In my time writing for Rogue Cinema, I have covered just about every genre of independent film that can be imagined. From the surreal to the broad, this webzine attracts filmmakers from all walks of life. However, I would be lying if I said that I have reviewed musicals on a regular basis. I’m not saying that Welcome to Harlem is the first indie musical that I have come across, but it is certainly the only one that comes to mind while writing this review. When it comes to musicals, audiences are generally pretty divided. Many of those who say that they hate the genre usually feel quite different after they actually finish watching one that is certifiably well made. To call myself out on my own petty behavior, I have to admit that I am often guilty of this line of thinking. Before I actually sit down and watch any particular musical, I usually find myself contemplating how musicals have never truly been my thing, but then, after watching [X] musical, I usually find myself conceding that [X] musical wasn’t bad at all. I think many judgmental viewers, myself included, judge this genre (and the idea that any piece of fiction would rely on characters breaking out into song-and-dance to explore their feelings) more than the individual movies. However, I will be the first one to tell you that I love Happiness of the Katakuris, as well as several other very bizarre entries into the genre. So, when it came time to sit down to watch this independent musical that was loud and proud of its genre, how did it fair? Well, I walked away feeling the same way that I always do, but Welcome to Harlem is certainly a film that is much more difficult to define than your average "alternative musical."
The plot within Welcome to Harlem is incredibly loose, but mostly it follows a broke young man named Marty who has recently moved to Harlem. As he meets his neighbors and those who live on his block, he finds a new sense of community that he has never found before. Among his new neighbors, he finds Felix, his new best friend, as well as the lovely redhead April, who becomes the center of his world. Although Marty immediately begins to pine for April’s affection, she is still hung up on the guy who lives downstairs that dumped her for another girl. This bizarre love triangle begins to unfold as it becomes apparent that the apartment building that they all live in might end up kicking out all of the current tenants.
Welcome to Harlem is a movie that bases its premise on dichotomic deliveries. Imagine the unbridled naiveté of a Frank Capra production if only it were mixed with scenes of excessive drug use or foul mouthed dialogue. While this may very well turn out to be a one-note joke that this movie attempts to play on its audience repeatedly, Welcome to Harlem at least shows commitment to this singular joke. Replicating a slew of very different atmospheres, audiences wouldn’t be blamed for seeing equal amounts of West Side Story and Dazed and Confused within the inspirations for this indie musical. Taking the fantastical approach to the human condition, this is a movie where Harlem is shown without blemish and community stands above all. Yet, at the same time, drug use is shown as commonplace and drug dealers are ever-present on the corners. However, these drug dealers seem much more pacified than the gangs who shoot one another in the Harlem of our reality. Yet, this world that our movie takes place in requires creativity, and this is where the movie does succeed. The songs are witty, the performances are over-the-top, and the movie does have a very polished "look" that manges to help it stand out. While it is not a movie without its downfalls, there are still a number of things that do manage to work in its favor.
Unfortunately, there are a number of qualities that will tend to keep Welcome to Harlem from becoming something that will grasp considerable attention. It almost goes without saying, but many of the cast members here appear to be non-actors. Nothing too surprising for a no-budget indie project, but a stilted performance while singing seems to stand out even more. Thankfully, the key actors within the project all acquit themselves quite well. Most of the performers chew scenery, but the entire movie seems to rest at a heightened level of reality that seems perfectly suitable for these over-the-top performances. While the character of Marty may mug for the camera every five minutes, within the context of the movie it not only seems acceptable, it seems perfectly natural. Going back to the negative attributes for a second, many of the songs are indeed quite witty, but there are occasional slipups. I personally found the sex education song to be a step down in quality from the rest of the movie. Relying more on shock value, juxtaposing a out-of-fashion style of musical performance with the outrageousness of a teacher singing profane lyrics to a room full of school children, I simply found the sequence to rely more on a crutch for its comedy than actually delivering anything uproarious.
Overall… musicals have never truly been my thing, but Welcome to Harlem wasn’t bad at all. It certainly has its issues and some viewers may not be able to hang with the obvious lower budget, but what these filmmakers were able to accomplish certainly deserves some praise. They took on a style of film that demands both a concentrated amount of focus, energy, as well as budget, and they were able to deliver something that certainly seems suitable for the genre. That’s a fairly honorable achievement in my eyes. If you’d like to read more about this project, you can do so by visiting the official website: http://www.welcometoharlemthemovie.com