The techniques of verbatim theater go back decades, to at least the 1950s, when young German theater troupes would reenact court cases onstage. In the States, plays have cropped up around devastating events, like Matthew Shepard's murder, with playwrights dramatizing interviews with normal people. Playwright Alecky Blythe's daring and endearing London Road -- first a stage play and now a film, both directed by Rufus Norris — tackles a small English town rocked by a serial killer. And it's also a musical.
Anyone whose eyes roll back in their heads at the word "musical" will be remiss if they don't give this film a proper chance. This odd take on a police procedural true-crime story is the polar opposite of a cheesy Cop Rock (ask your parents). Blythe's goal in teaming up with musician/lyricist Adam Cork was to make a musical that didn't make her cringe. Cork weaves the casual cadences and conversational patterns of interview subjects into experimental -- at times infectiously poppy -- syncopated compositions. Every actor's "er" or "um" in the lyrics hits a highly specific, differentiated note, while the chorus singers dance minimally through shopping malls and streets, wondering aloud through song whether the guy in the coffee shop is the murderer terrorizing local prostitutes.
Norris translates London Road to film far more successfully than so many other directors of musicals who opt for a stagy look. This is filmed on a real street with real houses. Muted grays enshroud the frame. Tom Hardy shows up, likely for the sake of the marquees, but London Road is so creative and moving it doesn't even need him.