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December 31, 2016
Did Richard Linklater Direct the Best Almost-Musical of 2016?

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Every couple of years, a new live-action American movie musical is released, and certain people go a little nuts, hoping against hope that the genre is at last making a true and lasting comeback. In 2016, of course, that film was the snazzy and elaborate La La Land—directed by Damien Chazelle­ and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

Unfortunately, one hit movie musical this year and another a year or two hence don’t exactly a Golden Age make.

Personally, I don’t think fans of the film musical should expect either a major revival or a complete extinction. I believe the spirit of the American film musical is alive and well. It’s just that sometimes you need to peek into some easily overlooked cinematic hidey-holes to find it. Earlier this year I discovered a title that I’d like to propose as Outstanding Quasi-Musical of 2016: Richard Linklater’s May release from Paramount, Everybody Wants Some!! (And, yes, those two exclamation marks are an official part of the title.)

Not all of director/writer Linklater’s films have depended heavily on a towering tunestack. His 1991 feature debut, Slacker, contained very little in the way of music. But with his hit 1993 film Dazed and Confused, Linklater began paying a great deal of attention to musical elements. A decade later, he would take things even further with School of Rock, which would eventually be transformed into a popular Broadway musical.

Like many filmmakers, Linklater uses songs at times to help evoke a particular time and place. And he’s a stickler about accuracy. According to IndieWire’s Kevin Jaggernauth, the director told the Toronto Star that he had wanted to use the Thin Lizzy song “The Boys Are Back in Town” in Dazed and Confused, to enhance a scene set precisely on May 28, 1976. But he discovered that “Boys” had not been released until June 4 of that year. He felt he couldn’t cheat, so the song stayed out of the movie.

The music in Dazed and Confused was part of its nostalgic appeal for audiences who came of age in the mid-1970s. Everybody Wants Some!! (set in late summer of 1980) has been dubbed a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed. But in Everybody the music is much more front-and-center. While the film’s songs—pop recordings of the day—aren’t always heard in full, they provide more than mere aural ambience. Characters in Everybody frequently interact with the music—often dancing to it, sometimes singing along with it. The staging, the cinematography, the editing, and, in one case, even the nonmusical sound effects all seem to be harnessed in service not just of the story, but also of the music itself. everybody_wants_some

Batter up

Everybody follows the antics of a baseball team at a fictional southeast Texas college. In a sense it’s a “sports movie”—although there are no big championship games depicted, and only one team practice session is shown. Linklater’s screenplay focuses on how an established college team brings newcomers—kids fresh out of high school—into the fold. And it explores the advantages and drawbacks of the teammates’ intense and unceasing competitiveness.

The film is also an homage to—as well as a departure from—the dozens of high-school and college sex comedies that flourished in American multiplexes in the 1980s. It’s appropriate that the events in Linklater’s script unfold in 1980, right between the release dates of the two granddaddies of all those raunchy flicks, Animal House (1978) and Porky’s (1982). It’s pretty clear what the “Some” in Everybody Wants Some!! refers to (hint: it’s not those challenging upper-division bio-chemistry courses recommended by the faculty advisor). But while the scenario includes a lot of fornication (and even more foiled plans to indulge in fornication), sex in the film here is depicted with more charm than smarm.

Part of this has to do with the nature of the protagonist, freshman pitcher Jake Bradford (the excellent Blake Jenner). Jake has a healthy sex drive, and apparently often hits home runs in the bedroom—but he is also a gentleman who doesn’t kiss and tell. He likes spending time with women outside the bedroom, too. And in any case, the female students are no slouches when it comes to sexual exploits. As Blake’s teammate Finnegan (Glen Powell) puts it: “This is college, Jake. The girls can be as big of sluts as the guys.” Put another way, everybody wants some (!!), regardless of gender. (Had Linklater set the film only a year or two later, the freewheeling approach to sex would likely have been curtailed—or at least tempered—by the reality of the emerging AIDS crisis.)

The film has an antecedent—though one Linklater may not have had in mind—in a sports movie that was also a sex-obsessed comedy and an actual musical: MGM’s Good News (1930), based on the 1927 Broadway hit, and remade in color in 1947. Filmed just before the notorious Hays Code brought a wave of censorship to American cinema, the 1930 Good News was not shy about depicting some fairly overt sexuality. The movie focused on members of a college football team. Unsurprisingly, the boys are hot to trot. But the movie’s co-eds can be just as aggressive—sometimes more so. As one liberated student, played by Bessie Love, remarks, “I’m not hard to get, but I’m hard to get away from.”

There’s some sexual swagger among the footballers in the 1947 version of the story (particularly in the “Be a Ladies Man” number, featuring Peter Lawford) that can be viewed as a precursor to the Casanova-ish posturing of the guys in Everybody Wants Some. On the other hand, the women in the 1947 Good News are portrayed as relatively chaste. With the Hays Code still in place and publication of the first of Alfred Kinsey’s shattering reports on American sexuality still a year away, it’s no surprise that the June Allyson character is not plotting to have casual hookups after she finishes up at her school library job.

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Play ball

Sex is in the mix from the opening moments of Everybody Wants Some!! It’s right there in the music blaring in Jake Bradford’s car as he drives into a sunny Texas town to begin his college career. The song is The Knack’s lyrically explicit “My Sharona.” This is a strong, exciting introductory sequence. At one point the camera swoops up gracefully to provide a wide shot of the car as it rolls down the street toward the campus. Once there, Jake feasts his eyes on some of the beauties that have arrived for the new semester, still attired in their skimpy summer outfits. He’s in deep clover.

