Rick Miller as Brian Mulroney leads Canada in feel-good chorus.
It’s tricky to describe what Canadian comedy, or the Canadian sense of humour, is. Everyone kind of assume we’re funny, mostly because we’ve birthed such funnypeople as Eugene Levy, Jim Carrey, Rachel McAdams, Norm MacDonald, and Scott Thompson. (Also: Luba Goy, Brent Butt, Carla Collins, and Ed the Sock.) But it’s hard to locate some unifying sensibility. So thank heavens for Mulroney the Opera, a high concept, song-and-dance political satire based on the life of Brian Mulroney. Now when you meet some inquisitive American on a trip to an all-inclusive in Punta Cana, and they ask you just what exactly Canadian comedy is, you can point to a playbill for Mulroney: The Opera and say “that.”
Directed by Torontonian Larry Weinstein, written by Dan Redican, and starring comic Rick Miller as Canada’s eighteenth prime minister, Mulroney the Opera is at once the strangest and most plausible Canadian film in recent memory. In a way, it’s a surprise that an opera about Brian Mulroney hadn’t already been made. And when we say “opera” we don’t mean it loosely. Mulroney isn’t some cheap cash-in on the Glee-ful culture of singing your feelings. It’s all choral acrobatics. And dancing. And big, expressive hand gestures. Like a real-deal opera, except with more chin putty and fewer horned Valkyrie helmets.
“Oh, it’s an opera alright,” laughs Miller, who sat through three hours of makeup every morning to get Mulroney’s chin just right. “The form of opera sort of suits the pomposity and arrogance of politicians quite well, in a larger-than-life way.” And more than this, Mulroney: The Opera also serves to blow-up the perceived banality of Canadian politics. After all, Robert Altman made a movie about Nixon. And Oliver Stone made one about Nixon. The CBC cast Colm Feore in a mini-series about Pierre Trudeau. So why not Mulroney? GST and Meech Lake are fit for narrative intrigue, right?
Sure. And that’s why five years ago, Larry Weinstein began workshopping the project. Influenced as much by Peter C. Newman’s tell-all book The Secret Mulroney Tapes as the BBC’s sardonically irreverent (and highly controversial) airing of Jerry Springer: The Opera, Weinstein became set about bringing Mulroney to the big screen, warts, librettos, and all. “Canadians have always loved political satire,” says Weinstein. “And we’ve always done well with shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Air Farce. And our political cartoonists were always superb.”
In this regard, Mulroney: The Opera inherits a long tradition of Canadian comedy. But Weinstein’s aspirations are bigger. He wants to his opera to enshrine Mulroney in legend. “Anyone who sees it will probably view Mulroney through the prism of this opera,” he says. “Especially the scenes that are based on reality. I fantasize about this idea. Like when we think of Julius Caesar, obviously he’s a real guy, but we can’t help but think of him through the lens of Shakespeare. We believe he said ‘Et tu, Brute?’ or talked about the Ides of March. But that’s Shakespeare. That’s not history.”
Brian (Miller) and Mila (Stephanie Anne Mills) getting hitched.
So maybe in a few hundred years, when art and history become completely conflated, Canadian school children will learn of the time Brian Mulroney literally tangoed with Pierre Trudeau (Wayne Best), or of how much former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien resembled that bald guy from Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Or, for that matter, of how people sang constantly. But what of right now? With the federal election around the corner, and Harper-bashing becoming a national pastime, Mulroney: The Opera may work to further undermine the Conservative regime. On the other hand, a goofy opera taking the wind of out a former Conservative leader’s sails may seem too light or inconsequential to even register. In either case, Miller and Weinstein make a point of not preoccupying themselves with the potential political implications of their film. “It could be attacked on many fronts. I hear people whispering about how it’s too left wing or in support of the Ignatieff camp,” says Weinstein. “People might be so sick of politics that they don’t want to see more. But let’s just laugh at ourselves and have fun with it! There’s not a lot of fun in federal elections.”
And there’s plenty of fun to be had with Mulroney the Opera (again, provided that your idea of fun is watching an opera about Brian Mulroney, which it doubtless is for plenty of Canadians). Their target may seem too far in the distance to be relevant, but as Weinstein notes, Mulroney left a pretty bitter aftertaste in a lot of Canadians’ mouths. “I’ve come to realize there aren’t a lot of Mulroney supporters. Maybe I’m being a little bit facetious, but whenever I talk about having some affection for him, even as a character, I get this awful vitriol from Canadians. A lot of people think this is an homage to him, and just preemptively hate it.”
Miller notices a similar trend towards knee-jerk Mulroney-bashing. “I hope Canadians give it a chance,” he says of the film. “I mean, you tell people you’re spending money, taxpayer’s money, on a Mulroney film and you have all these bloggers on the internet shitting all over you.” Weinstein and his producers made a point of keeping a lid on the production as means of not drawing the eye of the “notoriously litigious” Mulroney. “If I was Brian Mulroney and I saw this,” says Weinstein. “I’d say, ‘Wow I do have a really good signing voice. Look at me, jumping up on that table and dancing like a rock-and-roller! I still have it in me!'”
“In a way, it probably perversely appeals to the man’s ego,” says Miller. “Trudeau got a film and Mulroney got an opera.” And Canada, too, now has its opera. It’s the ne plus ultra of caricatured, over-the-top, political satire. It may seem to be of niche interest. But in taking Canadian comedy to its logical extreme, Weinstein and Miller have crafted a film that while odd, sometimes broad, and certainly full of signing, is probably the most recognizably Canadian comedy to come down the pike since, well, probably ever. Our own Kentucky Fried Movie.
Mulroney: The Opera opens in Toronto on Saturday, April 16 at 1 p.m. for a very limited engagement (one showing only!) at a handful of cinemas across town. Click here for showtimes.