Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Joss Whedon is the mastermind behind some great television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. He has an unmatched talent for creating characters who are complex and fascinating, and for putting them into situations that you want to watch. His dialogue is fast, witty and frequently sparkling. Best of all, Joss knows how to write strong, believable women.

But he has a difficult relationship with the folks who run the studios that make the shows. And so he's not often on television these days. (Although he has a new show on FOX mid-season, Dollhouse, starring Buffy/Angel actress Eliza Dushku, that looks promising.)

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was a solution. It's a three-act "event" (his words) about the title character's struggle to beat his nemesis, Captain Hammer, and get the girl. This was produced and directed for the web and it's being shown (right now) only on the website! Whedon, who wrote and directed and wrote the songs -- oh, wait. Did I mention it's a musical? Yes, along the lines of the famous Buffy musical episode Once More With Feeling.

Neil Patrick Harris plays Dr. Horrible somewhat in the mode of his characters from Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and How I Met Your Mother. People don't always know that Harris has done Broadway (He played The MC in Cabaret!) and that he has a fine singing voice.

Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal Reynolds of the lost and lamented Firefly.) is appropriately heroic and sings well. He brings a goofy edge to Captain Hammer, and a bit of preening and dimness and vainglory that make his character more complex than you'd expect. Felicia Day (the dark-haired girl from the Cheetos laundromat commercial, who also stars in, writes and produces the web series The Guild
) is all sweetness and spunk as the heroine. She needs to become a big star Right Now.

Dr. Horrible's songs aren't as memorable as I might like, a problem that Once More... had, at least for me. They all move at about the same pace and have similar show-tunish melodic constructions. Like other writers, when he makes songs he tends to want to cram too many words into his work, which makes for crowded songs. There also seems to be a Sondheim-ish tendency as well, which doesn't always fit.

That said, Captain Hammer's speech/song in the third act, "Everyone's a Hero (In Their Own Way)" is pretty funny, mostly sold by Fillion's wonderfully hammy performance. And Dr. Horrible's final song is sorrowful and foreboding in appropirate ways.

But the last act feels rushed toward the end, and muddled. I can't say much without spoiling what shouldn't be spoiled, but too much happens in the space of a few minutes. After, my first thought was "Ooooh, I see." and to start thinking of how it could have been done a little differently. Not a good sign. Felicia's final line should have had way more impact than it did -- it is the pivot on which so much hangs -- but was almost lost in the sound mix!

But still, very funny, especially for comic fans and Whedonites, and recommended! Hurry, though. My understanding is that the free streaming will stop soon.

SUNDAY UPDATE: I've since watched Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog a couple more times and wanted to post some more thoughts. Nothing spoilery. I'll likely post again in a few more days with a deeper discussion, though.

Remember, see it soon! It's not going to be a free webcast much longer.

Bad Horse is the name of the head of the Evil League of Evil, which Dr. Horrible would love to join. Whenever Bad Horse sends a message to Dr. Horrible, its contents are told to the audience via a trio of men in Western outfits, a kind of Greek chorus, singing it. Great joke, too, in that the "Thoroughbred of Sin" talks about making someone his "mare."

I also like that the other villains in the ELE have names like Dead Bowie and The Fake Thomas Jefferson. If you read the final credits, you'll see that a lot of the smaller roles, like the ELE, are filled by many former Buffy/Angel writers like Drew Goddard, David Fury and Marti Noxon. Nice touch.

Another nice touch is the warning on the container Dr. Horrible is trying to steal: Do Not Bounce. Not drop, bounce. It jars you in the pleasant way. Parts of the show are presented as a video blog (hence the title) and a later reminder that your enemies can watch/read your blog as easily as your intended audience is funny and smart.

I may have seemed a bit harsh on the songs in the original post. It's not that they're bad -- not at all. But there's a zip or sparkle or snap that's missing that would raise them into memorability. I do find myself still humming the opening and closing melody, a sort of staccato arpeggio and after a few viewings I can hum along with the songs while they're being sung. But later ... well, hard to remember them.

And too often, witty lyrics get lost in the rush of words that I mentioned before. Dr. Horrible sings of Bad Horse and the Evil League of Evil, mentioning his application packet. But in the flow a great line about a "letter of condemnation from the vice-mayor" is almost lost. Funny stuff is too-often lost this way in Dr. Horrible.

But still, I just feel that in other hands and other performances a couple of the songs might be wonderful. "So They Say" just begs for a bouncier beat. The crunchy guitars of "Brand New Day" are gone before they really get riffing. "On The Rise" has a nice paired melody -- standard showtune stuff -- that doesn't quite soar; almost, not quite. It's frustrating as you can feel how close the songs are to something arresting.

It's really noticeable on repeated viewings how variable the sound mix can be. Some of the quieter moments could use a bumping up of the volume so that quiet line deliveries (and there are at least two important ones) don't get muddled. As I said before, Penny's last line must be heard clearly for the point to be driven home; if you don't quite catch it, then the drama is leached out.

One last observation before I go. This one does get close to a spoiler, though not entirely one. Watch Dr. Horrible's color scheme. His outfit in most of the show is white: gloves, lab coat and boots. He wears heavy-duty goggles on his head through the entire thing. Watch for the change of color; note the new colors; and watch for when he finally puts the goggles over his eyes.

I usually hate "playing up" things in movies -- it's why I dislike Spielberg so much. He just can't let anything not be clearly seen and understood by an audience. Makes you feel like you're stupid and must be led around. LOOK here! FEEL that! CRY now! LOOK over there now! But I think a little more care with the final scenes, some different editing or pacing, or camera angles, might make what those scenes are telling us pop out a bit more and really wallop the audience with the enormity of what's happened. Same with the movie's last shot.

I'll discuss this in serious detail in a few more days. For now, GO! SEE this! ENJOY!

SUNDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Thanks to a visitor, I have some lyrics and guitar tabs to share.

I also see search engines bringing folks in. Welcome! Please note that while I have mixed but generally positive feelings on Dr. Horrible, I'm a solid fan of Buffy, Angel and the glorious Firefly. Just to be clear.

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