Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Saturday's Warrior Review

Two weeks ago I was seeing one of the many faith-based movies that came out this March in time for Easter and suddenly the trailer showed up for Saturday's Warrior. This got me excited! I had heard that a Saturday's Warrior movie was in production and was set for a release date sometime in 2016, but for some reason further updates totally escaped me. I had no idea when it was coming out or if it was even still a thing. I'm usually on top of things when it comes to movie news, so the fact that this escaped me is kind of embarrassing, but oh well. It is what it is. On the positive side, it was nice not to have to play the waiting game with this as it was released just two weeks after I first heard that the release date was April 1st. So anyways, here I am reviewing the brand new theatrically released version of Saturday's Warrior! And as a fair warning, I will be diving slightly deeper with this review because this is a great opportunity for me to openly discuss a controversial musical that I have enjoyed for most of my life and discuss how the movie version holds up. I'm assuming that most people reading this already know this musical pretty well.

For those of you who like following my reviews, but have no idea what I'm talking about when I say Saturday's Warrior, allow me to briefly explain. This was a musical that was written in the early 1970's and quickly became a cultural phenomenon in the LDS community and was performed quite often on stage for LDS audiences. A movie was made of this in 1989, although it's not really a movie. It's more like a filmed version of the play. But regardless of what you call it, I'm willing to bet that most LDS people have either seen this 1989 version or at least heard of it. So the fact that this has finally been made into a movie is a rather big deal and it's actually kinda surprising that it never happened earlier. The story follows an LDS family who made promises to each other in the Pre-Earth Life and now have to come down to Earth and face this very stormy existence. The principles taught in this center around the Plan of Salvation. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going after we die? There's a lot of great things to learn here and the musical does a great job of teaching these things through a great story and beautiful music.

However, there are also several major problems with this musical. I know I'm reviewing a movie and I promise I will get to the actual movie in a bit, but first off all we need to have a bit of a doctrinal discussion about the original musical because there's a huge elephant in the room when talking about Saturday's Warrior and I'm not going to dance around that. I'm going to discuss it straight up before diving into my review so you know where I'm coming from and understand my point of view with this musical. Pre-Earth Life. This is a very unique doctrine that the LDS church teaches that is one of the reasons we stand out from other Christian churches. We believe that we are all spiritual children of God and that we lived with God before we came to Earth. Before the Earth was formed, there was a council in heaven where God presented his plan for us. After God presented his plan, Lucifer, a former angel of light, proposed an opposite plan that opposed God and we as spirit children of God were given the ability to choose between God's plan and Lucifer's plan. However, we weren't free to choose the consequences of our choice and so those who followed Lucifer, which was about a third of the hosts of Heaven, were cast out. The rest of us who chose God's plan got the opportunity to come here to Earth.

That's the basics of the Pre-Earth Life. It's also called the Premortal Existence and the First Estate. Sadly, many also refer to it as the Pre-Existence, which I believe to be incorrect terminology, but that's a discussion for another day. Regardless of what you call it, it's also a doctrine that we don't know a ton about. We know the basics, but we don't know many of the specific details and in this instance it's probably best not to speculate too much. We should go with what we do know and not worry about what we don't. But Saturday's Warrior dives fairly deep into this Pre-Earth Life. Deeper than it probably should. And because of how huge this musical was, I do believe that the things it speculates have seeped into LDS culture and have thus caused many to believe in doctrines that aren't necessarily true and have never really been taught by the leadership of the church. Specifically, Saturday's Warrior speculates that we were organized as families in the Pre-Earth life. This means that couples were already formed and children were already assigned to these couples. These specific doctrines are not taught in the LDS church and the implications of believing certain aspects of this can be harmful.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I have heard many stories of couples saying that they have received personal revelation that they knew each other and were even foreordained to be married. I have also heard families say that they have received revelation that they were organized as a family in the Pre-Earth Life. It is not my place to question the legitimacy of these revelations one way or the other. They are called PERSONAL revelations for a reason. It would be the most inappropriate and quite frankly rude thing to say that your personal revelations are false and have no place. I'm just speaking in general here about doctrines that I have spent a long time studying and pondering. When I say that there are certain doctrines that Saturday's Warrior speculates on that can be harmful if you believe in them, I am talking specifically about the doctrine of soul mates. A lot of Pre-Earth Life speculations I could answer with the statement we don't know. When it comes to soul mates, I think we do know. This is false. And I'm going to go straight to President Spencer W. Kimball to back up my point:

"While Marriage is difficult, and discordant and frustrated marriages are common, yet real, lasting happiness is possible, and marriage can be, more an exultant ecstasy than the human mind can conceive.  This is within the reach of every couple, every person. "Soul mates" are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price."

