Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Movie – Chess: In Concert (2009)

One day I happened to see Chess: In Concert offered from Netflix.  At the time I knew nothing about it other than it was about chess (duh) and that it had the late 1980s hit song “One Night in Bangkok” in it.  I was curious enough, so I got it.  I figured I would probably skip from song to song, listening to the ones I liked.  I ended up watching it from beginning to end, then the next day watching most of it again.  It turned out to be far more than just a collection of songs.  It was nothing less than chess as a metaphor both for the Cold War, and for the heart of a woman and a man.

It is often said that chess is the one competition where luck is not a factor.  There are no bad bounces, uneven turf, faulty equipment, etc.  If each competitor makes the right move each time then neither can lose.  The history of the opera Chess is one where many bad moves were made.

After opening to success in London’s West End in the 1980s, writers Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the latter two are the men from ABBA) brought it to Broadway.  For reasons known only to them they did a wholesale rewrite on it, not only changing the story, but many of the songs.  It ended up playing only two months on Broadway before closing.  It was a critical and financial failure.  Over the years they continued to tinker with it.  Finally, after roughly 25 years since the creation of it started, Tim Rice produced what he considered to be the “definitive” version of it in 2008.

He brought together an all-star cast from Broadway, the West End, and popular music.  It was staged in London’s Royal Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic and the West End Chorus backing the players.  The seven key roles were played by Josh Groban (Anatoly Sergievsky), Idina Menzel (Florence Vassey), Adam Pascal (Frederick Trumper), David Bedella (Alexander Molokov), Kerry Ellis (Svetlana Sergievsky), Clarke Peters (Walter de Courcy), and Marti Pellow (The Arbiter).  There are also a dozen or so key backing singers who are sometimes on stage.

The performance consists of two Acts.  The first is set in Merano, Italy in 1979 and the second in Bangkok, Thailand in 1980.  Both involve a World Chess Championship match.  Don’t worry if you do not know how to play chess.  You don’t need it to follow what is going on, nor to get most of the references.  There is no attempt to play a real game of chess anyway; the performers just move the pieces around some.  The one thing that you should be aware of in order to see the larger flow of the performance is that in chess while the King is the most important piece, the Queen is the most powerful.  All the other pieces maneuver around trying to capture the King, with the Queen being his strongest protector and the other side’s strongest enemy.

The first thing I noticed when the performance started is the color scheme.  Just like the chessboard and the pieces, almost everyone was dressed in some combination of black and white.  The stage was very bare, with no backdrops.  The orchestra was right on stage, with a large chorus ringing the level behind the orchestra.  The performers usually did not leave the stage unless they were going to be gone for awhile.  There were stools for them to sit on until they were needed.  Sometimes they remained on stage, but turned away from the audience to symbolize that they were not there for a brief period.

I was very impressed with the sound.  This was a completely live performance.  Each of the key performers wore a wireless head mike.  There was a small, on-stage chorus that carried wireless hand mikes.  The large chorus had strategically placed wired mikes, and the entire orchestra was right in the middle of them all.  Despite this, the sound capture and mixing on the DVD was very well done, especially considering the challenges this setup must have created.

There is a large screen at the back of the stage that is used to set up the different locations where the action on stage is taking place.

The story in Chess was inspired by American Bobby Fischer’s win over the Soviet Boris Spassky in 1972.  Until that happened one Soviet or another had been the World Champion for decades.  All of a sudden, chess was thrust into the middle of the Cold War.  By the way, those who know nothing about the history of East-West relations from the 1950s to the early 1980s may not be able to keep up on everything that happens in this story.

This story opens with the President of the International Chess Federation announcing that the 1979 World Championship match will be held in Merano, Italy where he will be the arbiter of the match, ensuring everything goes correctly.  The current World Champion – American Frederick Thumper – arrives dressed all in white and is his usual brash, impatient self.  He immediately alienates the Press, who try to criticize him for having a female Second – Florence Vassey.  (In these matches each competitor brings with them a Second, who is almost as powerful a chess player, in order to simulate the play of their opponent and to help them plan strategy from game to game.)  A female player, especially at this time, is very unusual.  The Press is trying to insinuate that there is a romantic relationship between the two.  The Press is right.

Meanwhile, the Soviet challenger – Anatoly Sergievsky – arrives.  He is hampered by his Second – Alexander Molokov – being more a politician than a chess player.  While I don’t believe it is directly stated, we know that Molokov is KGB and is really there to keep Anatoly in line.  The first game starts, but Thumper storms out in protest.  He claims that Anatoly’s people were cheating.  Thumper is confronted by the representative of the American news channel – Walter de Courcy – that is there covering the match.  We find that Thumper is getting paid by this news channel for the match.  Thumper is actually doing this to maneuver the network into paying him more money to continue.  They do this because he is good for ratings.

Before she found out he was faking, Florence went to the Soviets to try to smooth things over.  When Thumper finds out he accuses her of betraying him.  He manipulates her emotionally by asking her how she could work with the people who killed her father.  Thumper is referring to the fact that Florence is Hungarian, but moved to England when she was little.  When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956 to crush an uprising, her father was killed…or was he?

