Newsies is one of those films that, while it flopped in theaters upon its original release, came back with a vengeance when it was released on VHS.
For those of you who don’t know, Newsies is a musical loosely based on the Newsboy’s Strike of 1899, when Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst hiked up the cost of papers for the young boys delivering those papers. They had to pay more to get their product, and yet were not making the money back. The actual strike itself, completely led by youths, was successful. The newsboy’s received more money for their work.
There are very few films that are 100% historically accurate. This film is no exception. The overall concept is there, the newsboy’s strike. The characters and some of the circumstances are greatly exaggerated or completely created for the sake of cinema (which, I must say, I’m not completely against because real life doesn’t always make for the most interesting film).
This is one of those films that, if you tell me that you do not like it, I either assume that you’ve never seen it or that you just don’t like movie musicals (please explain why you do not like them, because I don’t understand). Everything comes together in this film so well, from the music and lyrics, to the choreography, and to the casting. It all just works.
This film was Kenny Ortega’s directorial debut. Most today would probably know him from his directing of High School Musical, but, please, let’s not forget that he directed not only this film, but one of the greatest Halloween films of all time, Hocus Pocus. It’s very clear that Newsies was directed by a choreographer. The dance sequences are front and center, and that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. The dance sequences and the way that they are framed are very reminiscent of the musicals of the 1950s.
I want to talk about, nay, I need to talk about the music and lyrics. Alan Menken wrote the music for this film with Jack Feldman stepping in for Howard Ashman, who was terribly ill from AIDs at the time, as lyricist. Few movie musicals pump me up in the way this one does. The melodies, the chords, they are all carefully chosen. The opening number “Carrying the Banner” and “The World Will Know” both are done in a way that builds anticipation in the viewer. You know something is about to happen. You know it’s going to be something big. You just have no idea what it will be. And then, the song “Seize the Day” begins to play. The reprise of this song comes in right before they are about to ward off the strike breakers, and it is powerful. It energizes you just as it energizes the young boys singing it. They are there for a reason. They believe in this cause. So do you. Not one song in this film is unnecessary (well, possibly “High Times, Hard Times” but I feel like there’s an argument somewhere that can be made for that song). From the opening number that gives you the background and the day to day life of these boys, to the song “Santa Fe” that gives us a peak into what our main character, Jack Kelly, really wants in his life, a family.
The song “Once and For All” really builds the tension and excitement, better than any of the rest. Give it a listen, and I’ll bet you’ll agree.
Casting, casting, casting. This has got to be one of the most talented groups of young actors I have ever seen. These boys have more talent in their pinky fingers than I have in my entire body. Let me state the obvious: LITTLE CHRISTIAN BALE.
Now, I know that he didn’t necessarily like making the film (because he’s a boy and boys think musicals are lame and blah blah blah blah blah), but I’m forever grateful that he did this film. His performance feels genuine. When he sings “Santa Fe”, you can hear the longing in his voice. Also, I wish I could do accents that well. Robert DuVall, who plays Joseph Pulitzer, does a wonderful job, as always. I’m convinced that Robert DuVall has never acted poorly in a film in his life (and, if you know of any, please tell me so I can watch them immediately.)Bill Pullman is always charming. Literally always. I feel like I couldn’t really ever dislike him in a film even if I tried. He does wonderful in this film, and I must say, I do enjoy his singing.
This film, surprisingly, has great relevance today in regards to our media. The control of the media is constant throughout the entire film. In fact, Pulitzer even says “I tell the city how to think. I tell the city how to vote.” He knows the power he has with his newspaper. And that is, quite frankly, scary because, as we see, he can very easily be persuaded and corrupted. Ultimately, that line about telling the city how to think is what pushed our young Jack Kelly and company to publish their own paper with the story of their strike on the front page. You know, since the big newspaper guys would not print it. They were too frightened that it would give other children workers ideas, and they didn’t want that. I couldn’t help but think how relevant this is today. We are bombarded by news more now than ever before, from newspapers and magazines, to the internet and having it literally in our hand at all times through our phones. And a good chunk of those people writing these articles, have the same mindset of Pulitzer. And that, my friend, is truly scary.
Now, the entire time I was watching this film, I was trying to figure out why it bombed at the box office. And this is what I could come up with. Movie musicals were pretty much done at that time. In film history, movie musicals were at their best and biggest during the 1940s and 1950s, largely as an escape from the Great Depression and World War II. Most were, in some way, patriotic. They served a larger purpose to society. As the years went one, movie musicals began to dwindle. Sure, the 1960s and 1970s had some movie musicals, nearly all of which served the purpose of sexual expression and “be who you are”
But, when we reach the 1980s, movie musicals fall off as any kind of studio money maker. They began to come back in the 1990s with Walt Disney and their animated films. However, Newsies came out right at the beginning of that. The only Disney films that had been made and released at the time that had done well were The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Movie goers were not yet ready for more live action movie musicals. And they wouldn’t really be ready for them until 2002 with the release of the film Chicago.
I am happy that this film gained a cult following after its initial release. It deserves it. It is well crafted, and well shot. The cast does a phenomenal job, and the music is catchy as hell. I mean, I’ve had “King of New York” stuck in my head since I watched the film. This is one of those films that, if you have seen it and you do like movie musicals, and you still tell me that you do not like it, I’m going to question your judgement (I’m not sorry about it.) And, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you drop what you’re doing right now and go watch this film (it’s currently available on Hulu). I guarantee it’ll make you want to stand up and fight for a good cause.