As Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans pulls up to his station wagon and displays a rich, shimmering nostalgia for cinema and Americana on British screens from January 27, we take a look at the history of film.
And how close have we come to this movie.
“This movie is his life. You don’t want to ruin Steven Spielberg’s life!” 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, “Everything.”
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Starring Michelle Williams (The Greatest Showman) as Mitzi’s mother and Paul Dano (The Batman) as Burt’s father, The Fabelmans is largely the true story of Spielberg’s real-life parents Leah and Arnold, and younger siblings Anne, Sue and Nancy.
Watch the trailer for The Fabelmans
Blessed with parents who continued to witness their eldest child’s film career until they both nearly reached their 100th anniversary, Spielberg is proud of their determination, loyalty and intelligence throughout the Fabelmans.
This is most noticeable in Williams’ casting as the poorly disguised Leah – along with her recognizable pixie haircut, mastery of the game, Peter Pan collars and constant creativity.
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At the 1994 Academy Awards, when his son Steven won Best Director for Schindler’s List (1993), he called Leah his “lucky charm”. Williams is easily the Fabelmans’ lucky charm – bringing that similar beatnik too, a Gwen Verdon quality that Spielberg first noticed in Williams in Fosse/Verdon (2019).
Steven Spielberg had wanted to make The Fabelmans around the time he first picked up a Bolex 8SL film camera and made Firelight, his 1964 UFO work, which he directed when he was already a cinema expert at 17.
His parents, schoolmates, neighbors, different houses and three sisters always attracted the famous director. And permanent home movie stars – as The Fabelmans lovingly portray all the time.
The director who made the best childhood movie of the 1980s, 1982’s ET The Extra Terrestrial, and whose work has enriched the lives of several generations of mop-haired kids on VHS tapes and their bootcut jeans wandering around school, has long wanted to follow these warm paths.” ‘ and goes home alone.
Different scenarios, incarnations and nostalgia contributed to what became The Fabelmans. Collaborations with various writers at different points in time, After School, A Boy’s Life and Growing Up, evolved into this work.
When the horizon is down, it’s interesting. When the horizon is up, it’s interesting. When the horizon is in the middle, it’s boring.John Ford, The Fabelmans
Both a film about respectful separation, a generation mired in mid-50s consumerism, home appliances, media and recent atrocities and war losses, and a warm look at what 24 frames per second can do to the mind. Fabelmans proves that things can only be meta.
Spielberg’s famous hands-on-camera steer the hands-on-frames of both the incredibly accurate Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Gabriel LaBelle playing both versions of Sammy Fabelman here. However, perhaps the film’s greatest achievement isn’t how much fun it has in recreating home movies from Spielberg’s youth.
In doing so, he celebrates creativity, often through Williams’ role as Sammy’s biggest cheerleader, Mitzi. And her own piano skills are emphasized by a simple piano score by John Williams.
However, Burt’s father’s technical and computer mind is also a key part of Steven’s story. The Fabelmans not only depicts the very real, young Spielberg’s move to live with his divorced father to be closer to the film courses and film studios in Los Angeles that he craves so much.
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It also pays a silent homage to how Spielberg himself later facilitated mainstream software development in the media, an inadvertent homage to his father Arnold’s pioneering computing work for General Electric.
One of The Fabelmans’ greatest bits is how many scenes, frames, moments, and design choices don’t just show Spielberg reminiscing about his childhood in multiple homes.
They show how he wove this film, its story and emotions into so much of his work. Those dry, dusty afternoons of Arizona youth in this film are already present in Spielberg’s Amblin’ (1968).
The layered chat and conversational mayhem of the suburbs is reminiscent of the chatter from The Sugarland Express (1974) and Jaws (1975). And the exuberant Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) comics feature Sammy’s stagecoach raids and the catapulting of teenage soldiers.
The intentional references are also obvious when Mitzi spontaneously leads her young children to watch a tornado in the sky as Burt is left behind in their driveway, echoing the same rhythm in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) when Richard Dreyfuss’s Neary is at a breaking point and career combo is all that stands between him, heaven and divorce.
It’s a great thing when the wonder and imagination of these after school lockers, bike rides and toy lockers from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) hold secrets that son Sammy must finally reveal to mom Mitzi.
It’s where the younger Sammy is enchanted by Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), just as Close Encounters’ Neary almost begs his children to fall in love with the same director’s promised morning The Ten Commandments (1956).
It’s there in the wonder of aliens watching a John Ford classic before The Fabelmans actually features the same director as the grizzled sage in the final act, played by true cinema legend David Lynch. And the anti-Jewish sentiment of high school students deliberately recalls the same xenophobia that children spit on the lingering innocents in Schindler’s List (1993).
And it’s not just Spielberg’s own cinema that is sewn into this film. It’s all cinema. From the first shot, when Sammy is about to enter the cinema for the first time, changing his life, Spielberg remembers the miracles, secret passions and youthful politics of Francois Truffaut’s 400 Punches (1959).
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When distraught teenager Sammy embarks on an editing odyssey to uncover the extramarital affair hidden in the corners of his holiday movie frames, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) comes to mind.
However, it would be easy to see the Fabelmans caught in the lights of a nostalgia projector. It’s also a warm essay – like ET, Empire of the Sun, and AI Artificial Intelligence – in navigating adulthood. It is a work so much about not making art as about embracing it. It is a commentary on the second half of the 20th century and the very consumerism, pop culture, computer progress, broken home tropes and Americana that enabled the existence and development of Spielberg’s legend.
Perhaps the greatest success of the Fabelmans is that it sheds much light on the artistry of Spielberg himself. In the box office bombardment of these pioneering films from the 1970s and 1980s, afternoon adventure and new-age technology always flew to the movie moon and back.
Here, and oddly enough, from the man himself, is a work that highlights how not everyone can put together a chase. Not everyone knows how to speed up the cut or keep the frame. When does a hobby become a life? When talent comes into play.
Fabelmans begins and ends with the basics of filmmaking – the art, talent and perseverance needed to make this wonder shine in the dark.
Spielberg didn’t just return home. Pop culture cinema. And as the final perspective of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade illustrates, the horizon works best at the bottom of the frame. John Ford was right.
The Fabelmans in UK cinemas from January 27.
Take a closer look at the video below.