Presently he stops at one of the two adjoining houses at which the baseball team bunks. He meets his teammates/housemates, two or three at a time. Some are rude and antagonistic, such as McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), a brash Burt Reynolds doppelganger who hates fellow pitchers. Others (including the affable Finnegan) are welcoming. It doesn’t take long before a group of the players, Jake included, are packed into a car to go searching for girls to invite to a party. They bop their heads and sing along with the irresistible number that’s playing in the car: The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (one of the first mainstream hip-hop hits ever). The teammates clearly know the song inside and out. They revel in the beat, in the quirky lyrics. They throw out some of their own improvisations—teasing asides to one another. Jake, wedged in the back seat, is not as animated during this scene as some of the older players, but he is clearly enjoying himself. The sequence is as joyful and as charged with energy as the most smartly choreographed production number in an honest-to-goodness musical.

Finnegan and the other players turn up their fast talk with the ladies, but they don’t have much luck. One poised young woman, named Beverly (Zoey Deutch), challenges them: “You all want to know the truth? I like the quiet guy in the back seat. In the middle.” Jake accepts the compliment in stride. He is clearly taken with Beverly, but he has also made points with the guys. “I’m already pulling in the groupies,” he jokes.

The film’s next several prolonged musical sequences take place at various dance venues where the players go to drink and find female playmates. Early on they visit a disco called The Sound Machine. Later they check out a country-and-western bar, where they ride the mechanical bull and dance to Eddie Rabbit’s “Drivin’ My Life Away” followed by the rollicking “Cotton-Eyed Joe” (Beau Smith). They answer back the caller on the latter number with the happy unison refrain of “Bullshit!” Finally, they are invited to a punk club, where they bust some mosh-pit moves to a thrashing rendition of the theme from Gilligan’s Island (performed by Riverboat Gamblers). Linklater’s decision to set the film in 1980 is a smart one, as the various genres of pop music then in vogue provide ample opportunities for the students to try on disparate personas. They’re happy for such chances—and happy, too, merely to be alive, young, and on their own. (The mood of the incoming college freshmen here is vastly different from that of the incoming high-school frosh in Dazed and Confused, who were in terror about the hazing they faced for much of the picture.)

Each of the dance scenes has explosive moments. At The Sound Machine Jake meets a potential hookup named Val (Dora Madison Burge). (Just because he’s had a significant moment with Beverly doesn’t mean he’s about to forgo some casual carnal sport.) The beckoning intro to Peaches and Herb’s “Shake Your Groove Thing” swells as Val sasses Jake: “Are you gonna ask me to dance, or are you just gonna stand there?” Not missing a beat, Jake responds, “I’m gonna ask you to dance.” The disco thump commences right on cue, and off Jake and Val go, their groove things in ready obeisance to the song’s title. The most beautifully filmed dance bit, though, is the country-and-western sequence. The sly, funny Glen Powell is front and center here. This actor has genuine star quality and is one of the big pleasures of the film. He’s also an amusingly suave dancer. (The other actors portraying the various ballplayers are all wonderfully cast. But special mention must go to Tanner Kalina, hilarious as a resilient freshman nerd who’s not about to let the taunts of the upperclassmen dampen his good humor.)

The final great “production number” of the film takes place on the baseball diamond as the players gather for their first practice of the school year. The song here is Devo’s iconic “Whip It.” If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the sounds of bat hitting ball and ball snapping into glove have been timed so that they enhance the percussive force of the song. It’s a wonderfully assembled scene. (Also, it’s a relief, at long last, to learn that these guys can, in fact, play baseball.)

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Extra inning

There are a few places in the movie where Linklater, for whatever reasons, misses the chance for effective musical embellishment. In an early sequence in which players pair off with their disco pickups for sexual frolic, the background music (Belle Epoque’s “Miss Broadway”) is somehow upstaged by the panorama of bare breasts and bums. In a scene in which the players visit the ol’ swimmin’ hole, there is no music at all. Apparently, the director wanted the bucolic scene to be accompanied only by the natural sounds of water splashing and voices shouting—and he may have made the right choice. The biggest disappointment involves scenes at a party hosted by Beverly’s fellow performing-arts-student friends. M’s “Pop Muzik” may have been a good musical choice for the setting, but the images onscreen during the number don’t have the same movement or excitement that can be found in the disco, country, and punk club scenes.

The very last part of the film deals with Jake and Beverly’s blossoming relationship. Deutch—playing the only significant female character in the movie— provides a much-needed break from all the testosterone-driven pranks and prattle. She’s effervescent and lovely. There are no especially noteworthy uses of music in the closing scenes of the picture. However, if you’re patient and wait until the very last minutes of the end credits, you’ll find a sweet Easter egg: a full-blown number called “Cherokee ChaChow,” that picks up on the spirit of “Rapper’s Delight” from earlier in the film. Each guy on the team gets his own verse. It’s a pleasingly raucous way for the movie to sign off.

Unfortunately, Everybody Wants Some!! did not perform at all well at the box office last spring. Rick Paulas of The Awl attributed this in part to a publicity campaign that misrepresented the picture. Perhaps audiences hoping for another feature in the more serious mode of Linklater’s Boyhood (nominated for a 2015 Best Picture Oscar) stayed away accordingly.

It’s a shame. There is real wit, style, drive and heart in this film. Everybody may well gain a legion of admirers on home screens and become the next Wet Hot American Summer. Regardless, if Linklater decides someday to attempt a full-tilt, old-style movie musical with the dimensions of a La La Land, that would indeed be some Good News.

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Written by: Mark Dundas Wood
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