Extraordinary! Groundbreaking! Controversial! Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Cruising) and playwright Mart Crowley serve up the acclaimed, groundbreaking film adapted from Crowley's hallmark off-Broadway play - a witty, perceptive and devastating look at the personal agendas and suppressed revelations swirling among a group of gay men in Manhattan. Harold (Leonard Frey) is celebrating a birthday, and his friend Michael (Kenneth Nelson) has drafted some friends to help commemorate the event. As the evening progresses, the alcohol flows, the knives come out, and Michael's demand that the group participate in a devious telephone game unleashes dormant and unspoken emotions in this iconic classic. Co-starring Cliff Gorman (Cops and Robbers).
"As my father said to me when he died in my arms, 'I don't understand any of it. I never did.' Turn the lights out when you leave."
Transitioning a stage play to the screen can be a tough nut to crack. Since most plays are usually staged to take place in a single location and feature constant dialogue - it can be very difficult to transition these elements and make them look and feel cinematic. One could simply set up a camera and just film the play, Olivier did that with his 'Henry V' and it works sometimes, but it can be very disengaging for the audience. However, in the case of 'The Boys In The Band', keeping the film to a single location is central to the story, and a then young and fearless William Friedkin was able to bring all his best talents and utilize them in creating an engrossing film adaptation of Mart Crowley's Off-Broadway sensation using the same cast from the play without making feel like you're watching a stage show.
Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is a seemingly well-to-do gay man enjoying life in New York. As a former member of the theater scene, he's a man who knows how to throw a birthday party. Harold (Leonard Frey) is turning 32 and Donald (Frederick Combs), Emory (Cliff Gorman), Bernard (Reuben Greene) and live-in lovers Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) are all invited to join in on the fun for some good food and a lot of alcohol. Not on the guest list is Michael's old college roommate Alan (Peter White). Alan, nearly in tears, calls Michael on the phone out of the blue asking to see him. Knowing his guests will be arriving at any moment, Michael reluctantly agrees to have him over but is genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of his estranged friend. Why is Alan in New York and why was he crying on the phone? Michael ruminates on these questions but is distracted as his guests arrive one by one, including Emory's gift for Harold, a man-for-hire called Cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux).
As the evening progresses Michael and his friends enjoy themselves, drinking lots and eating less, but Alan never shows. Alan calls again saying he's going to have to cancel. While concerned for his friend, Michael is actually relieved, now he doesn't have to introduce his very straight and incredibly conservative former roommate to his out in the world openly gay friends. Only Alan does show up, very unexpectedly and while Michael, Hank, Larry, Emory and Bernard are doing a flamboyant song and dance routine on Michael's patio. Unable to hide from it, Michael does what he can to introduce and integrate Alan into the group of friends, but Alan is an outsider and his wearing of full formal dinnerware doesn't help everyone feel at ease. Putting tensions aside, the group does what they can to keep the party loose, including the flamboyant Emory who has no compunction about hiding his sexuality and openly flaunts it, pushing Alan into an uncomfortable corner.
The party progresses, and people begin to drink more than they normally would or should and say aloud the things they normally wouldn't. Even Alan who is driven to the point of striking Emory after having his sexuality teasingly challenged. When a freak thunderstorm forces everyone into Michael's living room, the kid gloves come off. The underlaying tensions rise to the surface and no one is at their best, least of all Michael. In an attempt to goad the truth out of Alan and expose the real reason why he's there, Michael pushes his friends into an unfriendly game of honesty, forcing each man in the room to call the one person they truly love on the phone and tell that person how they feel. Some can do it. Some can't. By the end of the evining truths will come out that not everyone is entirely comfortable with.
'The Boys In The Band' is simply an amazing movie. Previously I had only seen small clips out of context in a film studies class about stage to film adaptations so I never really got what the play and therefor what the movie was actually about. On one end you have something that seemingly resembles a comedy where the witty characters toss out barbed and catty one liners at each other, and then on the other side of things you have a tense and riveting pot boiler of a psychological thriller. The fact the characters are gay and one that maybe isn't all that he seems really isn't the central point here. In an interview Mart Crowley said that each of the nine men in the film is a piece of himself, so perhaps the best way to look at the material is as an exercise in honesty. If you can't be honest with yourself then how can you possibly be honest with your friends or even the person you truly love? Michael's goading of his friends and Alan to be honest is just as much a challenge to himself. This feels like a character study of Crowley much in the same way that 'Suddenly Last Summer' was for Tennessee Williams - although this one at least feels far more hopeful and optimistic by the end. As a mark of the power of the dialogue and the skilled direction under Friedkin, there are conversations here that are more tense and thrilling than even the best executed action scenes.
