On The Big Screen Reviews

Anna and the Apocalypse – Review

Given that the United Kingdom has produced some of the most enduring popular music of the 20th Century, it is surprising that it hasn’t produced more enduring, original musicals. On the stage, Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators have crowded out the market for over 40 years, taking inspiration from pre-existing texts, some of which were not written by Brits – The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, Cats after T.S. Eliot’s poems.

The best musicals focus on aspiration, with visionary protagonists singing their dreams, The Greatest Showman, beloved of this website, being the most recent example. In the movies, the last great British screen musicals were Tommy (1975), based on a rock opera by The Who, about a mute, visually and aurally impaired young man (Roger Daltrey) with a talent for pinball, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), directed by an Australian and featuring Americans in the leads. Although as far as musical sequences are concerned, the finale of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ – was a suitable epitaph. I must confess that I’m not a fan of Pink Floyd: The Wall filmed by Alan Parker – it doesn’t work as a narrative. As for Absolute Beginners – don’t get me started.

Image result for anna and the apocalypse

The non-zombie antagonist is Savage (Paul Kaye, whose credits include playing a zombie at the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead, an inspiration behind the film). He desperately can’t wait to be King – sorry, Head Master – once the current incumbent has retired, and displays questionable attitudes towards the teenagers performing in the end of term show. Antagonist number two is Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins) who cyber-shamed Anna, but wants her to crawl back to him.

In the film, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry and directed by John McPhail (2015’s Where Do We Go From Here) zombies turn up gradually and are mostly older people. As with Shaun of the Dead, the fun comes from the kids crunching the head with bowling balls and other appropriate props, which only goes so far. Anna’s imperative is to rescue her father and, erm, catch a plane.

In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse is an anti-musical. Zombie hordes place a real dampener on ambition and there is pathos when characters we care about are bitten. Songs like ‘No such thing as a Hollywood ending’ underline the point. Ultimately, the film turns on a clash between Anna and Savage, whose twisted ambition is aided by circumstance.

Musicals are judged by their songs – their hooks. Sadly, the tunes here don’t linger, the lyrics nonsensical. When one character sings ‘I need a human voice’, you wonder, ‘as opposed to a Google assistant?’ In a sense, the zombie musical has already been done to death in the extended pop video Michael Jackson: Thriller directed by John Landis. The image of the King of Pop dancing with a collection of grave dodgers pretty much shows the limits of the sub-genre.

Nevertheless, the cast are infectiously personable and there’s definitely a market for a film that bunches together genre tropes and takes them on the road. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wishes it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show but doesn’t enshrine the pleasures of the musical in a horror movie context. I’m still waiting for the next great British movie musical. Director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, working with Ed Sheeran, Lily James and Kate McKinnon, just might be making one, due out in September 2019.


Anna and the Apocalypse is out 30th November 

 

In general, when the British offer an aspiration, it doesn’t work out too well – partitioning India for example, and, of course, Brexit. That said I’m sure someone will propose a musical biography of Sir James Dyson entitled Vacuum.

In recent years, filmmakers have turned to the so-called jukebox musical, constructing a narrative around pre-existing songs, with the most successful example being Mamma Mia (2008), structured from songs by the, er, Swedish super group, Abba. Lower budget versions have included Sunshine on Leith (2013), featuring songs by the Scottish group the Proclaimers – Meryl Streep was not even a consideration.

This brings us finally to the Scottish original musical, Anna and the Apocalypse, about a group of young people who wake up to find their town taken over by zombies. Structurally, it has two problems: the protagonist’s aspiration – to travel to Australia – isn’t clearly linked to the zombie apocalypse plot. Secondly, at least half the cast – well, more than half – can’t sing. They’re undead and, as such, have trouble auto-tuning.

Experts on musicals will tell you that the songs are supposed to drive the plot or at least sum up an attitude. When Timon and Pumbaa sing ‘Hakuna Matata’ in The Lion King they are making a ‘problem free philosophy’ attractive to young Simba – though I have no idea whether, in the forthcoming live action remake, Seth Rogen, voicing Pumbaa, will follow it by offering young Simba a bag of weed with his trademark snigger. Probably not, it’s a Disney movie.

The songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly certainly start with an objective: Anna (Ella Hunt, Ellie Marsden in TV’s Cold Feet) sings ‘I know I must break away’, which is a classic musical sentiment. Her widower dad (Mark Benton) who works at her school as a janitor wants her to go to university. Anna would rather go to Australia first, financed by her part-time job at a bowling alley. Her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming) is an enthusiastic cheerleader, but so obviously in love with her that his heart is melting inside his Christmas jumper. Why Anna doesn’t have a girl as her best friend is a bit of a mystery. The only other sympathetic females are lesbian American Steph (Sarah Swire, the film’s choreographer) – key line, ‘Christmas is my least favourite ‘C’ word’ – who has been abandoned by her parents and Lisa (Marli Siu), who is appearing in the school’s Christmas musical and has a film geek, Chris (Christopher Leveaux) for a bestie.

Image result for anna and the apocalypse

The non-zombie antagonist is Savage (Paul Kaye, whose credits include playing a zombie at the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead, an inspiration behind the film). He desperately can’t wait to be King – sorry, Head Master – once the current incumbent has retired, and displays questionable attitudes towards the teenagers performing in the end of term show. Antagonist number two is Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins) who cyber-shamed Anna, but wants her to crawl back to him.

In the film, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry and directed by John McPhail (2015’s Where Do We Go From Here) zombies turn up gradually and are mostly older people. As with Shaun of the Dead, the fun comes from the kids crunching the head with bowling balls and other appropriate props, which only goes so far. Anna’s imperative is to rescue her father and, erm, catch a plane.

In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse is an anti-musical. Zombie hordes place a real dampener on ambition and there is pathos when characters we care about are bitten. Songs like ‘No such thing as a Hollywood ending’ underline the point. Ultimately, the film turns on a clash between Anna and Savage, whose twisted ambition is aided by circumstance.

Musicals are judged by their songs – their hooks. Sadly, the tunes here don’t linger, the lyrics nonsensical. When one character sings ‘I need a human voice’, you wonder, ‘as opposed to a Google assistant?’ In a sense, the zombie musical has already been done to death in the extended pop video Michael Jackson: Thriller directed by John Landis. The image of the King of Pop dancing with a collection of grave dodgers pretty much shows the limits of the sub-genre.

Nevertheless, the cast are infectiously personable and there’s definitely a market for a film that bunches together genre tropes and takes them on the road. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wishes it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show but doesn’t enshrine the pleasures of the musical in a horror movie context. I’m still waiting for the next great British movie musical. Director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, working with Ed Sheeran, Lily James and Kate McKinnon, just might be making one, due out in September 2019.


Anna and the Apocalypse is out 30th November 

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