London Road is a very hard sell. If I were to tell you that this is a British docu-drama about a small town’s reaction to the real-life serial murders of five prostitutes in 2006, I’m sure you’d say “if only it had show-stopping musical numbers!” Well you’re in luck, because London Road is also a rock opera! And as absolutely insane as that sounds, it really does work, and makes for a movie that defies definition.
Based on the National Theater’s stage play of the same name, London Road tells the story of the citizens of Ipswich as they react to the brutal killings in their neighborhood. The script is written verbatim, with the songs built around the natural pauses and speech patterns of the actual person being interviewed. On stage, the cast is very small, with each actor taking on multiple roles, whereas the film takes the more conventional route of having a different actor play each individual Ipswich resident. This makes it much easier to accept, as the play’s concept probably would not have carried over well to film. Unfortunately, this decision means that high-profile actors (like Tom Hardy) have one song and then leave. More often than not, though, it makes really good choices in its adaptation, and manages to appropriately translate what is an inherently theatrical idea to the screen.
London Road handles music in a way I’ve never seen in a movie before. While it does take some time to get into the opera-style songs, once you do manage to accept this unusual sound you appreciate what it’s doing for the story. These are the actual thoughts of people living in the center of a crisis, but set to a hard rocking score. It’s fascinating and handled incredibly well. The way director Rufus Norris stages these musical numbers makes them feel like David Fincher music videos; brilliant choreography communicating a sense of paranoia, all drenched in grays and blacks. Of course, not all of these moments land, as there are several instances where the musical-interview style just doesn’t quite work the way I imagine it did in a play.
Musical theater can allow for a great deal of abstract staging. Since you’re already imagining so much of what’s being represented onstage, the songs don’t literally have to be happening in reality. This experimental style is really only matched onscreen in more avant-garde films. Since London Road tends to mostly steer into a more realistic and grounded style, when it does hit moments from the source material that are more abstract, the film struggles. For example, the news reporters’ song is sung in a round, with each newscaster finishing their verse and then starting over again, singing on top of each other. On stage you wouldn’t question a scene like this. It would just be accepted as a theatrical representation of the moment. The movie, however, felt the need to justify the reporters repeating the same sentences, and turned the first several verses into shots of them rehearsing or warming up. This scene came off as awkward to me, like it was trying to make up for its own style as opposed to playing into it.
Overall, I thought London Road did a very good job handling its difficult subject matter and genre. Much better than reason says it should have been, London Road is a fascinating take on both musicals and fact-based dramas, with thrilling and heartbreaking songs left and right.