As Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans pulls up its station wagon and projects its rich, flickering nostalgia for cinema and Americana onto UK screens from 27 January, we look at the histories of the film.
And how we have already close encountered this movie already.
“This movie is his life. You don’t want to ruin Steven Spielberg’s life!” The Fabelmans star Gabriel LaBelle recently told PA about the film, in which the 20-year-old plays the director’s likeness.
“The first thing I asked him was ‘How much of this script really happened to you?’ And he said ‘All of it’."
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Starring Michelle Williams (The Greatest Showman) as mother Mitzi and Paul Dano (The Batman) as father Burt, The Fabelmans is very much the true story of Spielberg’s real life parents Leah and Arnold, and younger siblings Anne, Sue, and Nancy.
Watch a trailer for The Fabelmans
Blessed with parents who both continued to witness their oldest child’s movie career until they almost both reached their centenaries, Spielberg’s pride at their resolve, loyalty and intelligence is all over The Fabelmans.
It is most notable in the casting of Williams as a thinly disguised Leah – complete with her recognisable pixie cut, gamine poise, Peter Pan collars and constant creativity.
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At the 1994 Academy Awards, when son Steven won Best Director for Schindler’s List (1993), he called Leah his “lucky charm”. Williams is easily The Fabelmans own lucky charm – bringing too that similar beatnik, Gwen Verdon quality that Spielberg first noted in Williams in Fosse/Verdon (2019).
Steven Spielberg has wanted to make The Fabelmans since around the era he first held his Bolex 8SL movie camera and shot Firelight, his 1964 UFO opus he directed when he was an already cine-proficient 17-year-old.
His parents, school pals, neighbours, various homes and three sisters were always a widescreen pull for the famed director. And constant home movie co-stars – as The Fabelmans lovingly depicts throughout.
The director who made the best 1980s film about childhood — 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — and whose work enhanced the VHS lives of multiple generations of mop-haired kids and their bootcut denim after-school wanderings, had long wanted to ‘tread those warm paths’ and return home himself.
Various scripts, incarnations and nostalgias fed into what became The Fabelmans. Collaborating with various writers at various moments in time, After School, A Boy’s Life and Growing Up all evolved into this work.
When the horizon is on the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon is on top, it’s interesting. When the horizon is in the middle, it’s boring.John Ford, The Fabelmans
As much a film about a respectful separation, a generation immersed in mid 1950s consumerism, white goods, media and the recent atrocities and losses of war as it is a warm-tinted look at what 24 frames per second can do to a mind, The Fabelmans proves things can only get meta.
Spielberg’s famed camera-frame hands here direct the camera-frame hands of both the uncannily accurate Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Gabriel LaBelle playing both versions of Sammy Fabelman. Yet, perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is not how it has great cine-film fun recreating the home-spun movies of Spielberg’s youth.
It is how it celebrates creativity, often via Williams’ spin as Sammy’s biggest cheerleader, Mitzi. And her own pianist skills are underlined by a simple piano score by John Williams.
However, the tech and computer mind of father Burt is also a key part of Steven’s story. Not only does The Fabelmans depict Spielberg’s very real young adult move to live with his divorced father to be nearer the Los Angeles movie courses and studios lots he so craves.
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It also pays quiet tribute to how Spielberg himself would later facilitate major software developments in media, an inadvertent tribute to his father Arnold’s pioneering computer work for General Electric.
One of the greatest beats of The Fabelmans is how so many scenes, frames, moments and design choices do not just show Spielberg remembering his multi-home childhood.
They show how he has weaved this film, its story, and emotions into so much of his work already. Those arid, dust-bowl afternoons of this film’s Arizona youth are there already in Spielberg’s Amblin‘ (1968).
The layered chat and conversational chaos of suburbia remind of the chatter of The Sugarland Express (1974) and Jaws (1975). And the exuberant comic-book drives of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) are there in Sammy’s stagecoach raids and catapulting teen soldiers.
The wilful references are evident too when Mitzi spontaneously drives her young kids to watch the tornado skies as a rear-view Burt is left in their driveway, reminding of the same beat in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) when Richard Dreyfuss’s Neary is at breaking point and a careering station wagon is all that stands between him, the skies and divorce.
It is writ large when the wonder and imaginations of those afterschool closets, bike rides and toy cupboards of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) harbour secrets that son Sammy must eventually present to mom Mitzi.
It is there when the younger Sammy is entranced by Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) just as Close Encounters’ Neary almost begs his kids to fall in love with a promised matinee of the same director’s The Ten Commandments (1956).
It is there in the alien-eyed wonder of E.T. watching a John Ford classic before The Fabelmans actually features the same director as a grizzled last-act sage played by real movie legend, David Lynch. And the anti-Jewish sentiments from the high school jocks wilfully remind of the same xenophobia spat at the trailing innocents of Schindler’s List (1993) by children.
And it is not just Spielberg’s own cinema that is stitched into this film. It is all cinema. From an opening shot at Sammy’s height as is about to enter a movie house for the first, life-changing time, this is Spielberg mindful of the wonder, secret passions and adolescent politics of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
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When the distraught teen Sammy goes on an editing odyssey of uncovering the extra marital affair hidden in the corners of his vacation cine-film frames, it is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) that comes to mind.
However, it would be easy to see The Fabelmans caught in the projector lights of nostalgia. It is also a warm essay — like E.T., Empire of the Sun and A.I. Artificial Intelligence — in navigating adulthood. This is a work as much about not making art as much as it is embracing it. It is a comment on the second half of the twentieth century and the very consumerism, pop-culture, computer advancements, broken home tropes and Americana that enabled Spielberg the legend to exist and thrive.
Perhaps The Fabelmans greatest success is how it shines many lights on the artistry of Spielberg himself. In the box-office bombast of those trailblazing 1970s and 1980s movies, the matinee adventure and new era technology has always flown against the movie moon and back.
Here, and oddly from the man himself, is a work that underlines how not just anyone can splice a chase together. Not just anyone knows how to pace a cut or hold a frame. When does a hobby become a life? When talent is involved.
The Fabelmans starts and ends with the very tenets of moviemaking craft – the art, talent and tenacity needed to flicker that wonder in the dark.
Spielberg has not just come home. Pop-culture cinema has. And as the end vista of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade proves — the horizon works best on the bottom of frame. John Ford was right.
The Fabelmans is in UK cinemas from 27 January.
Take a closer look at the movie below.