As Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans rolls up its station wagon and projects its rich, flickering nostalgia for cinema and America onto UK screens from 27 January, let’s take a look at the stories behind the film.
And as we have already met this film up close.
“This film is his life. You don’t want to ruin Steven Spielberg’s life! Fabelmans star Gabriel LaBelle recently spoke to PA about the film, in which the 20-year-old plays the likeness of the director.
“The first thing I asked him was ‘How much of this script actually happened to you?’ And he said ‘Everything’.”
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Starring Michelle Williams (The Greatest Showman) as mother Mitzi and Paul Dano (The Batman) as father Burt, The Fabelmans is the true story of Spielberg’s parents, Leah and Arnold, and younger siblings Anne, Sue and Nancy .
Watch the trailer for The Fabelmans
Blessed with parents who continued to bear witness to their eldest son’s film career until they both nearly reached their centenarians, Spielberg’s pride in their determination, loyalty and intelligence is everywhere in The Fabelmans.
It’s especially notable in the casting of Williams as the thinly disguised Leah, complete with her recognizable pixie cut, gamine carriage, Peter Pan collar, 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, also bringing that similar beatnik, Gwen Verdon quality that Spielberg first noticed in Williams in Fosse/Verdon (2019).
Steven Spielberg has wanted to make The Fabelmans ever since he first picked up his Bolex 8SL camera and shot Firelight, his 1964 UFO play that he directed as a 17-year-old film buff.
His parents, classmates, neighbors, various houses and three sisters have always been a big screen attraction for the famous director. And constant home movie co-stars, as The Fabelmans lovingly describes throughout.
The director who made the best childhood film of the 1980s – 1982’s ET The Extra Terrestrial – and whose work improved the VHS lives of multiple generations of mop-haired kids and their after-school wanderings in jeans, he’s long wanted to ‘ride those warm trails’ and go home himself.
Various scripts, incarnations and nostalgia fueled what became The Fabelmans. Collaborating with various writers at various points in time, After School, A Boy’s Life and Growing Up have all evolved into this work.
When the horizon is at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon is at the 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, appliances, media and recent war atrocities and losses, as a warm look at what 24 frames per second can do to a mind , The Fabelmans proves that things can only get meta.
Spielberg’s famed camera hands here direct the incredibly precise camera hands of Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Gabriel LaBelle who both play versions of Sammy Fabelman. However, perhaps the film’s greatest achievement isn’t the way it enjoys recreating the home movies of Spielberg’s youth.
That’s how she celebrates creativity, often through Williams’ role as Sammy’s biggest cheerleader, Mitzi. And his skills as a pianist are underlined by a simple piano score by John Williams.
However, Father Burt’s technological and computer mind is also a key part of Steven’s story. The Fabelmans not only depicts Spielberg’s very real move as a young adult to live with his divorced father in order to be closer to the classes and Los Angeles film studios he so longs for.
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It also pays a fair tribute to the way Spielberg himself would later facilitate major software developments in the media, an unintended tribute to his father Arnold’s pioneering computer work for General Electric.
One of the biggest beats of The Fabelmans is how so many scenes, frames, moments, and design choices don’t just show Spielberg reminiscing about his multi-house childhood.
They show how he has already woven this film, his story and his emotions into much of his work. Those dry, dusty afternoons of this film’s Arizona youth are already present in Spielberg’s Amblin’ (1968).
The layered chat and conversational chaos of the suburbs is reminiscent of the chatter of The Sugarland Express (1974) and Jaws (1975). And the exuberant cartoonish urges of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) are present in Sammy’s stagecoach raids and catapulting teenage soldiers.
Intentional references are also evident when Mitzi spontaneously prompts her children to watch the tornado skies while a rearview Burt is left in their driveway, recalling the same pacing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) when Richard Dreyfuss’ Neary is at the point A breakup and a career station wagon is all that stands between him, the heavens and a divorce.
It’s writ large when the wonder and imagination of those after-school closets, bike rides, and toy closets from ET The Extra Terrestrial (1982) hold secrets that son Sammy must eventually present to mom Mitzi.
It is there that young Sammy is enthralled 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 a promised matinee from the same director’s The Ten Commandments (1956).
He’s there in the alien-eyed marvel of ET watching a John Ford classic before The Fabelmans actually introduces the director himself to a grizzled last-act essay starring true screen legend, David Lynch. And the high school jocks’ anti-Jewish sentiments are intentionally reminiscent of the same xenophobia spat upon the innocents in the queue of Schindler’s List (1993) by the children.
And it’s not just Spielberg’s cinema that’s being stitched into this film. It’s all cinema. From an opening shot to Sammy as he is about to enter a movie theater for his life-changing first time, this is Spielberg aware of the wonder, secret passions and adolescent politics of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (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 vacation movie stills, it’s Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) that comes to mind.
Still, it would be easy to see The Fabelmans caught in the projector lights of nostalgia. It’s also a hot sage — like ET, Empire of the Sun, and AI Artificial Intelligence — in navigating adulthood. This is a work as much about not making art as it is about embracing it. It’s a commentary on the second half of the twentieth century and the same consumerism, pop culture, computer advances, broken domestic tropes, and Americana that have allowed the Spielberg legend to exist and thrive.
Perhaps the greatest success of The Fabelman is the way it shines a lot of lights on the artistry of Spielberg himself. In the box office explosion of those pioneering films of the 1970s and 1980s, matinee adventure and new-age technology always flew against the moon of film and back.
Here, and oddly by the man himself, is work that points out how not everyone can put together a chase. Not only does anyone know how to adjust a cut or hold a frame. When does a hobby become a life? When talent comes into it.
The Fabelmans begins and ends with the very principles of the art of cinema: the artistry, talent and tenacity required to make that wonder shine through the darkness.
Spielberg hasn’t just come home. Pop culture cinema has. And as the final view of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade demonstrates, the horizon works best in the lower part of the frame. John Ford was right.
The Fabelmans is in UK cinemas from 27 January.
Take a closer look at the film below.