“The Boys In The Band” Review!

What begins as a lighthearted – albeit stressful – birthday celebration for a friend quickly devolves into chaos as a group of gay men in the late 1960’s confront their deepest fears and regrets in this haunting, yet hopeful adaptation of the hit play The Boys In The Band. It is specifically an adaptation of the recent Broadway revival, with the main cast returning for a stellar Ryan Murphy and Joe Mantello production that is benefited by being nothing like any of Murphy’s other recent projects: his flair for the overproduced and melodramatic grows tired after a while, which is why the stark simplicity of The Boys In The Band‘s single set (with a handful of other locations, such as city streets and rooms glimpsed through hazy, brief flashbacks) and small, close-knit cast is so wildly refreshing – Mantello, who directed both the revival and this film, brings the essence of the play to life onscreen with tricks learned from a long theatrical career, without needing to fall back on Murphy’s typical tools; a kaleidoscope of colorful costumes, eccentric set design, juicy yet nonessential plot filler, etc. Instead, The Boys In The Band strips everything back, peeling away layers just as harshly and honestly as lead character Michael (Jim Parsons) does to his unsuspecting friend group.

The Boys In The Band
Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells | ew.com

The Boys In The Band was written during – and takes place in – a very uncomfortable period of the LGBTQ+ community’s history, in the year or so before the infamous Stonewall riots, and that information is intensely important for anyone who plans on watching or reviewing the film, in my opinion. When it was first released, the play was supposed to be a stinging, cynical depiction of the pain within the gay community; pain that, at the time, was often internalized, resulting in feelings of self-loathing…but in retrospect, I believe it can now be looked at as an expression of how that pain and anger grew within the community until it could no longer be contained, and was instead channeled into the creation of the Gay Liberation Movement after the events at Stonewall – a movement that tried to undo decades of emotional damage, by emphasizing self-pride and celebration of one’s sexuality. Thus, while the original play struck a bitter tone and ended on a note of abject hopelessness, the film doesn’t quite do that. Although it shines a harsh spotlight on pain and hatred and the way in which a straight-passing lifestyle was (and occasionally, still is) often held up within the community as an ideal even at the expense of personal happiness or comfort, it also cleverly finds ways to depict how the gay community was growing slowly stronger, self-reliant and independent at the same time. Even though the characters in The Boys In The Band can’t see or even begin to imagine the monumental changes happening all around them, the audience can understand that the feelings of connection, loyalty and trust they develop over the course of that one night in Michael’s apartment are the same feelings that would go on to empower the LGBTQ+ community in positive ways. Particularly connection with others, which, while healthy no matter who you are, or what your sexual orientation is, has always been especially valued in the LGBTQ+ community because of how critical it was during the early days of the movement. In just a couple of added scenes near the end of the film, Mantello gets this point across perfectly.

It is also, in my opinion, a far more genuine method of weaving hope into a bleak narrative than Ryan Murphy accomplished with his recent series Hollywood, which made the bold decision to just completely rewrite the entertainment industry’s history, giving fairytale endings to a mostly imaginary cast of characters and steamrolling over the real trailblazers who fought to make change and progress happen.

Aside from its cultural significance, The Boys In The Band is worth watching for its outstanding cast alone – an all-LGBTQ+ cast, I might add. There’s still a fervent debate over whether or not only gay actors should play gay roles, but no one can convince me that it’s not exciting and inspiring to see so many openly gay actors bringing their all to these roles and having a great deal of fun in the process (and yes, this movie is a great deal of fun: not only is the element of suspense entertaining – up until it’s intentionally not – but the humor is witty and playful throughout the first act).

