In the '90s, Steve Young, then a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, had what he calls "comedy damage;" after decades of being relentlessly funny, nothing entertained him any more.
Nothing, that is, until he accidentally discovered industrial musicals.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, titans of American industry (think Frigidaire, Ford, Lipton tea and JC Penney) gathered their sales reps and retail managers at massive conventions and put on "industrials:" Fully staged Broadway-style musicals about the wonders of plastics, management skills or innovations in farm equipment. They featured some of the biggest names in showbiz. Florence Henderson, Martin Short and Chita Rivera got their starts in industrials.
While a huge Broadway show in the '50s may have had a budget of $460,000, an industrial could have $3 million. Not only flawlessly composed by prolific geniuses, they oozed the bright optimism of postwar America.
But virtually no one today knows the genre even existed.
Young became obsessed, collecting thousands of records and networking across the country to get rare recordings. But soon, we see him meeting the humans involved: The aging actors and composers of industrials become his friends. He travels to their homes, meets their families—and eventually attends their funerals. We follow him in Dava Whisenant's directorial debut, a highly entertaining and ultimately uplifting documentary about the worlds that can open up to us when we just give in and come alive.
The film itself, which moves swiftly and effortlessly, swells like an orchestral score, keeping just shy of saccharine. We deeply care about Young; we get misty as he composes music with his idols; despite ourselves, we sway to the catchy, corny tunes.
We almost gave this film a 10, but there are some people will probably roll their eyes and find it just too strange.
Honestly, the point of the film is to just love what you love. Even if you are literally the only person on earth who does. So screw it. Maybe it is a 10 after all.
+ Sweet but not cloying; never lags
– Maybe it's niche? (Maybe it's not?)
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Directed by Whisenant
With Young, Letterman, Rivera, Short and Henderson
The Screen, NR, 87 min.