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  Original Cast Album: Company Take 20
Year: 1970
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Stars: Stephen Sondheim, Elaine Stritch, Dean Jones, Barbara Barrie, Charles Braswell, Susan Browning, George Coe, John Cunningham, Steve Elmore, George Furth, Haroild Hastings, Beth Howland, George Kimbrough, Merle Louise, Donna McKechnie, Harold Prince
Genre: Musical, DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: In 1970, composer Stephen Sondheim was enjoying the most acclaim of his career for his stage musical Company, a satirical take on modern relationships between men and women that spoke to the contemporary audience. But as with many musicals, a cast recording was deemed necessary for both publicity, profit and posterity, and the documentarian D.A. Pennebaker was invited to record this studio performance as the pilot for a proposed series of television shows on the creation of cast recordings. Although the series was never made, this film has fascinated Sondheim fans ever since...

And do not mess with Sondheim fans, if they do not like what has been done with the great man's material then woe betide the talents who have, in their view, messed it up. Company was one of those legendary indicators that musicals were moving beyond moon and June to a more sophisticated form, not that there had not been sophisticated shows before 1970, but now it came across as if a benchmark had been reached. So there was a lot at stake to fashion a document of laying down those tracks with full orchestra and cast, in a session that lasted from daytime to the wee small hours of the morning.

As Pennebaker says in his opening crawl, he would listen to the musicians and performers deliver what to his ears sounded absolutely remarkable renditions of the songs, only to have Sondheim dismiss them as not up to snuff. The album that resulted is regarded as a classic of the soundtrack format, so he must have been right to demand perfection where most listeners would not have heard any flaws, and he is not a whip-cracking slavedriver, but his quiet, chainsmoking presence, cognisant of the cameras in the room so it would not be good for his image if he lost his temper, remained a steady, powerful presence of quality control.

This was, as the title states, the original cast so Dean Jones, best known for his Disney movies, was still with them. He would leave the show shortly after, apparently uncomfortable with his confidence levels on the stage, and you can certainly see that here, as while Pennebaker preferred to sketch in his subjects' personalities with short clips and soundbites, it is clear Jones is unhappy being requested to stay on as the hour approaches midnight and his voice weakens, in his opinion (to be fair, not an unreasonable point of view). But if there was one diva here who truly caught the limelight, it was the comeback queen Elaine Stritch, whose tussles with the song Ladies Who Lunch take up most of the end of the film.

Although to the untrained ear it sounds as if Stritch is serving up a perfectly good performance, Sondheim and the team in the booth are not happy, and keep on at her to push further, with the result she had something close to a meltdown. Now, she doesn't break down in tears, and there is the suspicion that she is all too aware of the cameras and is playing up her anger at not nailing the tune, but it provided the explosive finale the director needed. Pennebaker did not employ the talking heads style to illuminate his subject as would be the case with works made decades later, this was pure documentary in that we feel as if we are in the room and pick up on the tensions and triumphs through the behaviour of those we are watching. Of course it helps to be a Sondheim fan, and the layperson was not going to get as much out of Company, but witnessing that grinding workload purely to get it all just right was compelling. And they every one of them accept this ordeal as another day at the office.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with these features:

New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by Chris Hegedus and Nate Pennebaker, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New audio commentary by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim
Audio commentary from 2001 featuring director D. A. Pennebaker, actor Elaine Stritch, and Broadway producer and director Harold Prince
New conversation among Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and critic and television producer Frank Rich
New interview with Tunick on the art of orchestrating, conducted by author Ted Chapin
Never-before-heard audio excerpts from interviews with Stritch and Prince, conducted by D. A. Pennebaker and Hegedus in 2001
"Original Cast Album: 'Co-Op,'" a 2019 episode of the TV series Documentary Now! that parodies the film
Reunion of the cast and crew of "Original Cast Album: 'Co-Op'" recorded in 2020, featuring director Alexander Buono; writer-actor John Mulaney; actors Renee Elise Goldsberry, Richard Kind, Alex Brightman, and Paula Pell; and composer Eli Bolin
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by author Mark Harris]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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