Film Review: stars shine in “Boys in the Band”

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Film critic Hunter Friesen reviews the new Netflix film, “Boys in the Band.”

HUNTER FRIESEN, Film Critic

Back in 1968, playwright Matt Crowley shocked the world by penning a stage production solely comprised of gay men and their repressed feelings. The spiteful language and harsh authentic look at gay life were too much for “polite society” at the time. The production played off-Broadway for a few years before closing in 1970. Right before he directed “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin gave the play new life by adapting it for the screen the same year it closed.

Finally, in 2018, the play was given its proper due with a Broadway revival directed by Joe Mantello and starring an all out-gay cast, most notably Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory”), Zachary Quinto (Spock from the modern “Star Trek” franchise), and Matt Bomer. Now in 2020, history has repeated itself as Mantello and co. have regrouped for another screen adaptation, this time for producer Ryan Murphy at Netflix.

“The Boys in the Band” opens in 1968 New York. Seven gay friends are soon to be gathered for the birthday of one of their own. We get to know each of them over the first half-hour as they prepare for the party.

The host, Michael, is a so-so writer with a drinking and money problem that he can’t let go of. Michael’s good friend (and old flame) Donald comes into town hot off a session with his analyst that made him confront the shame he feels as a gay man. Larry is the group flirt as he refuses to be wholly committed to one man, which often puts him at odds with his lover Hank, who recently left his wife for Larry. Then there’s Emery, the comedic relief of the group who isn’t afraid to show off who he is. There’s also Bernard, the only black member of the group who’s still wrestling with both his racial and sexual identity. Finally, the birthday boy himself is Harold, a Jew who always arrives late and knows exactly what to say to get under someone’s skin.

But wait, there’s one more guest at this little shindig. Michael’s old college roommate, Alan, is in town under mysterious circumstances and must see him right away. Michael isn’t 100 percent out of the closet to Alan, mostly because Alan is as straight as an arrow and about as open-minded as the rest of 1960s America.

The party kicks off great as the friends reminisce on old times. These are the moments when the acting troupe shines, especially Robin de Jesus as Emery and Parsons as Michael. Crowley’s original dialogue is lifted right from the stage to the screen with pure elegance. The one-liners and zingers, which are often playfully vulgar, are still eye-opening fifty years later. It’s both happy and sad to see this material continue to be relevant after so many decades.

However, things get icy when Alan shows up. Harold hasn’t arrived and everyone still has their social masks on. Alan doesn’t fully comprehend what he has barged in on as Michael tries to quell the flamboyancy.

Director Mantello grinds everything to a halt once Alan walks through the door. Almost as if this was a horror movie, a deep feeling of suspenseful dread fills the atmosphere. Like all good suspense, a needle eventually drops and things quickly get messy. The language turns from sarcastic to hateful as old secrets and dark truths bubble up to the surface after years of being buried.

Parsons still takes the cake with his exceptional lead performance. Harold remarks that when Michael drinks, “he’s lethal.” Parsons is indeed lethal once things get serious as he ditches his sitcom roots and delivers a much more bullying persona.

Quinto is also great as Harold. Usually sitting in the corner with his humongous tinted sunglasses, he delivers line after line with stinging fervor.

“The Boys in the Band” can feel a bit too stagy at times, which is to be expected. Long speeches and heartfelt moments that work well on the stage sometimes come off as schmaltzy on the screen. But Mantello does incredible work despite only directing one other film in 1997. His excellent blocking of the apartment setting is second to none as it allows for swift camera movements that capture every moment.

Cinematographer Bill Pope does well to preserve that same stage energy with numerous long takes and great lighting of the wonderful set by production designer Judy Becker.

Overall: 4/5

“The Boys in the Band” is an astounding stage-to-screen adaptation that remains relevant in its messaging and entertaining in its story. The cast is top-notch and Joe Mantello proves he still has the directing chops. Unfortunately, Matt Crowley died from a heart attack in March before the film was finished. Despite being gone from this physical world, he still lives on within this excellent production.