Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kinky Boots: It's a shoe in

As I write this I'm listening to the Kinky Boots CD sampler. It’s a great soundtrack that includes an updated version of “Whatever Lola Wants”. The song, which has been recorded by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Bob and Ray, comes from the 1955 Broadway show Damn Yankees, but is perfectly suited to this 2005 film, both for its tone, and title.

The basic theme of the movie is a familiar one: someone’s plans are put on hold by the death of a parent, as in Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey is forced to put his dreams aside in order to take over the family business.

In Kinky Boots, that business is Price & Sons, Ltd., a well-respected but antiquated Northampton company known for its well-made but out-of-step men’s oxfords. When owner Harold Price dies unexpectedly, his adult son Charlie’s hopes and dreams appear to be buried along with his dad. For while Mr. Price senior’s heart was stitched into every sole, Charlie’s beats elsewhere, as does that of his pretty young fiancĂ©e, Nicola.

As in the Capra tale, the timing couldn't be worse, with the newly-betrothed couple having just arrived at their brand new, London apartment. "The best thing of all is the view" gushes Nicola, as she raises the shade of their bedroom window. "It's not Northampton!" But moments later the phone rings with word of Harold Price's passing, and all too soon the view changes to one of Charlie and Nicola riding in a limousine on their way to the cemetery, looking bleakly out the window as they pass the aging factory, the words "Save our soles" painted in a graffiti-like sprawl across a faded panel of the building.

Accepting his fate, Charlie returns to the factory the following morning, without a clue as to how to run the business. But as he soon learns, there is no business― literally. With no orders to fill, and a stock pile of shoes that no one will buy, it's clear that the factory is, and has been running on empty for some time.

Unwilling to sell, but with few other options, Charlie begins the painful process of letting people go. When a young about-to-be-sacked employee (Sarah-Jane Potts) suggests that he save the company by finding and filling an as-yet unfilled niche in the world of shoes, Price takes her advice, traveling to London in search of an idea.

Shortly after his arrival, he comes upon and thwarts a would-be mugging, an incident that introduces him to a feisty drag queen named Lola. Lola, whose given name is Simon, runs a cabaret similar to one you may have seen in LaCage aux Folles. The encounter sparks an idea, one Charlie believes might re-boot the business and turn the ailing factory around.

What follows is fairly predictable: not quite the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland-esque "We'll build a barn and have a show" scenario, but predictable none-the-less. And yet, it more than holds your attention, as time runs short, emotions run high and people dig in.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola, is a stand-out, delivering a first rate performance that, in less skilled hands, could have negatively impacted the entire tone of the piece. While he looked familiar, I couldn't quite place him until I read his filmography, which included 2002's Dirty Pretty Things (directed by Stephen Frears) where he starred as Okwe, a Nigerian doctor-turned-cab driver and concierge, and 2003's Love Actually – where he took on a smaller role as Peter, the newly-wedded husband of Keira Knightley.

But it is in Kinky Boots, that Ejiofor truly shines. Inspired by, and loosely-based on an episode of the BBC documentary series Trouble at the Top, director Julian Jarrold's fictionalized version is a good bit more colorful, laced with perfectly-chosen music and a hopeful ending.

And speaking of hope―I hope the title of this film won't cause you to pass it by, assuming that it's filled with salacious sex and x-rated language, as nothing could be further from the truth. For while it's certainly not Mary Poppins, it certainly is a heady mixture of drama and comedy, show-stopping musical numbers and heart-wrenching pathos, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. I think you'll get a kink out of it.