It tells you something that in a decade that produced such garbage as Glitter, Crossroads, From Justin to Kelly, The Country Bears, Home On the Range, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Nine movie, this is still easily the worst musical movie of the decade. Its rock-bottom incompetence is all the more unforgivable given that it’s based on one of the greatest stage musicals in the history of the form, and absolutely nothing of the source play’s exquisite glories survives to redeem this z-grade cinematic nothing.
To begin with, the score is absolutely butchered. I understand why “It Depends On What You Pay” (a.k.a. “The Rape Song”) wouldn’t fly in a film version, but the cuts don’t stop there. “Plant A Radish” is cut, “Metaphor” has been given a truly embarrassing re-write, and almost every song has had verses sliced out of it. Strangest of all, the show’s legendary hit, “Try To Remember”, has been cut, save for a brief fragment at the end, a decision I cannot remotely comprehend.
This is less of a loss than it sounds, though, since the arrangements and performances in this film make even this wonderful score sound more annoying than anything else. Joel Gray and Brad Sullivan play the two fathers: their sullen, gritty, artificial performances are completely out of style with the material, but at least they can act. The same cannot be said of Jean Louisa Kelly, who has a terminal lack of sincerity and plays the role like she thinks she’s in a Disney TV special, or former boy-band member Joey McIntyre, who cannot deliver a single line of dialogue without embarrassing himself and us.
In the key role of El Gallo, which requires charisma, a sense of mystery, and a gorgeous, mellow singing voice, Jonathan Morris lacks all of these qualities to a truly astonishing degree: the writer who described him as ‘an ineffectual bore’ wasn’t far off the mark. The visuals are built around a cheap carnival setting used to literalize the show’s fantasy elements: these look consistently bargain-basement, seemingly deliberately so, and murder any sense of enchantment.
This film is the lowest echelon of artistically worthless B-movie, but what is really appalling about it is its waste of good (indeed, great) source material. Granted, The Fantasticks was going to be pretty resistant to the screen treatment no matter what happened, but like the famously horrible A Chorus Line movie, the result was far, far worse than it had to be. In fact, I consider this comparable to that aforementioned movie in terms of sheer awfulness, which should tell you something.