1776 tells the story of the birth of America with singing! A hit on Broadway, it was adapted for the big screen with most of the original cast. Mostly forgotten now, it’s a guilty pleasure for my history buff husband. While not perfect or completely accurate, it’s a pretty fun tribute to our founding fathers and humanizes them in a way few representations have dared to. While the John Adams mini-series featured an all-star cast, William Daniels (Mr. Feeney for all you 90s kids) will always be John Adams to me, and Howard Da Silva embodies everything I think of when I hear Benjamin Franklin’s name.
The film’s biggest strength is how they portray these legends as real, relatable people. Thomas Jefferson is reluctant to write the Declaration of Independence because he wants to return home to his wife. Adams convinces him to stay but Jefferson suffers writer’s block and Adams knows only one thing that will cure it. In a completely fictionalized interlude, Adams invites Martha Jefferson (played by Blythe Danner while pregnant with Gwyneth Paltrow) to Philadelphia to help him “focus”. The sight of three founding fathers talking about sex in a fairly causal way is pretty funny and makes you realize, these were not Gods who walked the planet, they were men who, in addition to founding a whole country, experienced lust and had friendships just like us. Everyone else is wonderfully fleshed out. Adams is annoys every member of Congress, Franklin relishes his status as a living legend, and while George Washington never appears, his frequent letters to Congress paint his as a general crying out for help from his government. There are even a few names that don’t get a lot of attention in the history books who get their due in this film like Delaware’s Caesar Rodney. There are also some fun little bits like New York abstaining from every vote, much to John Hancock’s increasing annoyance.
The film also does a fantastic job of showing that the revolution was not easily won. Infighting within the Congress between patriots and loyalists is the center conflict of the film. We grow up thinking that Independence was the universal goal from the start, but there were many who fought hard to stay loyal to the crown, including John Dickinson who refused to sign the Declaration.
The music is a bit hit or miss. At times they try too hard for a rhythm and come off a little amateurish. However there are stand-outs like the somewhat silly but totally fun “But, Mr. Adams” and the super serious “Molasses to Rum”. The songwriters did best when they were making commentary. One number that was taken out of the original release by order of President Nixon was “Cool, Cool Considerate Man”. Nixon felt the song mocked conservatives, and he had a point, they do have those on the right goose-stepping at one point. While there are some good songs, the film as a whole probably would have been stronger without the music. The weak spots overshadow the film’s strengths.
If you’re looking for a fun film about the founding of America that includes a singing, dancing Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, 1776 is a must see this fourth.