Glenn Close and Harry Connick Jr. Bring Classic Musical to the Small Screen
DIRECTOR: RICHARD PEARCE/2001
STREET DATE: JUNE 4, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
During World War II, the South Pacific is nobody’s dream vacation spot. As the U.S. military disrupts island life with their occupation, soldiers and nurses wonder how long they’ll have to wait out the war, if Japan will attack before they leave, and what their lives will be like when they return home. The Tonkinese natives wonder how much money they’ll make off the soldiers, if the Americans will marry their daughters, and if their homes are in harm’s way.
Nurse Nellie Forbush (Glenn Close) also wonders what to make of her new interest in French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Rade Sherbedgia). Though they barely know each other, she can’t deny their strong attraction since meeting at a dance. Lt. Joseph Cable (Harry Connick Jr.) can’t advise her because he’s wondering about his own future. His mission is to help American bombers land on the island, but he spends his time thinking about Liat (Natalie Mendoza). Though they can barely hold a conversation with their language barrier, he can’t deny their strong attraction since her merchant mother, Bloody Mary (Lori Tan Chinn), introduced them. But Nellie and Cable soon run into the same barrier, one neither expected: their own prejudice.
Full disclosure: Though I’d been introduced to songs from South Pacific, this adaptation is the first production I’ve seen. If you’re a real Rodgers & Hammerstein stan, let me preemptively apologize for my lack of knowledge on the stage show. However, if your experience is closer to mine, let me recommend you skip this version—at least until you’ve seen another and decide you need to hear “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” again.
That’s not to say only theater lovers could love this ABC TV movie. What this South Pacific does best is create a setting and translate the story in a way only the screen can. The Queensland, Australia, shooting location creates a lush, authentic backdrop for these songs, and the story leans into the military action sequences with details that couldn’t be seen from a balcony. This isn’t the film adaptation of The Producers, in which Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane performed their roles with the same gusto they did on Broadway. These actors and sets are designed for your television, even modifying the songs and their context to suit broadcast format and pacing.
Speaking of the music, those Rodgers and Hammerstein guys knew how to lay down a tune. I’ve enjoyed the music of Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, so I’m unsure why I haven’t spent more time with this set of songs, which are as honeyed today as when written post-war. (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” is a total bop, right?) Of course, Connick Jr.’s voice fits the era, but Sherbedgia steals every scene he’s in with his range and control. Close’s performance only makes me more impatient for the upcoming Sunset Boulevard musical.
With these strengths, it’s surprising this film as a whole doesn’t sing as brilliantly as its cast. As best as I can tell, the writers made wise decisions in which plot threads to cut from the stage version, but with that it appears they also cut the energy. Moving at the pace of a TV drama makes sense for the medium, but it drains the songs of their power. On stage, music drives story; here, the story just happens to move into songs from time to time.
And while the film’s exploration of subtle racism is as relevant as ever, its approach feels…dated. How we discuss racism in 2019 feels more complex, though the play was progressive (and controversial) at the time of its debut. Lt. Cable and Liat’s interracial love story feels too underdeveloped to support the story’s themes. Case in point: Liat is asleep during their signature song, “Younger Than Springtime,” and has no character arc to speak of. (Try the Broadway show Miss Saigon if you’d like a less simplistic take on this story.)
This new Kino Lorber DVD also includes an audio commentary track, an interview with the actress Ilene Graff, a trailer for the film, and a deleted musical scene (one that should have been kept in the final cut since it provides important details about Cable’s character and background). The DVD also includes a short documentary hosted by Close (a producer as well) that aired on ABC. She and the cast share behind-the-scenes footage and fun facts like that many of the extras were tourists and that Connick Jr. performed the song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” live on set.
But perhaps the best feature of this DVD? It has updated the look of the original poster to replace the Papyrus font with a boring but tolerable script on the front cover. Unfortunately, the Papyrus remains in the opening credits.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual DVD’s image quality and are included only to represent the film itself.