The Boys In The Band
Zachary Quinto and Robin de Jesus | playbill.com

Jim Parsons, fresh off Murphy’s Hollywood, is back again playing another cold-hearted yet strangely hypnotic force of nature: his Michael is a fearsome, anxiety-ridden character who eases his own pain by passing it on to others during the infamous telephone game he proposes about an hour into the film – the rules are simple: call the one person you believe yourself to have truly loved, and tell them you love them, and you win points for how well you do and how many of Michael’s criteria you meet. The results, on the other hand, are anything but simple, as characters go into the game energetic and optimistic, only to end up feeling betrayed, ashamed and wracked by guilt. And as for Michael, he seems to feed off these feelings, all while he eagerly tries to guide the game back around to the one person whose opinion he actually cares about: his seemingly straight friend from college, Alan (Brian Hutchison), who has come into the city for unknown business and whom Michael is convinced is secretly gay. Jim Parsons fills the character of Michael up to the brim with emotion that threatens to spill over at any moment, as he initially attempts to sterilize the mood of the party in an attempt not to offend the fragile Alan, only to then do a heel-turn and actively try to force Alan to out himself.

Zachary Quinto excels in the coveted, enigmatic role of Harold, giving his character a slinky gait and commanding presence; though, for all his outward confidence, he too is wounded within. Robin de J├ęsus is a pure bundle of joy as the proud, unabashed Emory, probably the only character who seems happy because he is happy – and who is thus subjected to the most verbal and physical abuse throughout the film. Michael Benjamin Washington’s Bernard is quiet, understated, and has one of the best scenes in the entire film as he is the first to participate in Michael’s telephone game and the first to suffer the consequences – a reflection of how Black people and people of color in the LGBTQ+ community have always suffered discrimination both from without and within the community, despite historically always being at the forefront of the movement for LGBTQ+ liberation. The only actor I never felt strongly about one way or the other was Matt Bomer as Donald – his character is important to the story, but Bomer doesn’t really have a chance to do all that much with him.

Credit has to be given to everyone who designed, decorated and lit Michael’s charming, two-story apartment. The entire set is vivid and clearly lived-in, as it has to be since we spend almost the entire film in this one small space, exploring virtually every nook and cranny from the bathroom to the kitchen to the inviting terrace decorated with balloons and string-lights – never once does it feel cramped or enclosing. And never once does it feel like Ryan Murphy stepped in and demanded anything had to be bigger, or flashier, or more lavish: Joe Mantello, who worked with an abstract set for his The Boys In The Band Broadway revival, has brought an effectively simplistic sensibility to the production design for this film that nonetheless comes off as organic and appropriate rather than a gimmick meant to turn the film into an imitation of the theater experience.

The Boys In The Band
Jim Parsons | latimes.com

What is there left to say? Only that, with The Boys In The Band, Murphy and Mantello have crafted something hilarious, haunting and hopeful: a poignant restoration of a story that has immense significance to the LGBTQ+ community. While the play presents a contemporaneous account of a group of men suffering trauma embedded deep in American gay culture, the film has the benefit of being able to assure us that, even though not everything would be solved with the Stonewall riots or the creation of the Gay Rights movement or the legalization of same-sex marriage or any of a hundred other landmarks, the world would begin to change, both for the characters in the story – and for us, the audience, who find ourselves in another dark time, where human rights (including those which the LGBTQ+ community have fought for and won) are being threatened and actively removed by the current Presidential administration. At this moment, The Boys In The Band is just as necessary and relevant as it was back in 1968, as a reminder that your anger at injustice is your greatest weapon against divisive forces, and that, even when the whole world is trying to get you to direct that anger inwards at yourself, you have the power and the right to use it for good.

Movie Rating: 9.5/10

Howard Ashman’s Story Is Brought To Life In “Howard”!

Howard is yet more proof that one of the Disney+ streaming platform’s greatest strengths, despite an overall lack of original content, is its catalog of documentaries – not all of which, to be fair, were created exclusively for the service. Between this, Into The Unknown: The Making Of Frozen II, The Imagineering Story and Waking Sleeping Beauty, viewers are in for a treat if they ever seek out this particular genre on Disney+. Unfortunately, it remains one of the service’s better kept secrets that all these films and miniseries’ are even on there at all. Howard, which explores the life and times of one of the studio’s most celebrated songwriters as well as the impact he had on the Disney Renaissance, is neither the most illuminating nor the most well-made of these documentaries, but it is a welcome addition to the collection – and like the rest, it affords us a much-needed glimpse behind the curtain into the making of Disney magic: particularly the blood, sweat and tears that goes into the creative process.

