Tribeca 2022: Rudy! A Documusical can’t find a key for its odious subject

Rudy! A Documusical (Tribeca Film Festival)

Jed Rothstein’s mostly-conventional musical doc tries to lampoon the disgraced Trump lackey, but can’t do either particularly well.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.)

Face it: If one were to set out to look at the rise and fall of Rudy Giuliani through the prism of a particular theatrical form, they might logically look towards Shakespearian drama or even Greek tragedy as a way to properly encapsulate his journey from fearless Mafia prosecutor to America’s Mayor to his current position as an addled laughingstock who has seemingly forsaken everything that he once claimed to represent in his unceasing desire for power. 

My guess is that few would look at his life and decide that it could be best represented via the format of a musical. Yet that is the approach utilized by Jed Rothstein (WeWork, or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn) in Rudy! A Documusical, a bizarre and not entirely successful hybrid of the documentary and musical formats that is neither as outrageous nor as incisive as it clearly wants to be.

For most of its running time, Rothstein’s film plays like a standard-issue documentary that uses the expected mixture of archival footage and talking-head interviews with a number of observers (including journalists Andrew Kirtzman and Olivia Nuzzi, former Giuliani advisor Ken Frydman and longtime critic Al Sharpton) to chart Giuliani as he went from being the son of a small-time criminal to a seemingly incorruptible prosecutor to becoming the mayor of New York City, where he helped lead the city from the horror of 9/11 and became internationally renowned as a result. 

Inexplicably, the film shows he chose to squander that prestige on a failed presidential bid and a role as a highly-paid adviser to some of the worst people and operations in the world before settling as a key member of Donald Trump’s presidential team. There, his activities on 1/6 would hit the headlines at roughly the same moment that the film was having its premiere at Tribeca.

Then at certain points, the scene shifts to a stage and we see a number of ersatz, fully-choreographed musical numbers meant to comment on the various aspects of his life. Early in the film, we see Giuliani in an old interview commenting on his love of opera, and these numbers are presumably meant to operate along those lines. Simply put, the conceit doesn’t work—the songs aren’t particularly memorable or incisive, and the cuts to them are jarring and end up hindering the dramatic flow of the straightforward documentary material. 

Rudy! A Documusical (Tribeca Film Festival)
Rudy! A Documusical (Tribeca Film Festival)

Since Rothstein mostly abandons the gimmick in the second half, you get the sense that he realized at some point that it wasn’t working and decided to cut his losses but didn’t have the heart to get rid of what he already had. Besides, he probably realized that, while a film entitled Rudy! A Documentary might not inspire much interest these days, one called Rudy! A Documusical would probably generate some much-needed attention.

Setting the musical element aside, the remaining film is a reasonably sturdy look at a man whose ever-growing need for power and influence took him from riches to rags. In his early years, he had a place of respect throughout the world, the next, he was a laughingstock, screaming at a press conference held outside of a landscaping company right next to a sex shop.

Rothstein doesn’t really uncover anything that students of contemporary American politics would presumably already know going in. But he does effectively show how his efforts to stoke unrest during the Jan. 6 rally by exhorting the crowd to “ have trial by combat!” bore a startling similarity to a speech that he gave to police during his 1993 mayoral run that inspired violent unrest outside of City Hall. It also speaks to the way he would stoke racial tensions in the city as a way of solidifying his power once in office.

For the most part, however, Rudy! A Documusical is a reasonably interesting look at a man who truly lost his way in ways that would do irreparable damage to both his reputation and all of America. By adding in the musical numbers, Rothstein turns that film into something closer than a gimmick, the kind of thing that looks good in a festival catalogue but simply doesn’t work in practice. 

I have no idea what sort of distribution plans this film might have in the future—are there enough people out there who would actually want to see a movie on Rudy Giuliani at this point?—but whatever they may be, the judicious snipping of the songs would be a definite improvement.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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