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August Rush

Oliver Twist…with Music

A contemporary reimagining of Oliver, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, August Rush fails on almost any level of believability or credulity, focusing, as it does, on the semi-magical journey of a preteen musical prodigy as he searches for his long-lost parents in a fairy-tale version of New York. As directed by Kirsten Sheridan (In America), there’s rarely an authentic moment in August Rush, but what it doesn’t have story wise, it makes up for through Sheridan’s surprisingly deft direction, appealing performances, and a moving score by Mark Mancina that takes in classical, folk, rock, gospel, and avant-garde music.

Eleven-year old Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), a musical prodigy, dreams of meeting his biological parents. Stuck in an orphanage in upstate New York, Evan refuses to be considered for a foster home or adoption, despite the bullying he undergoes every day or the efforts by a compassionate social worker, Richard Jeffries (Terrence Howard). Evan is right, of course.

His musically gifted parents, Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell), a classically trained cellist, and Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an Irish-born rocker, met twelve years earlier in New York City. Lyla became pregnant, but didn’t tell Louis, and he was left heartbroken after Lyla’s impresario father Thomas (William Sadler) refused to accept him. In turn, Thomas convinces Lyla that Evan died in childbirth.

In the present, Lyla lives and teaches music in Chicago. Louis has moved to Los Angeles, where he’s given up his musical aspirations for a business career. Spurred to action by the music he hears around him, Evan leaves the orphanage and hitchhikes to New York City. There Evan meets Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III), a young street musician, whom he trails to Arthur’s "home", an abandoned theater where other musically oriented runaways live under Wizard’s (Robin Williams) tutelage. Evan picks up Arthur’s guitar and, almost miraculously, plays like a seasoned pro. Wizard, of course, sees an opportunity and dubs his new protégé, August Rush. Lyla heads to New York for a concert performance, her first in years, and Louis, still haunted by his feelings for Lyla, begins searching for her.

Updating Oliver Twist to a modern setting, including street urchins and a Fagin-like character, probably seemed like a great idea to co-writers Nick Castle (The Boy Who Could Fly, The Last Starfighter, Escape from New York) and James V. Hart (Sahara, Tuck Everlasting, Dracula), but they seemed unaware that Dickens wrote Oliver Twist during an era where audiences accepted coincidences and contrivances in their stories as a matter of course. Contemporary audiences, however, are more sophisticated or more jaded (take your pick). Those coincidences and contrivances are, at least in a modern setting, bound to elicit laughter.

August Rush would have been more palatable to a wider demographic if, instead of including coincidences, contrivances, and clichés in almost every scene, Sheridan and her screenwriters had added an overt magical element to the story, something to make audiences forget that August Rush unfolds in a world similar to our own that operates on a different set of principles. With August obsessed by the transformative power of music, both as a personal source of happiness and, more functionally, to help him find his long-lost parents, August Rush aspires to be a modern day fairytale, without explicitly referencing the world of magic and that’s really where it goes wrong.

Combined with over-earnest, manipulative, sentimental, contrived storytelling, August Rush can be easily dismissed as a cynical attempt to separate less sophisticated moviegoers with small children from their hard-earned money. For those willing to forgive August Rush's implausibilities, though, there's much to like here, from the score by Mark Mancina, to the likable, relatable performances, and finally, to Sheridan's deft, energetic, unobtrusive, direction.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars