Sing. Utterly Shameless Emotional Manipulation. Consider me Manipulated.
I haven’t cried so much during an animated movie since the first fifteen minutes of Up. Clearly I am a sucker for monosyllabic animated movies. I cried rather more unashamedly during Up though – or rather, I subsequently reported my tears rather more unashamedly. The condensed life narratives offered in the silent section of Up were so exquisitely and imaginatively rendered that tears were themselves a critical tribute to a distinctive kind of artistry. When I cry during the latter stages of Sing, however, it’s because I’m a sucker for a successful formula, a formula that has been tried and tested many many times. A formula that works.
The singing contest between people with fraught personal circumstances is one of the most successful entertainments of our age. The songs we already know. The contestants all “need” to win for desperately personal and familial reasons. In Sing our sympathies are very awkwardly divided. We struggle to decide whether the feisty teenage porcupine who needs to leave her horrible boyfriend, or the stay at home mother of 25 pig, or the gorilla who wants to break free of a criminal family background, or the painfully shy and talented young elephant deserve the teary applause of the multitudes. Only the Frank Sinatra mouse repels sympathy. And the ringmaster, far from being Simon Cowell, is himself a starry eyed dreamer whose shambolic theatre is on the very brink (and then over the brink) of liquidation.
If you can hold back the tears and try to retain some kind of critical intelligence, you might find yourself wondering exactly what the point is of casting this film with anthropomorphic animals? I know that animated movies are typically inhabited by a animals from every continent who have somehow agreed to wear clothes and live together cheek by jowl, but at times during Sing you wonder what this particular convention does for the story. With the possible exception of Ash the porcupine, whose teenage punkish rage results in guitar chords that are illustrated by painful flying quills, there seems no particular reason why one character is a mouse, another a pig and another a gorilla.
But I’m not applying any critical intelligence. I’m crying. I’m crying partly because in this film we hear David Bowie. We hear a Leonard Cohen song. We even hear a few bars of George Michael. This is a perfect movie to say goodbye to 2016 with. Meena the shy elephant starts to turn her life around with a rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, a performance which is initiated, in a rare nod to Cohen’s Canadian identity, by the elephant staring at a maple leaf in her hand (hand?). When you hear “Halleluyah” you know that transformative change is afoot, that an upward ascent is imminent.
The concept that all tragedy can be outstared and dissipated by familiar and popular song is too intoxicating not to grab me and infect me from top to bottom. The well rehearsed, endlessly repeated notion that you can change the world by walking into a spotlight, staring a crowd in the face, and then ignoring that crowd and singing your heart out – gets me sobbing every time. I am the perfect sentimental subject. Or is that object? Adorno would condemn and then forgive me.
Let me put it this way, Sing packs roughly the same emotional punch as discovering, just before Christmas, that Ed Balls is actually the greatest dancer since Nijinsky.