I saw the new Saturday’s Warrior yesterday. Saw an 11:30 am screening, on a weekday, and the theater was mostly full. The Warrior phenomenon continues; 42 years, and it still packs ’em in. The movie is attractively shot and energetically acted, under the able direction of Michael Buster. There are a few new songs, mostly pretty good ones, and if older songs from the stage version have been cut, I didn’t miss them. The screenplay, by Buster and Heather Ravarino, has taken the original book, and with a few nips and tucks, trimmed and humanized it. Some characters are a bit more dimensional and interesting, and the Flinders’ family dynamic borders on believable. In other words, the inevitable changes needed to turn a stage musical into a movie were well conceived and executed, the music was generally well performed, and to the extent that Warrior works on stage, the movie worked better.
I know; this is all pretty grudging praise. I went to the theater expecting to enjoy myself, wanting to enjoy myself, thinking that after 42 years, my issues with the text would have dissipated. This turned out not to be the case. I found it a depressing, dispiriting experience. I left the theater feeling, as I have felt previously, the profoundest alienation from my own culture. It’s a musical about a Mormon family, about Mormon theology (or at least, Mormon folk theology), about Mormon culture. I’m a Mormon. I live in Provo, Utah; I taught for twenty years at BYU. And I recognized the familiarity of the conventions and constructs the text utilized. (Heck, I could sing, without prompting, every song in the show, except the new ones. Every P-Day on my mission, every single P-day. . .)
I’m a Mormon,. And nothing in that show is me.
(Crap. I’m doing it again. In 1974, my freshman year at BYU, my family home evening group went to Spanish Fork High School, and saw Warrior, then in its first professional run. And I was such an obnoxious jerk about it in the car home, I was never invited to another FHE activity the rest of the year. Dang. I don’t, I really don’t, want to be that guy.)
All right. Saturday’s Warrior begins in the pre-existence, with a terrific gospel song sung by Alex Boye. Boye is, as always, effervescent and charming, and while I missed the ‘who are these children coming down’ opening, I thought the new opening worked fine. And the various characters, pre-earth spirits, excitedly guess where they’re going and what it’s going to be like, and they make commitments to each other: ‘we’re going to meet and fall in love,’ and ‘I will be your big brother and look out for you.’ Okay, that’s popular Mormon folk doctrine (not the pre-earth existence stuff, which is canonical, but the ‘we met and fell in love there’ romantic version), and I don’t personally happen to believe it. It strikes me as predestinate. I especially loathe the notion that our decisions in the preexistence directly and specifically impact our mortal probations, and I especially dislike it in a text set in 1974. Although this is in no way implied in Warrior, it strikes me as a tiny baby step away from the fence-sitters heresy (which must itself be the subject of a much longer post). Still, I don’t mind a Mormon text that’s, let’s say, theologically adventurous. I’ve written a few myself (though that approach works better if employed transgressively).
In other words, my response to the ‘does Warrior preach false doctrine’ question would be ‘I don’t care.’ It’s built on a foundation of popular folk doctrine. That’s fine; it’s a work of imaginative fiction. I don’t actually believe in Hogwarts either, though I’d kill to teach there.
Now, I could take issue with this: Tod (Mason Davis), and Julie (Monica Moore Smith) pre-existently commit to find each other over on this side of the veil, and be together forever. Except Tod’s born in California, and isn’t LDS, while Julie is a Flinders, living in Colorado, and über-Mormon. Theirs’s the main romance in the piece. Okay, so Elders Kestler and Greene (Clint Pulver and Morgan Gunter, respectively, and as annoying in the movie as they were in the play) meet and teach Tod in San Francisco, and it turns out Julie is Kestler’s old girlfriend, so she meets him at the airport, and Tod comes with him (I mean, why would he?) for some unaccountable reason, so then they meet. And it’s all happily happily. My only problem with it is that Tod was this very cool hippie/guru/painter dude, who gets my favorite song in the show, a big age-of-Aquarius number set (I think), in Golden Gate Park. With the Piano guys! So what on earth would an awesome flower child like Tod see in a drip like Julie? I can’t see that they would have anything at all in common. But that’s a minor quibble. Plus: romantic attraction, who knows?
But, of course, that’s not the main conflict in the play or in the film. The protagonist is Jimmy Flinders (Kenny Holland), the oldest son in the Flinders clan. It’s a prodigal son story.
