"Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" runs roughly twice the length of your average episode of "Glee."
It features a couple dozen songs, performed by the show's 14 main high school characters.
It also has three main narrative threads featuring characters -- real people, actually -- we've never seen before.
Plumes of smoke gush from all parts of a vast stage.
Stroboscopic lighting effects make epileptics one disenfranchised group not welcomed into the "Glee" big tent.
There are interviews with countless "Glee" fans and confusing backstage conversations with the stars, who sometimes seem to be in character, but sometimes don't.
And it's still the least cluttered installment of "Glee" in nearly two years.
Emmy and Golden Globe wins aside, "Glee" has become a storytelling nightmare, a perpetually overextended hodge-podge of inconsistent characters, tonally jarring mean-spiritedness and thematic dissonance. For every masterfully choreographed production number or cheeky mash-up, viewers have to suffer through whole segments of emotionally manipulative tripe or, even worse, segments starring Matthew Morrison. A streamlined, effective episode of "Glee" has become as rare as an episode of "True Blood" without toplessness (male or female).
Directed by "Fame" veteran Kevin Tancharoen, "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" isn't really great cinema and it plays more as a straight-up, hastily tossed-together money-grab than an opportunity to welcome fans who couldn't make it to the show's recent concert tour, but I still came away oddly pleased. This is a version of "Glee" stripped of most of what annoys me about FOX's "Glee."
There's no Mr. Schuester rapping and dancing and concocting random theme weeks and generally doing absolutely nothing to prepare the glee club for regionals/states/nationals. [And, as a result, there's no woefully integrated Mr. Schuester romance featuring Terri or Emma or anybody else.]
There's no Sue Sylvester, earning big laughs, but also making every single episode only about her and her alleged audacity.
There are no love triangles of any kind, so you don't need to pretend that Cory Monteith has chemistry with either Lea Michele or Dianna Agron, much less pretend you're invested in which way his libido leads him.
Mostly, "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" is just pretty young people singing, with a very clear-eyed, uncluttered empowerment message behind it. For the uninitiated, this will feel more like an Up With People showcase or a terrifyingly engaged cult rally, but I found this to be a "Glee" that was mostly far preferable to the real thing.
[More after the break...]
If you were to sit in my living room watching "Glee" on a weekly basis, the comment you'd hear most would be, "Stop talking and SING." That's also a thread that runs through my notes for "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie," though the balance is closer to ideal.
Three "real" stars are introduced in "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie." There's a college-aged guy who admires Kurt and wishes he had that sort of role model when he was forced out of the closet in junior high. There's a girl with Aspergers who admires Brittany and has used "Glee" as a catalyst to open herself up to a previously unimagined world of social interaction. And then there's a peppy cheerleader who doesn't view herself as an outsider thanks to "Glee" and whose reason for otherwise doubting her place in the mainstream is treated almost as a punchline/twist. All three stories are accompanied by tear-jerking honesty and by the easily distillable theme: Without "Glee" our lives would be horrible, but thanks to "Glee" our lives are awesome. Depending on your temperament, you'll either find the stories to be inspirational, or you'll find them disingenuously self-congratulatory. I actually went back and forth.
The "Glee" Changed Our Lives message also continues in a series of kinda off-the-cuff interviews in the parking lot of the live show's New Jersey engagements. One thing you'll notice is that while the talking heads all exist in the "real" world, they all couch the inspirational qualities of "Glee" within the show's fictional universe. Thus, everybody is grateful for the contributions of their favorite characters, but nobody has any praise for any individual actors.
This continues in the backstage footage, in which the actors are asked to behave in character, but they appear not to have been given any coaching or faux-improvised dialogue. The result is a weirdly mixed bag. Kevin McHale -- errrr... "Artie" -- is allowed to ramble nervously, despite never landing on a punchline. Heather Morris and Lea Michele -- errrr... "Brittany" and "Rachel" -- on the other hand, effortlessly inhabit their characters. Michele/Rachel's non-verbal reaction to the news that Barbra Streisand might be in the audience is, oddly, perhaps the truest emotional moment in the entire semi-documentary. Because Darren Criss' Blaine is an outsider, he gets to be introspective about the whole experience in a way that sounds mostly like Darren Criss, though he stops short of ever calling the thing that's touched the lives of so many people "a TV show." The entire illusion is a weird one, since the people in the audience are definitely there to see characters from a TV show, but if the people backstage are pretending that they're really the characters and not the actors in character, I can't fathom the plot developments that led to New Directions performing for packed arenas. There are just layers upon layers of disbelief to be suspended here and "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" keeps opening new holes in the suspension, rather than glossing over silly logic questions.
That's why "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie," like "Glee" itself, gets cumbersome when people are talking and why, like "Glee" itself, it comes to life when the chatter stops and the singing begins.
"Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" doesn't really simulate the experience of actually being at a concert. Whatever momentum or flow might have existed for the order and presentation of different show-stopping numbers, it's gone now. Tancharoen might be presenting the songs backwards for all I'd know and if there was a logic to how the show was built, you'll never get an inkling. The movie was seemingly shot at only one or two dates, an unacknowledged fact that adds to the slapped-together feeling.