That quote came from an address he gave to Brigham Young University in 1977. If you would like to read the whole address, I just provided the link for you right there. That I think is pretty straight forward and was given only a few years after Saturday's Warrior was written and became huge. The thing that this completely shoots down is the relationship in Saturday's Warrior between Julie and Tod. As they state when they talk to each other in the Pre-Earth Life, they have loved each other forever. There was never a point when their love began and there will never be a point when their love ends. There love is a circle that has no beginning and no end. Yet the drama in the musical comes when they get sent to Earth at different times and in different places. They have to find each other. Julie goes through two different men that she could marry, but doesn't go through with either because neither of them feels right. But when she finally meets Tod, they have an instant connection and fall madly in love. I could talk for a while about why this is a bad thing to believe, but let's me just say simply that if you are looking for the "one and only" and you reject certain people because you didn't receive the revelation that the two of you were soul mates in the Pre-Earth Life, you could potentially be passing up on many different potential marriage partners that would work very well for you.

Thanks for letting me establish all of that before moving on. I know that this means that this review will be longer than normal, but I feel it was important for me to establish my point of view on that issue before we start, especially since I have been dying to get my full thoughts on this subject out and I am taking advantage of this new release to do so. In short, the more I have thought about Saturday's Warrior, the more I don't like that aspect of it. But despite that, I will still defend Saturday's Warrior to those who don't like it because there is more to this than the Julie/Tod storyline. In fact, that is just one of three different storylines being intertwined in this musical. The main storyline is that of the oldest son Jimmy and the third storyline is between two missionary companions trying to find success in the mission field. Some people might get so caught up on the Julie/Tod storyline that they will call this a bad musical. In my opinion, these other two storylines are so great that the strengths of Saturday's Warrior far outweigh the weaknesses. And the actual music written by Lex de Azevedo is phenomenal.

Now finally to this movie. I was hoping that in finally making Saturday's Warrior into a movie that they would take advantage of the opportunity and fix certain aspects of the story while keeping the parts of it that really worked. An updated Saturday's Warrior that was more doctrinally sound would be fantastic. Nope. For better or for worse, this is a very faithful adaptation to the original musical. That means if you are one who hates Saturday's Warrior because of the false doctrines and potentially erroneous speculations about the Pre-Earth Life, then this movie is not for you. The changes made or more minor, which I suppose I'm fine with because it would require a complete reworking of the story which would probably make too many fans angry and not make them any money. So I get it. However, there are a few tweaks made that did make me really happy. While all the Pre-Earth life stuff is almost verbatim to the play with Julie and Tod, their reunion at the airport at the end is actually much improved. I guess I won't spoil this for you, but just know that I think they got the balance right between making it true to the musical while making it more real to what may happen in real life. It's not something that will completely win you over, but it's satisfactory. At least for me.

With that completely out of my system now, let's focus on the aspects of this movie that really work well. Just like in the original musical, it's the other two storylines that completely save this movie. Let's start with Jimmy. What I really like about his storyline is that it's essentially the story of the prodigal son. You have a son that butts heads with his family, especially with his parents, and he leaves for a while. Certain events finally bring him back and it's really beautiful. With the movie they dive into this even deeper and put this family into a realistic situation in the 70's. In the play version, there are certain aspects of the story that are somewhat disconnected, but it's really a non-issue because for the play format it works just fine. With the movie there's some dots that needed to be connected and boy do they do a wonderful job of connecting them. Jimmy still has his group of friends that believe in "zero population" and legalizing abortion. Jimmy has a large family that is in conflict with this. Connecting the dots is that Jimmy and these friends have formed a band that get offered a record deal and the opportunity to go on a west coast tour. Jimmy is about to side with his family when he has a huge argument with his parents that sends him over the edge and so he leaves with his friends.

