I wish we lived in an era where movie musicals were produced more regularly. In the 21st century, you’re lucky to get two a year tops. There’s this assumption that unlike during the Golden Age of Hollywood, people don’t want to see musicals anymore even though there’s been major success with blockbusters likeHairspray, Mamma Mia, Les Mis etc. Thankfully, a small crop of indie musicals has been blossoming from the UK. God Help the Girl made my Top 10 of 2014 with its mod style and twee sound. John Carney’s Sing Street was a delightful gem from this year delivering some amazing pop throwbacks. London Road I’d place in equally high regard as it’s an unconventional take on the genre. It’s not theatrical or flamboyant though color plays a key role. There’s no belting tenors and screechy sopranos. It’s grounded and normal amidst an abnormal circumstance. Director Rufus Norris transports you to a quiet street in the suburbs of Ipswich that have a real problem on their hands and that problem is a serial killer.
You could describe London Road as The Office meets Serial with a dash of Sweeney Todd. The true story is that of serial killer Steven Wright who in 2006 murdered five sex workers in this town. Writers Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork compiled interviews by the citizens of Ipswich and turned their documented statements into songs. The narrative of this trial is gripping on its own so adding this extra layer of brilliance that is finding a way to put melody with these testimonies is icing on the cake. Norris very much embraces the documentary style but makes sure to utilize the visual medium. We open with interviews of whom would become the key characters living on London Road; single mother Julie (Olivia Colman), macho loner Dodge (Paul Thornley) and various couples ranging from young, middle age to retired. Throughout the film, we return to these living room interviews as each person gives their hot take as the plot unfolds. In between we venture into the market, the courthouse and the water tower that solidifies the city’s atmosphere. The beginning kicks off with the discovery of the fifth victim and is downright gloomy. Norris utilizes a desaturated palette as Dodge walks past the Christmas Shops which are decorated with ornaments and Santa hats yet sits in an air of gloom. These darks days are when we hear the first (and the best) of the musical numbers; the chorus of newscasters reporting on the incident to the synchronized choreography of shoppers for “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” and the catchiest song “It Could Be Him” sung by giggling teenage girls with a touch of techno beat. You are smartly eased into the singing with the opening number where reporters words are harmonized to a beat. Because the lyrics are adapted from regular speech (meaning no rhyme scheme in place) it’s a peculiar kind of music. It’s not talking but also not the full figured numbers we’re accustomed to.
All this plays into the charm about a movie concerning everyday people. All the characters have some kind of quirk especially the couple who either look alike or have developed idiosyncrasies with each other. Most importantly they appear very average, not drop dead gorgeous Broadway stars, all making this scenario feel more believable. Each character is interesting on their own but the shock of a killer living on their street and the disarray they find their neighborhood brings them together as Julie and portly Ron (Nick Holder) organize a gardening competition. As the springtime event gets underway color returns to the screen as the drab grays of winter fade away. What isn’t healed are the lives of the prostitutes who are considered a blemish on this town. The tone of the film often leans towards comedic that even in these terrible circumstances Norris finds instances for physical comedy like a woman getting caught in police tape or a local reporter who can’t repeat his copy correctly. With all this humor their lies a sourness as we watch this town rise from the ashes. In the early interviews, characters remark on how discussed they are by the streetwalkers who have migrated onto their road as urban sprawl has grown. The disdain in their words is biting as they have no sympathy for these women’s plight or any interest in helping them. The girls’ dreary tune “We’ve All Stopped” that details their inability to work due to higher police presence is heartbreaking as the actresses look dejected in their tight stockings and oversized hoodies. The achievements of the gardens that brighten the small homes are bittersweet as the prostitutes watch longingly, still ostracized and discarded by the community.
You may have gotten this far in my review and be thinking “why hasn’t she brought up movie star/sweetheart-baby-angel Tom Hardy? He’s on the poster so obviously the lead.” I give this movie the same note that I give all movies which is “NOT. ENOUGH. HARDY.” I’m sorry if the marketing duped you as it did me because there is only a single, five-minute scene with him as a taxi driver who theorizes on the identity of the killer. Besides being gorgeous, he’s perfect at playing an absolute creep which makes me wonder why he hasn’t played more mass murderers. It’s strong performances all around as we’re immersed into these residents lives. It’s a musical by the people for the people as these cockney, blue collar workers recount a piece of their country’s history in song. I don’t want to call a movie about a murderer cute but it’s fascinating to have a character-driven musical with little to no spectacle and have it turn out so well. They’re not songs that you’ll want to perform at karaoke night like Hamilton but it’s outstanding as one cohesive body. If England can keep delivering indies like these, my yearly Top 10 will be completely set.