In the movie (and I applaud this change), the Flinderses are musicians. Adam Flinders (Brian Neal Clark) is the paterfamilias. The family has a kind of Partridge Family-like act they perform around town, and Dad also gives music lessons. We sense how non-lucrative all that is; the family home is smallish, and Jimmy shares a bedroom with multiple siblings. Terri, the Mom (Alison Akin Clark) is expecting their eighth child. Of course they all love each other, but we also see family tensions, child brattiness, too many people in too tight a space without enough money. What holds them together is music. And Mormonism. And by ‘Mormonism’ I don’t just mean religion; I mean a series of cultural considerations. One of which is, frankly, the expectation that we have large families; lots of children. Because there’s always one more waiting in the pre-existence. (Folk doctrine, folks. Not canonical).
So it makes sense that Jimmy not only is the star of the family band, he’s got his own side project too, a band called Warrior, with his best friend Mack (Carlton Bluford). Mack’s been reading Paul Ehrlich, about population growth, and Jimmy and Mack write a song together, Zero Population. Which they perform in public (desperately offending Ma and Pa Flinders). But which also gets them a record deal, with Capitol. And a west coast tour. It’s their big hit. And Jimmy, as good-looking lead singer/lead guitarists for popular rock bands who suddenly come into money tend to do, gets into drugs. Also groupies. Including, it seems, Mack’s girlfriend. Which Mack is surprisingly chill about.
So that’s all plausible, I suppose, and it makes for a strong central conflict, especially the drug stuff. His one connection to his family is phone calls with his crippled twin sister Pam (Anna Daines, probably the strongest actor in the cast). And yet, simultaneously, it’s not remotely credible. Because ‘Zero Population’ is such a ridiculous song.
Think about it. An earnest, preachy, on-the-nose song about a political issue like zero population growth becomes this massive Top 40 hit. (We even see a That Thing You Do montage, showing it climbing the charts). It’s not that rock can’t be political; see, for example, Muse, or Rage Against the Machine. Or Bob Dylan, or CCR. Many many many protest songs about Vietnam. Or something like Neil Young’s Ohio. Zero Population just isn’t the right kind of political song to be a big hit. It’s about a limited, fringe issue. It’s obnoxiously sermonizing. And it’s bad poetry. And it’s. . . .
I’ll tell you what it is. Zero Population is one of those issues conservatives imagine liberals embrace. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb is the kind of book that conservatives like hating. And I suppose it’s possible that, in 1974, some liberals somewhere quoted it positively–though I was an insanely political aware 18 year old in 1974, and I never heard of it until P. J. O’Rourke made fun of it in the ’80s. Ask me, though, as a card-carrying liberal, if I think the planet is over-populated, and I’d probably say ‘yes.’ Ask me what we should do about it, and I have no idea. I do have four children. Because that’s the number of children my wife and I decided to have.
It’s such a bad song, and it’s so central to the plot, that it warps the whole text. And there’s no middle ground possible in this story. The turning point in the film is Jimmy’s refusal to sing his one big hit, at which point he returns to his family. That’s the implication: to repent, he has to embrace everything his family stands for, including their politics. The notion that he and his father might agree to disagree–“Look, this is what I believe about population growth, but I still love all my siblings, and also thanks for helping me kick my drug habit, Dad”–is just impossible in the world of this text.
I was glad that the film chose to depict Mack as a decent guy, instead of pure villainy. I’m glad that Jimmy’s conflict included something real, like drug abuse. By trimming around the edges, Buster made the film stronger than the play. Some of the songs are pretty, if you don’t mind Carpenters/Bread/Harry Chapin soft rock. I went to the movie hoping to come to terms with a piece of Mormon culture that I’ve struggled with. As you can see, that didn’t happen.
Here’s what I do believe: you can be a good, active, believing, practicing Latter-day Saint, and still be a liberal, still like hard rock and gangsta rap, love R-rated movies and television, and still support such political causes as, I suppose, zero population growth or gay rights or a woman’s right to choose. Or global warming. And not believe in any of a variety of pre-existence folk doctrines. That’s where I stand. And, sadly, that seems to place me in opposition to a well-intentioned piece of popular Mormon culture like Warrior. But I’d rather not think that way. Michael Buster is a friend of mine, and so is Doug Stewart. (So, for that matter, is Carlton Bluford). I wish the movie well. I was glad to see the house so full. I’m just not part of its audience. And that’s okay too.