Film / Reviews

'Stardust Over the Town': Golden oldies musical loses the plot

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Given that retirees are some of Japan’s most avid cinephiles, it’s a surprise that more movies like “Stardust Over the Town” aren’t being made.

The Showa Era (1926-89) had barely finished when dramatist Ryuji Mizutani introduced theatergoers to Osamu Yamada & Hello Nights, a fictional group of crooners whose dedication to golden-age vocal pop hasn’t translated into commercial success. Mixing genial comedy with dewy-eyed musical revue, the first “Stardust Over the Town” show in 1994 proved so popular that it spawned six more plays.

After a quarter of a century together, the members of Hello Nights — including comedian Saburo Taihei and character actor Denden (real name Yoshihiro Ogata) — have established an easy rapport, helped by the fact that they’re essentially playing themselves.

Stardust Over the Town (Hoshikuzu no Machi)
Rating
Run Time 102 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

Their cinematic debut, written by Mizutani and directed by Taiichi Sugiyama, could quite easily have coasted on, letting them croon and banter for 100 minutes. Instead, the film tries to tell a story, albeit one that seems to have been scribbled on the back of a napkin during an all-night karaoke session.

In a sly repeat of the premise for the original 1994 play, long-running grievances and ambitions come to a head when Hello Nights returns to the rural hometown of their bespectacled leader, Osamu (Takayasu Komiya).

While drinking at a local bar, the garrulous Toshiki (Lasalle Ishii) drunkenly invites barmaid Ai (the singular-named Non) to sing with them at their gig the following day. But for Ai, it’s no trivial concern: She’s long nurtured dreams of stardom, even after an earlier attempt to make it in Tokyo ended in heartache. There’s also the small matter that one of Hello Nights may actually be her dad.

It’s a setup worthy of a stage play, and that’s how the film operates for its first hour or so. The dialogue scenes and musical routines are allowed to run in long takes, with handheld camerawork suggesting they were filmed in a rush.

Featuring a slew of syrupy hits from the 1960s and ’70s, it’s like jukebox musical “Jersey Boys” with community theater production values. In a touch that the film’s target audience will doubtless appreciate, the songs even come with subtitles.

The movie marks a comeback for Non, formerly known as Rena Nonen, whose breakout role in 2013 TV series “Amachan” became a cautionary tale after she was blacklisted by her old talent agency. Aside from some anime voice work, she hasn’t had a proper screen role for six years, and it’s both comforting and disconcerting to discover that she hasn’t changed a bit: still just as buoyant and quirky, with that curious habit of munching up her words whenever she gets excited.

Things go awry when, after finally getting Ai and the group onstage together, Mizutani decides he wants to tell a conventional ingenue story, and tries to cram a second and third act into the final 40 minutes. With Ai installed as their new singer, Hello Nights finally get a taste of the fame that has always eluded them — and naturally, success comes with complications.

Even the considerable charisma of the cast can’t make up for the film’s slapdash structure, and it ends so abruptly that viewers may wonder if they dozed off and missed a vital section. The songs in “Stardust Over the Town” will stay stuck in your head for days. The movie itself probably won’t.

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