Howard Ashman
d23.com

Now, if you’re already familiar with many of the details of Howard Ashman’s story (and/or if you are subscribed to the superb Dreamsounds channel on YouTube, which examines Disney music through an LGBTQ+ lens and as a result focuses several video essays around Ashman), then Howard probably won’t be anything too groundbreaking. The film goes over all the pivotal moments in Ashman’s life, from his youth to his accomplishments in musical theater and film, to his tragic death from AIDS, before closing off with a look back at his legacy – accompanied by a montage which includes footage from Disney’s live-action remakes of Beauty & The Beast and Aladdin – but while it does also dig a little deeper into his personal life it still feels distanced and a bit cold until the very end: though this could be because the film only uses voiceover from the people who knew and loved Ashman to narrate a long string of old photographs, snippets of footage, etc, rather than allowing us to attach faces and, most importantly, real emotions to the names of the interviewees.

Probably the most important element of the film is how it tackles the latter period of Howard Ashman’s life, while he was simultaneously turning out some of his greatest work for Disney and also suffering from AIDS. The documentary appropriately doesn’t make the whole story about Disney (though you might think that’s the case early on, as Ashman’s sister recounts how as a child he used to create fantastical stories about magic and made-up characters), nor does it gloss over the horrors of the AIDS epidemic: the 1980’s was a terrifying and extremely dangerous place for gay men, which the documentary makes very clear by recounting how Ashman kept his illness a closely-guarded secret until near the end of his life for fear of losing his insurance and being fired by Disney. Just because he was working for a studio with a reputation for charming, happily-ever-after fairytales doesn’t mean he was oblivious to the reality that at the time (and even now, to some extent), there was no surety that Disney was an LGBTQ+ friendly company or that they would accommodate his needs (they did, much to Ashman’s relief; sending their teams of animators and writers to his home in upstate New York rather than requiring him to fly back-and-forth between the East and West coasts, and continuing to involve him in the songwriting process for Aladdin while he was hospitalized).

Howard Ashman
medium.com

The gay subtext that Ashman is believed to have put into the music he wrote for Disney is also addressed (though again, if you want to know more about it, I recommend the Dreamsounds channel, which covers this topic in much greater depth). Both Part Of Your World, the iconic “I Want” song from The Little Mermaid that Ashman fought for despite Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg’s objections (the “I Want” song wasn’t Ashman’s invention, but he certainly popularized the term) and The Mob Song from Beauty & The Beast are often believed to have LGBTQ+ themes, though only The Mob Song is brought up to prove this point in the film, with parallels being drawn between the townsfolk’s fear/hatred of the Beast, which results in them marching with pitchforks, gun and torches to kill him, and society’s fear/hatred of the LGBTQ+ community, which expressed itself in similar, and no less brutal, violence. A counterargument is provided that Howard Ashman wasn’t projecting his own experience into the lyrics of his songs, but was instead stepping into the shoes of the characters with the help of his remarkable amount of empathy, but it can’t be argued that a large part of his empathy with the struggles of misunderstood and mistreated characters like Ariel and The Beast is likely to have stemmed from his own struggles being accepted in a homophobic society.

Following the course of one man’s real life story leads us inevitably to Howard Ashman’s last days on earth, with his working partner Alan Menken, The Little Mermaid star Jodi Benson and others sharing their last memories of him, including a prophetic dream of the lyricist wearing black robes which Menken had on the same morning as Ashman’s passing. It goes without saying that the last couple of minutes of the documentary are an emotional ride.