There's a lot of emotion that goes with this aspect of the story. The conflict that Jimmy experiences is a real one and it's sad to see him reject his family and go off the deep-end. There's no holding back with this. Jimmy gets messed up. But despite all the issues he is going through, he has the nearly perfect twin sister named Pam who he has an honest connection with and she is the only one that is able to get through to him. This sibling relationship between the two is beautiful. This was my favorite part of the play and the movie totally does it justice. They even tell more of the backstory as to why Pam is in a wheelchair, which makes this movie even better. If you've made it this far into this review, I'm almost certain that you know exactly what happens here, but I'm still not going to spoil it. There's a moment in the play where it gets very emotional. In the movie, that emotion gets kicked into high gear. If the play makes you cry at certain points, make sure to bring plenty of tissues into the theater with you because you are going to need every single one of them. The way they wrap this story up is perfect. Overall I have to give a ton of credit to the whole cast for pulling this off because the acting is great. Huge props to the casting director or others that were responsible for finding all this talent because they did a perfect job.

Providing much of the humor for the movie was our third storyline. The missionaries! Elder Kestler and Elder Greene. One thing I found interesting is that when comparing the cast of these two from the 1989 version to this version, their looks are kinda flipped. Elder Kestler from 2016 looks a lot like the Elder Greene from 1989 and Elder Greene from 2016 looks even more like Elder Kestler from 1989. Just a random thought there. But man, this movie nailed these two. Their story arc is more subtle than that of Jimmy and his family. This is true in both versions. But it's still pretty great as it tells the story of a missionary who goes into the field expecting to conquer the world and baptize pretty much everyone he talks to, but instead is sent to an area where no one will listen to him and he has to be satisfied with just one baptism. This missionary is of course Elder Kestler and he has the perfect companion in Elder Greene who does a good job of counteracting his little idiosyncrasies. In the 1989 version, this aspect of the play is very cheesy. In this one, it's not cheesy at all. It's just hilarious. These two steal every scene they are in and almost steal the whole show. In made me quite happy.

Finally, I need to talk about the music in this movie. Most of the songs from the original musical are inlcuded in this movie. There's a few that are left out and a few new ones added. The ones left out aren't missed and the new ones fit in perfectly and even allow The Piano Guys and Alex Boye to join in this movie, which is fun. The songs themselves are beautifully sung and I would totally buy this soundtrack. But there is one huge problem here with this music. All of this looked lip-synced to the extreme. Now I get it. Not every movie musical can do what Les Mis did with their recording. Most musicals have to record the music in a studio and then mix it in after the fact. But holy freaking cow make it look like the actors were actually singing when you filmed them. I don't know if I should call this issues with sound mixing, sound editing, both, or something else, but it was off. It was so off. Every time we transitioned from dialogue to singing, it was super painful to watch and it was actually super distracting and disrupted the flow of the movie. Thus I have to sadly say that, although the songs were great and I would buy the soundtrack, the music was the worst part of the movie. And when you're movie is a musical, this is a pretty big problem.

Overall, I did have a positive experience with Saturday's Warrior. Yes, there is a good portion of the musical that is false doctrine that has unfortunately seeped into LDS culture, especially the idea of soul mates. The movie makes no effort to update these aspects of it, but as is the case with the musical, I do think that the other two-thirds of the story is so good that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses and leaves me with a great, uplifting message with a lot of actual truth that we can learn from. If you are with me and you appreciate the good in Saturday's Warrior, then you need to go out and support this movie because you'll like it. They did a great job of translating this from a play to a movie by adding enough details and depth to make it work. This is a very well-written, emotional movie with a phenomenal cast that successfully brings this story to the big screen in a big way. However, this is also a musical and I do have to be honest and admit that the musical part of this movie disappointed me. When I watch a musical, I at least want to be fooled into thinking that the actors are actually singing and it was so painfully obvious that everyone was lip-syncing that it got super distracting. Thus all things considered, my final grade for Saturday's Warrior is a 7/10.

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