Film & Television

‘Last Christmas,’ An Imperfectly Satisfying Holiday Treat

For the past couple of decades, Broadway has been overrun by “jukebox musicals.” (The trend actually started years before, but has definitely picked up steam.) Rather than risk millions on a show with original music, producers often choose to go with a known entity, like — for example — the catalog of Billy Joel (Movin’ Out), the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys), Green Day (American Idiot), Carole King (Beautiful), the Go-Gos (Head Over Heels), or, most recently, Cher (The Cher Show) and Tina Turner (Tina: The Musical). These productions present the dedicated theater-goer with an ethical conundrum. Their success makes it more difficult for original shows to get produced, which is a shame. But they are often toe-tappingly entertaining. 

This year, the jukebox musical approach has moved into the multiplex as film after film has featured popular music that we already know and probably love. Two acclaimed biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocket Man, tell the respective stories of Freddie Mercury and Elton John through their own music. One fantastical rom-com, Yesterday, is set to the unforgettable (except in the film, which revolves around the idea of mass amnesia) music of the Beatles. Mamma Mia II  is built on the runaway success of Mamma Mia! and the vast catalog of ABBA. And another, Blinded by the Light, is a coming-of-age story set to the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen.

The latest contribution to this phenomenon is Last Christmas. It’s a jukebox musical based on popular songs by the late George Michael, crossed with a “meet-cute,” opposites-attract rom-com, crossed with Dickens’s Christmas Carol and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, plus every holiday movie that’s already in heavy rotation on basic cable channels. As such, it’s a bit of a mash-up (and not always in a good way). It’s also genuinely heartwarming and adorable. It’s very much the kind of movie that gets lukewarm (to lousy) reviews but leaves audiences feeling quite satisfied and even a bit weepy.

Last Christmas was in development for eight years before finally hitting cinemas this month. It began when producer David Livingstone approached Michael about creating a holiday movie based on Wham’s 1984 hit “Last Christmas.” Michael agreed, with a provision: only if Emma Thompson would write it. At first, she was hesitant. “‘Last Christmas’ is not my favorite song,” she admitted to Entertainment Weekly. But she and her husband (actor Greg Wise) came up with a treatment that she describes as “an interesting, sideways way of telling a different kind of story about the human heart.” She sent her concept to Michael — who loved it — and then worked closely with him to flesh it out, adding more of his songs, as well as an important plotline about a homeless shelter. “He was passionate about homelessness,” Thompson remembers. “He had this great social conscience.”

The project was put on hold when the singer died suddenly at the age of 53. “There was nothing specifically holding us up except respect,” Livingstone recalled in an interview with the New York Post. “Then George’s manager, with the blessing of the family, came back to us and said, ‘What happened to that film?'” Permission was also granted for the use of a previously unreleased song, “This is How (We Want You to Get High),” which runs during the film’s credits.

Thompson, who wrote the script for Last Christmas with Bryony Kimmings, approached director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), who agreed only because she asked him to. They brought in Emilia Clarke (best known as Game of Thrones‘s “mother of dragons”) and Henry Golding (the dashing hero of Crazy Rich Asians) as the leads, with supporting players including Thompson herself, and the magnificent Michelle Yeoh (also from Crazy Rich Asians).

The movie opens in 1999, in a church in Yugoslavia where a preteen Katarina (Madison Ingoldsby) sings a lovely choral rendition of Michael’s “Heal the Pain.” Her adoring parents (Petra and Ivan) hang on her every note, while her sister Marta rolls her eyes. The family, we learn, flees to London, where grown Katarina, now “Kate” (Clarke) and Marta (Lydia Leonard) attempt to build proper English lives. Petra (Thompson, very funny) lives in fear that they will be forced to move again, and Ivan (Boris Isakovic), who was a lawyer in Yugoslavia, drives a minicab.



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