Bye Bye Birdie (Twilight Time (Blu-ray)
Director - George Sydney
Cast - Jesse Pearson, Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 1
Distributor - Twilight Time
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 4/5
The women of the U.S. are up in arms over the news that charismatic pop-rock sensation Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) is being drafted into the Army. But no one finds this news more distressful than Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), a brilliant chemist who decided to pursue his dream of being a songwriter much to the dismay of his domineering mother Mae (Maureen Stapleton). Albert’s potential salvation comes in the form of his longtime secretary and lady love Rosie Deleon (Janet Leigh) and her proposal to TV host Ed Sullivan (well-played by the man himself) to have Birdie perform a song written by Albert on Sullivan’s show before he enters the Army. Then after the song is over Birdie will plant one last kiss on a specially-chosen young woman, and in case that woman is Kim MacAfee (Ann-Margret), a teenager from the small town of Sweet Apple, Ohio. Kim is awestruck by the opportunity to receive a special kiss from her singing idol but the announcement does not sit well with her straight-laced parents (Paul Lynde, Mary LaRoche) or her boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Bobby Rydell). To make matters worse Sullivan’s producers inform Albert and Rosie that due to the performance demands of the Moscow Ballet Birdie’s number - as well as his kiss for Kim - will have to be cut from the show entirely. With the big night drawing near and Birdie’s presence making the Sweet Apple residents crazy Albert and Rosie must take some unorthodox measures to ensure that the show goes on, and in the process they along with Kim and Hugo will realize their love for one another.
Based on a long-running Broadway musical, Bye Bye Birdie really took me by surprise on first viewing. Let me begin this review by clarifying that I am not a serious fan of musicals. I like some of them but the genre just never caught on with me. It’s just hard for me even as a typically undiscerning film fan to get any enjoyment out of movies that stop the story cold for extended singing and dancing sequences that rarely do much to advance the plot or tell us anything interesting or revelatory about the characters. Plus the songs usually stink. I’m sorry but they really do. But every so often a musical comes along that appeals to me on many levels. I was familiar with Bye Bye Birdie initially by reputation only; I knew that the musical had been loosely based on Elvis Presley’s drafting into the Army in 1958 and the controversy that caused with his female fans at the time, and I also knew that one of the show’s most popular numbers - “Honestly Sincere” - had been spoofed on an episode of Family Guy that had the number being performed by an animated President Obama. The 1995 made-for-television remake also comes to mind vaguely. When I sat down with this new Blu-ray of the film from Sony’s online-only limited edition Twilight Time line I found myself amused and entertained for the most part.
The musical underwent radical restructuring in its journey; for the movie version screenwriters Michael Stewart (who also wrote the book for the stage musical) and Irving Brecher only adapted the first act of the stage production because that’s honestly the only act that matters. The second act appears to be repetitive and tiresome. The only damage this does is the finale seems rushed and anticlimactic and a few plot threads - for example there is the teacher Mr. Paisley (Michael Evans) who becomes briefly infatuated with Rosie - are left dangling in the wind. From the captivating opening image of Ann-Margret singing the title song in a combination of childish whine and teenage romantic vulnerability it’s easy to get swept up in the happy-go-lucky mood of Bye Bye Birdie. You won’t find much teen angst and sexual repression in this movie although it takes place in the kind of picaresque, post-war suburban utopia that filmmakers like Douglas Sirk and David Lynch would mine for maximum moral and physical perversion prior to and following Bye Bye’s theatrical release. Of course now not all suburban neighborhoods are cesspools of spiritual decay and chances are you’ll probably find more polished, conservative families like the MacAfees than dysfunctional families that are way more fun and interesting to write movies about. But throughout the movie there is a subtle hint that some lascivious behavior is going on behind closed doors at the MacAfee homestead, maybe a few things that not even America of the 1960’s was prepared to accept. The casting of Paul Lynde, the legendary flamboyant comedian and television personality whose gayness can actually be seen from orbit, as Kim’s conservative, heterosexual papa (a role he originated in the stage version) must have been a delicious little in-joke on the part of the show’s creators - author Stewart, lyricist Lee Adams, and composer Charles Strouse - that is thankfully retained for the film.
The cast does very well with their parts, the stand-outs being Van Dyke (also reprising his role from the stage version) and Leigh (stepping in for Chita Rivera). Their relationship has the most dimension of any other in the movie and you can sympathize with Albert’s desperation to be a good man and potential husband to Rosie while satisfying the whims of his needy mother. Meanwhile Leigh, despite not being a Latina, imbues her performance with a sly intelligence and simmering sensuality that threatens to boil over in a spectacular prolonged dance number where she ends up accosted by a gaggle of sexed-up Shriners. Albert and Rosie’s relationship was really put through the ringer in the Broadway musical but it’s a good thing that most of that material was excised from the screenplay adaptation because it comes as unnecessarily morbid and extraneous. Ann-Margret’s performance is sweet and funny even though her character comes off as schizophrenic most of the time and her entire reasoning for wanting to receive Conrad’s kiss at the risk of jeopardizing her relationship with Hugo lacks real motivation and a proper conclusion. The whole movie lacks a conclusion in fact, but then again I’ve already mentioned that.
Most of the songs from the stage version made the cut for the movie and most of them are catchy and pleasing to the ears. My only real complaint with them is that even though the show is supposed to casting an eye on the exploding rock n’ roll scene of the time many of the numbers sound like old-fashioned Broadway show tunes. It’s a minor complaint I was willing to live with because the music and dance choreography are positively sublime. Director George Sidney was a veteran of many big screen musicals and he proves to be a dab hand behind the camera shooting glorious long takes of the major numbers - a breath of fresh air. In one sustained the camera glides elegantly from one song to another in and around the MacAfee household in a seemingly unbroken take. The house and yard were doubtlessly constructed on a soundstage making the great camera work by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Joseph A. Biroc - a veteran of over 150 films and television programs from Samuel Fuller’s China Gate and Run of the Arrow to Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Blazing Saddles - seem all the more seamless. You rarely get the chance to see that kind of practical visual wizardry anymore.
Bye Bye Birdie looks absolutely dazzling in a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer remastered in 1080p high-definition. The scenes explode with color like a Sunday morning newspaper comic strip come to life and the image is remarkable with a moderate but hardly noticeable amount of grain. Twilight Time has also provided the film with a boisterous English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track with strong volume levels throughout that will make your speakers get up and sing show tunes. English subtitles are also provided.
The only extra features are an isolated songs, music, and effects track presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, a brief catalogue of other titles from Twilight Time (Fright Night is sold out? Shit.), a Ann-Margret-centric standard-definition teaser trailer (3 minutes), and a theatrical trailer (5 minutes) remastered in HD. The songs actually gain extra clarity on the isolated track than they do in the film’s 5.1 audio mix but that’s not uncommon on DVD’s and Blu-rays.
I’m not a great fan of the old school musicals but every so often one comes along that manages to be really fun and entertaining without seeming like a relic from a bygone era, and Bye Bye Birdie is one of those pictures. A sweet-natured, breezy comedy of manners with a host of catchy tunes and witty performances from a cast of stage and screen (big and small) veterans and green newcomers who acquit themselves well, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray for this priceless classic musical features a stunning audio and video transfer and a few decent but unexceptional extra features. Highly recommended for the song-and-dance fan in you, especially if you want to see a turtle hopped up on speed pills designed by the star of Diagnosis: Murder.