Florence is hurt by Thumper’s charges.  She sings my favorite song of the whole show – Nobody’s Side – where she is expressing that she doesn’t want to have to pick sides.  Even if she did, which one should she?  She sings, “Everybody’s playing the game/ But nobody’s rules are the same/ Nobody’s on nobody’s side.”  Of course, the fact that Thumper is dressed all in white and Florence is dressed all in black has been hinting that they may not be “on the same side”.  There’s a reprise of part of this song in the second Act that really hits home because it’s sung by the entire cast when they are all at odds with each other.

Florence arranges a personal meeting between Anatoly and Thumper.  She and Anatoly find themselves alone.  They start to talk and find that they have an immediate attraction to each other.  Combine this with Thumper’s treatment of her and Florence is ready to switch sides for real.  Thumper finally arrives, realizes what has happened, and agrees to continue the match.  His heart isn’t really in it, though.  Anatoly takes a large lead, and Thumper official resigns the match to him.  Anatoly is the new World Champion.  That’s not the biggest news, though.  The very next day Anatoly defects to England with Florence.  (Note the single red square “escaping” the disintegrating chess board on the cover of the DVD above.)  de Courcy ambushes Anatoly with the Press there asking him all kinds of accusatory questions.  Chief among them is how he feels about abandoning his country, as well as his wife and children. 

Anatoly responds with the song Anthem about how he is still with his country and family in every respect except physically.  He sings, “My land’s only borders/ lie around/ my heart.”  Let me just say that I had never taken too much notice of Josh Groban.  He seemed to pop up now and then singing some bland song at the Olympics or whatnot.  I’m here to tell you that after watching this I had a newfound respect for him, both as a singer and an actor.  He especially sang the hell out of Anthem.  He had the crowd on its feet at the end of it, and not just because it was the conclusion of the first Act.

The second Act is a year later in Bangkok.  Anatoly must now defend his World Championship against another Soviet challenger.  All the same people are there, even Thumper, who has now been hired as a special correspondent by the American news channel to cover the match.  Once again de Courcy ambushes Anatoly, this time by having Thumper interview him.  As you might imagine, Thumper has an axe to grind with Anatoly both for losing the Championship AND Florence to him.

I mentioned above that in chess the Queens are the most powerful pieces, which means they have the largest effect on what happens.  In the game of chess there are different strategies for using the Queen.  Some people bring her out early.  This is the aggressive approach.  Others prefer a cautious approach.  They see how things are going, perhaps even allowing themselves to lose a little bit of ground, before finally bringing her to bear.

In this story Anatoly is a King and Florence is the Queen who captured him – both in the romantic sense and in the geopolitical sense.  His defection had an enormous effect because of his importance, but it only occurred because of Florence’s powerful actions.  Now, in the game of chess there are two Queens.  In the second Act of this story, the other Queen finally enters the match; Anatoly’s wife Svetlana is brought to Bangkok by Molokov to try to win Anatoly back.

There is some great staging during a duet that Florence and Svetlana sing.  The song is titled I Know Him So Well.  After being dressed all in black in the first Act, Florence comes out in a mostly white dress for the second Act.  There is still some black in the design, though, so even though she has switched sides, we are shown she may not be completely there.  Svetlana is dressed completely in black.  In addition, Idina Menzel has dark brunette hair, while Kerry Ellis has light blond hair.  In all respects these two women are black/white opponents.  While singing, each woman (Queen) stands at opposite ends of the stage (chessboard) and centered between them is Anatoly, the man they both are fighting for (the King).

The second act also reveals that there is more to de Courcy than we first were told.  It turns out he is a bigger player in the game than we knew.  We also get some character growth from Thumper after he does some soul searching during his character’s best song – Pity the Child.

Everything comes to a head with Anatoly being torn in many different directions.  He has people trying to get him to throw the match, to win the match, to come home, to stay away, to answer questions, etc.  Just when it appears that everyone is trying to get a piece of him for themselves, he gets help from an unlikely source.  What will he decide to do?

There is almost no spoken dialogue during the performance.  Most of what is in it comes from periodic announcements from the news channel.  I felt some of the songs early in the first Act were a little weak.  It’s not until Thumper storms out of the first game that I felt they really picked up.  If you feel the same at the beginning, stick with it.

When the performance started I was also surprised to find the people acting their roles in addition to singing.  The cameras capture a lot of little things, like looks being exchanged, that people in the audience may not have picked up on.  Pascal, especially, did a great job with his character of the brash, paranoid American champion.  His body language is perfect.

The only “Soviet” who does an accent is Bedella as Molokov.  Groban and Ellis did not.  That’s probably for the best since it would have meant having to sing with the accent, too.  By the way, the lyrics to the song One Night in Bangkok make more sense now that I know the context behind them.  It’s sung by Thumper at the opening of the second Act.  There is also a bit of humor provided by a foursome of British Consulate workers who sing about the bother of having to deal with Anatoly’s defection.

As I said at the top, I was really taken in by the story and all the different kinds of “games” that are played by the characters.  This is also the version of Chess that its creator considers to be the best, too.  Unless you hate watching people sing, I highly recommend this movie.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

[IMDB does not list this as a separate entry, but instead as part of the TV show Great Performances.  To help others, here is a link to its IMDB page.]

If you want to continue with the "chess as metaphor" theme, check out my review of the fantastic book The Eight.  You can read it here.  (Don't worry; it's a lot shorter than this movie review.)

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