Movie Review: Stages

CD Reviews

This summer, Dan Purcell and the guys from Ithacappella unveiled Stages, a short film based on the a cappella group’s music. Mark Farnum and Josh Toomey share writing credits with Purcell; Farnum and Green Street Productions are credited as producers.
We live in an age when a cappella groups are consistently evolving their presentation. Whether its seamless competition sets that weave songs together continuously, albums with pristine production, or professional grade music videos, the bar has risen for groups aiming to make waves on the national scene. Remarkably enough, in a time when it may seem as though everything has been done, Stages reveals new layers of potential for what a cappella music can do and be.

First, and perhaps most obviously, the narrative of Stages is so impactful. Despite not including any dialogue beyond the lyrics of the songs covered in the film, the group nonetheless tells a clear and powerful story of loss and recovery. The title refers to the stages of grief. Accordingly, the films starts with denial, as portrayed with the wild debauchery of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” featuring images of alcoholic revelry as the reluctant protagonist, portrayed by Johnny Shea, progresses from despondency to a drunken stupor. Justin Timberlake’s “Only When I Walk Away” conveys a fiery portrayal of anger, in which the protagonist gets pummeled over and over again with flashes of his past. While the first two stages were effective, the film really clicked into gear for me on Bastille’s “Pompeii”—the stage of bargaining—in which Purcell shrewdly intersperses the present moment and flashbacks, pivoting on the lyrics, “if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” At this stage of the film we begin to get extended glimpses of what the protagonist has lost and how, conveyed through quintessential girl next door Halle George. The depression stage, set in a graveyard, featuring A Great Big World’s “Say Something,” may be the most heavy handed segment of the film, but is, nonetheless, a compelling emotional nadir for the production, showing the protagonist at his lowest. (My only real knock on this segment of the film is that it does muddy the waters a bit as to whether this film is the narrative of a break up or a death.) At this point, the group slides right into Mumford and Sons’ “Timshel,” a brilliant choice for both careful, purposeful musical flow and to communicate the sensation of acceptance.

The visuals of Stages are consistently stunning, featuring crystal clear cinematography and clever staging and cuts for a film that is, interestingly enough, is almost equally compelling to watch on mute as it is to listen to. “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Only When I Walk Away” play like the most straight forward contemporary a cappella music videos, and do an artful job in that capacity. Just the same, I have to return to “Timshel” as the apex of the film, using grainier footage to communicate flashbacks, and most clearly articulating the best and worst moments of the protagonist’s broken relationship. Little less powerful, the visuals of “Timshel,” particularly the setting and the disappearance and reappearance of group members made the most artful use of music video technology to enhance the music and the broader narrative. I’ve written a great deal about how purposeful movement to complement a live a cappella performance is so much more impactful than overly literal or over-choreographed movement for the sake of movement. In a comparable vein, the way in which members of Ithacappella come and go throughout this segment of the film feels a lot like the way in which friend, families, and at times the least likely people in a human’s life can come back “into frame” to show us we’re “not alone in this” when we need it most. It’s moments like this at which the film transcends, graduating from very good music video to a lovely statement on the human experience. Not too shabby for a college a cappella group.

And then there is the music itself of Stages. Ithacappella has been a fixture among the elite ranks of all-male collegiate a cappella over the last decade, and the musical offerings of this film only build upon that legacy. Yes, Ithacappella can do big, bold, all-male sound. Far more impressive and distinctive, though, is their capacity for innovative and deft arrangement as demonstrated in the overture, musical precision put on display in the group’s killer use of dynamics throughout the film, and monster key changes like the one at the climax of “Timshel.” The mixing and mastering is simply, well, masterful over the course of the film.

In the year 2015, there’s no shortage of excellent material with which to lose days to watching great a cappella videos on YouTube. Amongst this vast collection, Stages stands out as a particularly ambitious and virtuosic display of tremendous a cappella and filmmaking, synergized to create an unforgettable experience for anyone who has the good fortune to come upon it. Don’t miss out—dedicate fifteen minutes of your day to Stages today. And then another fifteen minutes tomorrow.