[Our thanks to Lauren Baggett for the following review.]
The premise is a promising one: in the midst of Beatlemania and the subsequent 'Group Sounds' craze of the late 1960's, a bullied record company employee and a former rockabilly star turned manager conspire to create a successful GS band. What they come up with are two out of work musicians, one overenthusiastic fanboy, and a tough teenager who wants to become a singer. Together, they form The Tightsmen, complete with cheesy fairy tale prince costumes (yes, complete with tights) and happy pop songs about nights in Venice and summer girls. They're an overnight sensation, complete with a brigade of swooning female fans, but The Tightsmen have one big problem: their perky heartthrob of a keyboard player is a girl in disguise. And everyone knows that there are no girls in rock and roll.
Sounds pretty fun, right? And for a while, GS WONDERLAND seems like it will be a pretty fun film. The movie has a lot of visual flair, with much care being taken to capture the culture and aesthetics of 1969 Japan (the costuming in particular is great). And The Tightsmen's smash debut single is ridiculously catchy. Alas, a great great theme song alone does not a good movie make. Unfortunately, the movie is unable to sustain itself past its initial premise, and what could have been an enjoyable retro romp becomes a disjointed disappointment.
True, the film hosts a variety of quirky characters, but whose story is this, really? Is it wannabe turned frontman Masao's? Is ambitious Miku (played by the always enjoyable Chiaki Kuriyama) our heroine? The movie doesn't follow either of them with enough intensity, so it's hard for the audience to care whether they succeed or fail. The other members of the cast are even sketchier, around more for plot convenience than character development. In its haste to rush us from plot point to plot point, GS WONDERLAND forgets to give us someone to really root for. I would have welcomed a stereotypical love story plot (romance is strangely absent in the world of GS WONDERLAND) if it had livened things up a bit.
The first two-thirds of GS WONDERLAND sparkles with bold period details and cute touches, but the humor never reaches a level beyond “moderately amusing”. All signs point to the possibility of an over the top comedic ending, but then things begin to take a drab, realistic turn in the last act. It's almost a cautionary tale about the impermanence of fame and the commodification of art, but then it isn't. It's almost a madcap romp with Chiaki Kuriyama looking adorable in menswear, but the secret identity subplot never reaches the dizzying peaks of, say, last year's adaptation of DETROIT METAL CITY.
A couple of the characters even get what they want at the end, but the tone of the film certainly doesn't feel triumphant. GS WONDERLAND could have been wonderful indeed, but in the end it just can't form a cohesive whole from its random parts.
Review by Lauren Baggett