Watching the film it becomes incredibly easy to see why the play was such a success. This cast is absolutely incredible and each member owns their roles. By the time this movie was being filmed, these men had played these parts for over one thousand performances - they were their characters and for many of the cast members the parts they played would define their careers. It's hard to single out just one signature cast member over the other. Sure, Kenneth Nelson carries much of the story and is the central figure head moving the drama throughout the tight and confined apartment, but his performance would be meaningless without any of the others. In this way, the film feels almost like a tragic time capsule. As the AIDS epidemic hit in the late 70s and early 80s, actors Kenneth Nelson, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice, Robert La Tourneaux, and Leonard Frey would all pass away from AIDS related illnesses within twenty five years of this film's release. After Cliff Gorman passed away due to Leukemia in 2002, Peter White, Reuben Greene, and Laurance Luckinbill became the last surviving cast members of the original production of 'The Boys In The Band.'
Part of what makes this adaptation work so well is that it wasn't simply shot as a play. Friedkin went to great lengths to incorporate as much movement with the camera as he possibly could allowing it to travel through windows, around doors and up stairs as the actors moved about the scene. Additionally, the performances feel cinematic. These men are no longer projecting out to the back row of the audience but speaking directly to each other in such a way that one can't help but feel like you're part of the party and among friends who lead challenging lives. It's a hell of a film. One second you're laughing and the next you're on the edge of your seat and by the end you're left emotionally exhausted from the rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. This is a fantastic film, that's about all anymore I can say about it. If you love powerful drama with incredible performances 'The Boys In The Band' is an absolute must see film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Boys In The Band' arrives on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber's Studio Classics line pressed on a Region A locked BD25 Disc. Housed in a standard case, the disc opens directly to the main menu.
Yikes. That one word is pretty much the general summation of this 1.78:1 1080p presentation for 'The Boys In The Band.' In one moment this 45 year old film can look quite stunning for its age - and in the next, it can look dreadfully awful. Looking at it, one may be struck by memories of such color tinkered Blu-ray releases as the first edition of 'The French Connection' or 'Night Of The Living Dead.' Color is completely whacked out from shot to shot leading me to believe this had been fiddled with in recent years. Colors are pushed very hot in a number of scenes, particularly reds as they can look bight, almost neon pink making the cast look like they had just spent the last twelve hours out in the hot sun. Blues also get pushed from time to time to the point that the color black no longer even exists in a couple shots. As a result of the intermittent color tinkering, detail levels can fluctuate making the picture look either sharp and beautiful or appear muddy and soft. The reason for this is the grain structure is completely thrown off as it can look stable but present and then in the very next shot make the film look as though it was struck by the eighth plague. If this color tinkering is at the hands of Friedkin then it's a tragic shame. Normally I don't particularly care if a director fiddles with their film, but if they do it, the job needs to be consistent. 'The Boys In The Band' is an amazing film that deserves better treatment than this.
While the picture quality may be a complete disaster, 'The Boys In The Band' thankfully has a strong, clean and clear DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track. This is great since the film's sound mix is 99% dialogue. There is some music here and there but it doesn't have much presence or place in the film other than the opening and closing credits. Sound effects are likewise relegated to whatever happens on screen, but doesn't ever take center stage beyond a late second act rain storm sequence. Since the dialogue comes through with fantastic power and clarity, the mix is actually very strong and resonant. All around a perfect complement to the film.
Audio Commentary: William Friedkin flies solo here - it's an odd commentary since it feels like it's just the audio from some of the interview footage in the other extra features played over the main film. Informative, but not very engaging or scene specific.
Act One: The Play - Featurette: (HD 14:00) A fascinating history of the original Off-Broadway production with interviews from the producers, writer Mart Crowley, and the surviving members of the cast.
Act Two: The Film - Featurette: (HD 24:48) A very in-depth look at the transition of the play to a film, bringing in director Friedkin, and how the cast had to make adjustments to making the play feel like a film.
Act Three: 40 Years of 'Boys In The Band' - Featurette: (HD 5:39) I wish this piece had been longer, it's nice to see how the play and film have endured.
'The Boys In The Band' is quite simply a classic piece of cinema. The performances are visceral, hilarious, and endearing. The film stands as an early sampling of William Friedkin's work behind the camera and his ability to push actors into delivering incredible performances while holding onto a captivating story. Sadly, this Blu-ray is cut off at the knees due to an incredibly lackluster video presentation. The audio quality is top notch, and the extras are informative, but that video knocks this from being a highly recommended Blu-ray disc to being one only worthy of a rental. I sincerely hope this film gets a rerelease with a fully restored picture. This disc - while an amiable effort - should not be the only time we see this incredible film on Blu-ray.