Howard Ashman
syfy.com

Howard Ashman was able to get a lot done in his life, and several of the interviewees note that his frustration at having so little time left often motivated him to work even harder during his last years. Despite only working on a handful of films for Disney, Ashman shaped the future of the studio, its storytelling and its music, and he continues to impact the way they craft their animated films to this day. The whole Disney Renaissance is largely because of him and the way in which he was able to seamlessly reinvent the studio’s formula to closer match that of the Broadway musicals which he loved. On the stage, of course, he was responsible for the legendary Little Shop Of Horrors musical and was involved with the subsequent film adaptation, which is itself getting a remake sometime in the near future. And he is particularly notable for being able to accomplish so much of this while working as an openly gay man, no easy feat in any time period. In the documentary, he is heard humbly admitting that he doesn’t think of himself as a trailblazer – but there is no question that he was one of the most brilliant minds in music during his time, and that his influence will continue to be felt for a very while.

Movie Rating: 7.5/10

For Pride Month 2020, Let’s Discuss The Year’s Biggest LGBTQ+ Moments In TV And Film!

SPOILERS FOR HARLEY QUINN SEASON 2 AND SHE-RA SEASON 5!

Happy Pride Month! As we begin to celebrate the history and culture of the LGBTQ+ community, I thought it would be interesting to look at what the community has accomplished already in 2020, through the mediums of TV and film. Though coronavirus has prevented many inclusive films from making it to theaters this year, there are still plenty that did get there before the world went on lockdown, and many more that have released on streaming. For this breakdown, we’ll be looking at the setbacks the LGBTQ+ community suffered early in the year, and three outstanding breakthroughs in representation that both occurred just last month which could signal big changes in the industry.

Of course, I should note that this is not, by any means, a comprehensive list of every film or TV series released this year that touches on any of these issues – this is merely a discussion of some especially significant incidents spanning the course of the past several months, which I feel present a fairly accurate depiction of the year’s many ups and downs as a whole.

She-Ra LGBTQ
She-Ra rescues Catra | tor.com

2020 opened on a promising note with Marvel President and head producer Kevin Feige boldly announcing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would welcome its first ever transgender superhero in the very near future, at a Q&A where he used the words: “Yes, absolutely. Yes.” Unfortunately, the moment was irreparably tarnished when it was revealed that Feige hadn’t realized the question was specifically about transgender superheroes, and only meant an LGBTQ+ superhero was coming very soon. That doesn’t necessarily mean that transgender heroes aren’t going to appear in the MCU at some point (there are rumors that a transwoman superheroine, Sera, could appear in either the Loki Disney+ series or Thor: Love And Thunder), but it does cast doubt on when that will ever happen. It was a bad omen, heading into the new year.

Marvel LGBTQ
Marvel Comics’ transgender heroine Sera | mcuexchange.com

In February, Marvel’s rival DC had a golden opportunity to explicitly confirm that one of their most major characters was canonically LGBTQ+ – but instead, their hyped-up zany comedy Birds Of Prey danced around the issue of sexuality, giving only eagle-eyed viewers a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to lead character Harley Quinn’s bisexuality in an animated sequence, while simultaneously hinting through stereotypical mannerisms that flamboyant, misogynistic villain Roman Sionis and his partner-in-crime were a gay couple. A lesbian character in the film, Renee Montoya, did play a large role and had an ex-girlfriend who also showed up, which makes Birds Of Prey something of a “one step forward, two steps backward” sort of situation.

Around the same time, the Disney+ streaming platform came under fire for a slew of reasons, most of which involved the service’s attempts to whittle down their roster of upcoming original content in a manner which many saw as discriminatory towards series’ with a focus on LGBTQ+ issues. While Disney+ didn’t do this with all of their shows (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and Diary Of A Future President both featured openly LGBTQ+ characters), they did make the decision to move their hotly-anticipated Love, Victor (a spinoff of 20th Century Fox’s successful gay romance Love, Simon, obtained during the Disney/Fox merger) to Hulu, deeming it too mature for their own platform. One of the service’s most high-profile original series’, a sequel to the Lizzie McGuire Disney Channel series, was shut down entirely – with some sources saying that it was due to the way in which the story tackled matters of sexuality. It didn’t take long before the whole situation had raised a very interesting discussion about what is “family-friendly”, but that hasn’t saved Love, Victor from heading to Hulu, nor has it resurrected Lizzie McGuire.

