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Thursday, 18 July 2019

Retro Review: Lean on Me (1989)

Lean on Me
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Beverly Todd, Robert Guillaume, Ethan Phillips, Michael Imperioli, Tony Todd, Lynne Thigpen
Genre: Biographical drama
U.S Box Office Gross: over $31 million

Plot: The dedicated but tyrannical Joe Clark is appointed the principal of a decaying inner-city school and he is determined to improve by any and all means

'Lean On The Meanie Teacher, More Like'

Morgan Freeman plays Joe Clark, the newly elected principal of East Side High who joined the school to help address the school's rampant drug's problem, as well as being brought on board to turn things around and to put things right. 

Though the very loosely based on a true story is inspirational, this inspiration the film was alluding to in general, just didn't transpire throughout. 

Lacking in subtlety and deftness, Lean on Me is less so To Sir With Love and more along the lines of Dangerous Minds, but without much in the way of charm and being memorable, and unlike the Jerry Bruckheimer produced latter offering, the movie doesn't have much in the way of heart and enthusiasm, either. Morgan Freeman's performance as principal Joe Clark is powerful - yet his character is mostly unsympathetic, rigid and comes across as bitter and cantankerous. As a result of this, this was the key to preventing the movie from degenerating into a saccharine and overly sentimental cheese-fest. It is compelling to see Freeman impose himself here, but there were times in which it was discomforting to see Clark yelling, berating and belittling and mocking his pupils and fellow teachers at a school he is trying to reform.

Whilst it is far from being thought-provoking, the film's sore point is when it emphasises and hammers home Joe's regimented and combative nature at the expense of additional screentime and the supporting characters' own character development, its message about learning and teachers making a difference to students' lives. Lean on Me could have benefited greatly by having more scenes of learning and teachers educating their pupils. But what we have is an all-too-familiar and trite screenplay, which is saved by Freeman's turn and the ending can be a little hokey for its own good. 

The storyline with the pregnant teenager is left unresolved and with that, viewers will be scratching their heads and wondering where she and the child's fate lies in the story. 

The performances throughout were very good to excellent, but in viewing this as an adult, it appears that Lean On Me tried to be a different type of educational-based drama film to many others that came before and after it; that the message it was implying was that students and pupils won't learn a single thing, unless you threaten them or approach things in an aggressive and strict fashion. In reality, if a teacher like Mr Clark had acted the way he or she did in real life, they'd be out of a job. 

Final Verdict: 

Director John G. Avildsen may have reigned with The Karate Kid and the original Rocky, but here in his third attempt at the underdog persevering against the odds tale, Lean on Me pretty much follows the same narrative beats as those movies; however and sadly, without much heart, its potential just isn't fully realised and with that, Lean on Me should have been a tad more inspiring. 
It's still worth seeing, nonetheless, especially for first-time watchers. 

Good thing this was under 2 hrs.


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