Tancharoen's main stylistic choice is to concentrate simultaneously on intimidate camera access to the song-and-dance performances themselves, mixed with the impact the performances are having on the enraptured crowd. I don't know if the presence of 3D benefits the movie beyond the scope you might have gotten from, say, "Glee: The IMAX Concert Movie," but sometimes the swaying audience or the multi-tiered chorus lines are given a nice depth of field. The backstage footage and "real" people interviews aren't in 3D at all, I don't think.
The vocals all have the same over-produced polish as the music numbers on the show, which means that disappointingly, this movie won't be the great differentiator you might have hoped for in clarifying which of the "Glee" stars have real Broadway-style chops and which have been the greatest beneficiaries of the "Glee" musical directors.
There are definitely "Glee" stars who benefit from this showcasing.
It's no surprise that Lea Michele stands out as a clear superstar. She's always been the show's best vocalist. The pleasant surprise is that if you don't have to deal with Rachel Berry's inherent obnoxiousness, Michele's gifts shine through even more vividly. Michele's Streisand-perfect "Don't Rain on My Parade" was a showstopper within the series, but it's even better here, because Lea Michele's natural performing energy is vastly less toxic than Rachel's. Even if Michele is somewhat in character, she's enough of a professional that if you put her in front of a live audience, the entertaining instinct supersedes the acting instinct. It has to be Michele's energy that lifts her performances within the film, because like so many of the "Glee" stars, her ability to handle live choreography is limited to running around the stage and jumping up and down.
The biggest "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" standouts, then, are the multi-hyphenates.
It took a while, but the "Glee" producers finally recognized Heather Morris as a secret and then not-so-secret weapon last season. One person who didn't need to be convinced is Tancharoen, whose camera is drawn to Morris even in the numbers where she's only a featured dancer. And when Morris gets her big moment, covering Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U," the result is my favorite song in the whole film and not just because Morris is almost unnervingly sexy in 3D (in character, Brittany is giddy that her breasts "look really good" in 3D and she's not wrong). It's just a great synthesis of performer, performance and medium and I have a feeling Russ Meyer would be very pleased. I've often said that I'd happily watch "The Brittany S. Pierce Show" and hopefully the film will be a gateway for that eventuality.
Also getting a big bump is Criss, whose Blaine only joined the cast this past season. Criss only appears in a three-song Warblers bridge in the middle of the film, but he has the sort of star-is-born charisma that ought to have Broadway producers booking his appearances years out. Criss has a terrific voice and he moves well, but what's more notable is the enjoyment he's taking in galvanizing the crowd. Several of the "Glee" stars make even the live performances look easy. Criss makes it look like he's putting in the effort and you can see him sweating and straining, but doesn't come across as desperation, but rather as the exertion of somebody who cares enough to bring the audience on a journey with him.
Also delivering strong numbers are Mark Salling, Kevin McHale (deserving extra praise for navigating the ramped stage in his wheelchair), Naya Rivera and Harry Shum Jr., who doesn't get vocal solos, but dances up a storm.
If some stars shine in this medium, others fall a bit flatter.
You have to wait a long time to hear Chris Colfer sing in the movie and when he does, you realize that as likable as he is even on the big stage, what's special about Kurt is based on the character Colfer has developed over two seasons. His acting sells his singing and without being able to act, the context-dependent isolated songs suffer.
And although nobody is going to question Amber Riley's pipes, her stand-and-wail approach doesn't fit with Tancharoen's desired aesthetic. So when Riley and Rivera duet on "River Deep, Mountain High," on one hand you have Riley singing her heart out, but doing nothing more than jumping a little, while on the other hand, you have Rivera singing a smidge effectively, but prowling the stage in a tight green mini-skirt and knee-high boots practically doing the Snoopy dance. It's no surprise who gets most of the camera time and you can't really begrudge Tancharoen for the choice he makes.
The most unfortunate victim is Dianna Agron, whose only meaningful contribution to the movie is her duet on "Lucky" with Chord Overstreet. I'm confident that Agron will be one of the show's breakout stars, but this -- musical/variety/ensemble -- isn't the sort of star she's going to be. I almost feel sad that FOX forced her to be a spare part on this summer tour, when she probably could have been playing the female lead in one or two bad movies.
On an unrelated note, Tancharoen may not do a good job capturing the progression of a live "Glee" show, but he leaves no question of the amount of work all of these kids had to put into touring for the second consecutive summer. FOX and Ryan Murphy have basically enslaved these kids for over two years and it's my assumption that the intensity and intimacy of the "Glee" factory has probably been off the charts. I look forward to seeing which disgruntled "Glee" veteran will be the first to get the chance to write a tell-all memoir about this experience, because I'm thinking the behind-the-scenes stories are bananas.
Although I saw "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" at a critics' screening, several writers brought kids, so I know with certainty that this is a movie that will play to the show's younger core demos. I think there's probably an older audience that enjoys the cattiness and campiness that won't respond to the roof-raising sincerity that takes center stage for these 83 minutes.
Me? I went in expecting to suffer. "Glee" gives me headaches and 3D gives me headaches, so I was pretty much settled in for an evening with Advil. Instead, I found the 3D-ness and the "Glee"-ness equally painless. "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" is closer to the "Glee" I'd want on a weekly basis than the "Glee" I get on a weekly basis, which a conclusion that constitutes a rave review, but it has some merit.
"Glee: The 3D Concert Movie" opens on Friday, August 12. It's supposed to run for only two weeks, but if it's a massive hit, you can bet 20th Century Fox will wring some additional money from it.