Love, Victor LGBTQ
Love, Victor | deadline.com

In March, as the world started falling apart thanks to coronavirus, the Pixar film Onward was lost in the catastrophe, and moviegoers barely had any time to acknowledge the fantastic animated feature or its moment of LGBTQ+ representation – a moment that would have been great, had it not been leaked to the press by eager journalists prior to the film’s release and subsequently massively overhyped. In the film, a cop played by openly lesbian actress Lena Waithe briefly mentions her girlfriend in a single line of dialogue. Despite how brief the moment was, the film was still boycotted by conservative groups like One Million Moms and banned by several Middle Eastern nations.

Within a few weeks, the coronavirus had already caused major shifts in the film industry: films were being reshuffled across the board, movie theaters around the globe were shutting down and studios were hurrying to push all their upcoming or recently released content onto streaming. Unfortunately, one notable victim of all the release date rearrangements was Marvel’s The Eternals, a film already remarkable for its diverse cast. The superhero epic directed by Asian-American indie icon Chloe Zhao is set to feature the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first gay couple, and was supposed to release in November of this year. Sadly, the film has now been pushed back to February of 2021, meaning we will have to wait even longer before we can find out what Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman was talking about when he said that there’s a gay kiss in the film that’s so emotional it made people on-set begin crying. Another Disney film, Jungle Cruise, was delayed an entire year, and will now be opening in summer, 2021: though it’s been invisible in the film’s marketing so far, Jungle Cruise is supposed to introduce Disney Studios’ first openly gay character – which is already somewhat controversial, as Disney couldn’t even be bothered to find an openly gay actor to play the role, rumors say that the character’s depiction is “hugely effete”, and test screenings apparently revealed that the character has a coming out scene in which he never actually states that he is LGBTQ+. Perhaps a delay for that movie wouldn’t be a bad thing, as it could allow them to do some much-needed reshoots.

But not everything has been all gloom and doom. The past month has introduced a wave of new representation: some of it from DC Universe, some from Netflix, some, most shockingly, from Disney+ – all of it through the form of animation.

In the first instance, DC Universe’s Harley Quinn animated series rectified Birds Of Prey‘s glaring omission by adhering to comics canon and having Harley Quinn and fellow Gotham City supervillain Poison Ivy begin a tentative relationship, which has even resulted in the two sharing a kiss. The duo now have to sort out their messy, complicated feelings for each other, and that’s great. It’s the first time the relationship, which was wildly popular in the comics, has been represented onscreen – and fans are already enjoying the canonization of the pairing, which they have labeled “Harlivy”.

She-Ra LGBTQ
Adora and Catra | polygon.com

However, something that sets Harley Quinn apart is that the series is exclusively for adults, meaning that its audience is necessarily limited. That’s not a problem that faces Netflix and DreamWorks, whose collaboration on the animated reboot of She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power is something that can be enjoyed by all ages – the fifth and final season premiered on the streaming service just recently, and made the hopes and dreams of the series’ many LGBTQ+ fans finally come true when lead characters Adora (a.k.a. She-Ra, Princess of Power) and Catra rekindled their friendship: which turned into a slow-burn romance, which culminated in the two confessing their love for each other in the series finale, kissing, and saving the world with the power of love. That, my friends, is representation done right – because as much as I enjoy seeing “casual” representation (such as the cop from Onward, who simply mentions her girlfriend without making it a big deal), I infinitely prefer seeing characters whose sexuality or gender identity is something that actually helps to define who they are. And with Adora and Catra, whose relationship has been at the heart of She-Ra for all five seasons, it made complete sense that their love would play a huge part in the conclusion to the story – and it did, because showrunner Noelle Stevenson is a brave, brilliant genius, who fought to make sure that she wouldn’t have to pull a Legend Of Korra on her fans and just have Adora and Catra hold hands and/or gaze platonically at each other.

