At the risk of overgeneralizing, why is it that cheapie musicals are so much more charming to watch on-screen than they are when some friend invites you to whatever way-Off-Broadway show they’ve managed to get mixed up in? Heck, these tiny film projects are often more endearing than the relatively big-budget ones the Hollywood studios produce. I’ll take “Colma” over “Cats” any day, and would watch “Once” 10 times before sitting through “Into the Woods” again.
Big and bombastic works great onstage but tends to look garish and awkward on-screen, whereas scrappy tuners somehow feel more sincere when the camera can go in for a close-up, à la “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Hello Again.” That strategy — of letting the actors’ faces sell the emotion behind frequently corny lyrics — saves the day in Jack Danini’s “Ode to Passion,” a micro-budget contemporary rock musical conceived for the screen that could only work in that context. Not as a concert (the songs aren’t good enough) and not onstage (the book’s as thin as they come). But as an indie movie, available via Amazon Prime, the project turns the earnestness of all involved into an asset. Plus, it’s written in rhyming verse, which, more than a gimmick, suits its old-fashioned, faux-chivalrous sense of romance.
Allegedly 20 years in the making, “Ode to Passion” is simultaneously a celebration of love at first sight and a more jaded look at the way relationships play out. It’s not as ingenious as Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” which set its core couple moving in opposite directions. But “Ode” is ultimately deeper and wiser than its instant-infatuation opening suggests. A great deal of that grounding can be chalked up to life experience, although writer-director Danini also introduces an element of Christianity that will turn off some. That dimension struck me as rather refreshing, considering that the majority of Americans identify as believers, but so few movies acknowledge the role that faith plays in people’s lives.
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This romance ends at the altar, but not at all as I expected. As for openings, Danini couldn’t be bothered to cook up a meet-cute. Instead, Michael (Giuseppe Bausilio, who played the lead in Broadway’s “Billy Elliot”) spies Anna (Julia Nightingale of “The Ferryman”) from across the room at a New York party and, after bombarding her with questions over the course of the night, concludes, “She will be my wife!”
What Michael, who’s smitten by Anna’s beauty, doesn’t realize is that she has daddy issues, a drug problem and, it would seem, a weakness for the kind of co-dependency he’s selling. The movie doesn’t psychoanalyze, though it’s fair to conclude that Anna’s looking for someone to give her the attention her father withheld. And lest we let him off easy, Michael’s a patriarchal Cro-Magnon who wants to “save” her — code for transforming Anna into the kind of trophy ideal he mistook her for at the outset. “Ode to Passion” presents this dynamic far more simplistically: She has addiction issues, and his concern alone won’t cut it. Or as best friends John (Jeff Smith) and Richy (Marcus Harmon) put it: “The girl gets around, if you get my drift.” / “You mean that she takes Uber, taxis and Lyft?”
While Michael and Anna are trying to sort out their feelings, the movie surrounds them with skeptics. In addition to John (Jeff Smith), a frustrated writer, there’s Anna’s roommate Alexa (Victoria Meade), described as a “bad influence,” but really a sexually empowered woman who has bigger dreams than any of them. The movie’s gender politics are retrograde at best, and I misread metrosexual John as gay for a good stretch of the movie (those pants!), only to conclude that his relationship is the more interesting one.
When a movie wears its heart on its sleeve like this, audiences must decide: Either embrace the sincerity and go along for the ride, or fall back on irony and sarcasm — in which case, “Ode to Passion” starts to look like this year’s “The Room,” a juicy target for cheap-shot jokes. Still, it’s hard not to admire what Danini and company have achieved. Yoo Soo Kim’s arrangements of the film’s 19 original songs sound great, even if only one or two — like the “Rent”-indebted “Afraid of Love” — are memorable enough to find a life beyond the film. And Darren Joe’s widescreen cinematography does more than just flatter the actors, finding dynamic ways to shoot in tough New York locations, including Times Square and the interior of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on the Upper West Side.
That’s the place where Danini’s film concludes.
More than two hours have passed, and countless moods.
Until now, it has hewed close to cliché.
Then bam! The script opts to go its own way.
What began with a priest saving a man,
Now ends with a struggle to understand.
As titles go, “Ode to Passion” feels rough,
Compared with “Elegy for Puppy Love.”