that Absalom himself has been arrested for attempting to burgle the home of a rich white man and shooting him (a crime of which he is, in fact, guilty). The novel is a highly acclaimed indictment of racial inequalities in pre-Apartheid South Africa; but the musical film version doesn't quite know what it is.

The film was produced by the American Film Theatre, which was set up to produce high-quality cinema adaptations of contemporary drama, and to screen them once a month. So the quality of the production is as high as you might expect. Some of the camerawork is a little shaky, and the print is slightly less-than-pristine, but the acting is excellent and the direction is sure and confident.

The problems start and pretty much end with the songs in this film. They're lifted from the Broadway musical and are really shoehorned into the movie. They don't fit at all; and the cast perform them as though they were on stage. I'm not a huge fan of musicals to begin with, but I find they always work better (as movies, at least) when the theatricality of the songs is played down, and the performers 'act' the song rather than go at it as though they were on stage. John C. Reilly's excellent performance in Cabaret ('Mr Cellophane') is the perfect example of what I mean.

Unfortunately, there's none of that here. Possibly Kurt Weill's songs just don't work on-screen, but in this version, there seem to be too many words per line, the songs seem to be too nearly operatic, and the performances too overdone. There aren't enough songs for a 90-minute musical, and one (the bar-room song) feels horribly tacked on for no reason.

These problems cause another: the drama of this story (Kumalo's son is going to hang for his crime) is punctured by the affected and over-dramatic singing; and it languishes uncomfortably between genres. This is certainly no feel-good musical like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers; or a dramatic musical like Cabaret; but equally, it's not a heavy drama. It's just unexceptional. This is a real shame, because as I said earlier, the acting is top-notch and the direction is good too.

If you were a fan of the original theatrical screenings of the AFT films, no doubt this will bring back fond memories. If not, I can't see any reason for watching it. It's very definitely a five out of ten movie. Not bad, but not good either.

The same goes for the extras on offer. There are a few of them: interviews, gallery, stills and trailers, but they're just fluff. The sound options are limited to a Dolby digital 2.0 track, but that's fine, since you don't need anything more. This is seriously uninspiring stuff, a purchase for musical fanatics or AFT completists only.

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