Out LGBTQ
Pixar’s “Out” | nytimes.com

Finally, we have to talk about Out. Though Disney+ is still new and working out many of its flaws, they did just recently make a big step forward – or rather, Pixar did it for them and Disney+ gets to take the credit: Out, the newest of Pixar’s animated Sparkshorts which debuted exclusively on the streaming platform, follows a gay man in an interracial relationship as he struggles to come out to his parents. Even though the story involves an unpredictable magical mishap and a lot of dog humor, it never loses sight of its true focus, which is a heartwarming message of acceptance. The short, which clocks in at around nine minutes long, is an understated milestone, becoming the first Pixar story to star a gay lead – and much to its credit, enjoyed a spot on Disney+’s top trending section, which shows that audiences are curious and eager for more content like this.

And so, as we head into Pride Month coming off of small successes like Harley Quinn, She-Ra and Out, I must ask of all my readers that you keep fighting for change in any way you can: whether that means demanding more LGBTQ+ representation from Hollywood, or protesting police brutality because black lives matter – or, preferably, by doing both. One day, we will see that change, and it will come from people like you. 2020 is a wake-up call for all of us: to fight harder. To do better.

Marvel’s “The Eternals” casting FIRST GAY SUPERHERO?

Some big news broke recently concerning Marvel’s The Eternals, a movie set to begin filming in August, which should be released next year. We had been getting some small teases as to what this film might be about, and which characters might be in it – for instance, we had received news that Margo Damian might be in the film, though this is unconfirmed and the female lead is still going under the alias “Karen”, while her character description is vague and says Marvel is looking for an actress in her early 30s, of any ethnicity (but especially African, Native American or Middle Eastern). Meanwhile, other character descriptions had also been revealed, which seemed to suggest that classic Eternals characters like Ikaris, Makkari, Sersi, Starfox, Thena, Zuras, Druig and Gilgamesh were being considered for roles in the movie: there were also surprising additions to the line-up like Elysius and “Piper”, who seems to be a take on the Eternals character Sprite. But one of the most interesting by far was the male lead, which didn’t even get so much as an alias, and was described merely as a Greek God. Now, thanks to a new report, we may have a clue as to who that character might be – and it bodes well for the future of LGBTQ superheroes onscreen.

Because, yes, the news that broke March 1st – and appeared to be given additional credence first by Marvel production chief Victoria Alonso, and then by Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige himself – was that Marvel is seeking to cast an openly gay male actor to play the male lead: who is set to become their first openly gay superhero. Combine that with the fact that this male lead is described as a Greek God, and what do you get?

Hercules, that’s what.

Marvel's "The Eternals" casting FIRST GAY SUPERHERO? 1
pinterest.com

The character, a Greek God who is somewhat similar to Thor (well, Thor post Thor: Ragnarok that is), has been bisexual in the comics – but it didn’t end very well, and attracted some backlash after the character was suddenly made straight again. Bringing Herc back, and making him definitively gay or bisexual in the MCU would be a great way to settle that issue. The character description, it seems, has been updated so that now Marvel is looking for an openly gay male actor age 30-49, who “physically looks like a superhero”. That last note is interesting: other actors have been able to bulk up for roles in Marvel movies, but Hercules is massively muscled, and would probably require an actor who is already at least similar in size.

So, considering all that we know so far, I’d say that Hercules is, if not a sure bet, than at least a definite possibility. It could be that Marvel is choosing to make Ikaris or another male character gay instead, and that Hercules won’t show up at all, but fans have definitely been looking forward to seeing him in the MCU, and having him be the first gay male superhero in their impressive roster would be pretty cool. But either way, this news is most interesting because it means Marvel will finally be delivering its first gay lead – scratch that, its first gay character, period. Another Marvel character, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) has been confirmed to be bisexual, but this was never even hinted at in the films, and in fact a scene with some lesbian overtones was cut from Black Panther. This is a step in the right direction for the MCU, and I can’t wait to see where we’ll end up.