Movie Review: Winnipeg goes on strike, in song — “Stand!”

Ambitious, sprawling, sluggish and bland, “Stand!” is a Canadian musical about Winnipeg’s general strike of 1919.

The director of “Stomp the Yard” can’t get this stagey, stodgy and history-set-to-song up on its feet any more than the screenwriters can turn a this story about immigrants and veterans, sweatshop-laboring women and foundry and dairy-working men, whites and Natives and African Americans finding common cause for one brief moment into a coherent, compelling narrative.

And a generally underwhelming cast, playing an array of archetypes, can’t animate it.

I used to live just south of Winnipeg, and drove up a few times to a city known for its hockey, Randy Bachman and jelly donuts. This “general strike” isn’t something you hear about in American history textbooks. Like strikes broken up by soldiers in West Virginia and Colorado in the same era, it’s too big a deal to be ignored like that.

The story threads follow father-son Ukranian immigrants Mike (screen veteran Gregg Henry) and Stefan (Marshall Williams) as they slave away for low WWI wages to earn enough to book the rest of the family passage to the city, fleeing “the Bolsheviks.”

Stefan is smitten by a Jewish neighbor (Laura Wiggins) in their tenement. Rebecca and her brother Moeshe (Tristan Carlucci) are labor organizers, agitating in a time of postwar unrest.

White “English” veterans — and a First Nation vet (Gabriel Daniels) — are returning from World War I to no jobs and low wages for the ones to be had. Discontent was widespread, but immigrants feared deportation and all feared violence.

And the “Citizen’s Committee” of capitalist power-brokers (Paul Essiembre, Blake Taylor) was quick throw those threats out there.

Troops deployed or deploying themselves to intimidate workers, goons hired, cops whose loyalties shift back and forth, a government pushed to change laws overnight to make protesting and striking illegal, racism and anti-Semitism dividing the strikers — that’s a lot to cover in a film. And every so often, a song comes up.

The tunes, by Danny Schur, rhyming “immigration” and “cancellation,” lamenting that sweat-shop sewing is where “repetition promotes attrition,” have to carry plot and do almost all of the emotional heavy lifting.

They aren’t up to it. A riot is lamented in a feeble ballad, “This Saturday in June.” Others decry racism or plot their villainy in tunes that are forgotten before they’ve concluded.

Director Robert Adetuyi’s camera is mostly static. As there are no production numbers to speak of, some movement and whizbang editing is desperately needed to give the film pace, raise the stakes, pump up the passions and give the story the urgency that the flat performances and tepid tunes do not.

The “dramatic climax,” and its climactic song don’t do justice to the phrase.

I was reminded of several boilerplate historical regional musicals I’ve seen and reviewed on the stage over the years. I never saw “Strike!,” the stage show that it’s based on. But middling songs can convey more power in live performance, and a show about local history always generates more local interest and enthusiasm.

“Stand!” has great historical underpinnings and potential universal appeal in its messages and its take on the labor and immigrant experiences. But as a labor musical, it feels “small town.” It should never have been dragged off the stage and filmed. It’s strictly a Winnipeg thing.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Laura Wiggins, Gregg Henry, Marshall Williams, Hayley Sales, Gabriel Daniels, Tristan Carlucci, Blake Taylor, Paul Essiembre

Credits: Directed by Robert Adetuyi, script by Rick Chafe, Danny Schur, music and lyrics by Danny Schur. A Fathom Events release, in theaters Dec. 1.

Running time: 1:50

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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