Lean On Me (1989)
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Written by Michael Schiffer
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Beverly Todd, Robert Guillaume, Lynne Thigpen
Joe Clark (Freeman) has developed a reputation as a bad boy in the school system of Paterson, New Jersey. When Eastside High School in Paterson becomes unmanageable he’s the person chosen to bring it back to life. Now he’s contending with the students, faculty, and the community as he uses tough love to get results.
This film was directed by John G. Avildsen (Saturday Night Fever) who is best known for his Oscar-winning work on Rocky. The story is based on the work of Joe Louis Clark, a principal who gained recognition for his controversial methods in the 1980s. This dramatized version of events was written by Michael Schiffer (The Peacemaker). The cast features Morgan Freeman (Unforgiven) in his first lead role. He’s joined by Beverly Todd (The Bucket List), Robert Guillaume (The Lion King), and Lynne Thigpen (The Insider).
This story is a highly dramatized version of the real-life events surrounding Joe Clark’s rise to fame. Unfortunately it works within a predictable framing that leaves little doubt about the conclusion of the film. While a movie can sometimes work despite a predictable ending, this one doesn’t have much in the way of sub-plots (or b storylines, if you prefer) to keep things interesting. Even the dialogue feels forced, bringing out a very racially charged attitude that ruins an otherwise positive story. There is also the issue of the title, which comes from the Bill Withers song of the same name. The title isn’t a problem until the incredibly campy rendition that finds its way into the film. Overall, this movie begs for you to root for the underprivileged kids and the embattled faculty, but doesn’t deliver enough to make it an enjoyable ride.
The acting in this movie can’t bring the script back to life. Morgan Freeman gives an energetic performance that is great in small moments. Otherwise his performance is so manic that it’s almost plausible to see him as the antagonist for half the film. This is lack of consistency is true of the rest of the cast. Todd, Guillaume, and Thigpen all have great scenes. Unfortunately these four are unable to find enough to work with to make this into a consistently good film. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag in terms of quality. With the story and the acting, this one ultimately feels like a made-for-television movie.
Overall, this movie fails far more than it succeeds. The story and acting combine with visuals that just haven’t held up over time. If you’re looking for a feel-good story with a conclusion that’s never in doubt, this is the one for you. Otherwise, this is one that you can save your time with. I give this one 1.5 out of 5 stars.
Freeman’s good, but the movie he’s involved with is pretty messy. Good review.
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This movie tried too hard to bring up dozens of social issues, but never followed through. It’s a rough one.