Monday, December 29, 2014

Is the Movie Musical Back?

Annie and Into the Woods
are the tent poles for this Holiday Season

     TV ads have trumpeted Annie and Into the Woods and it’s a watershed moment when two big musicals are opening this close together.  The movie musical was declared dead back in the early ‘70s when a number of the monstrously expensive stage generated properties failed to perform and broke the 
Opening Scene of The Sound of Music
old time studios.  The three that work are The Sound of Music (1965) because of Julie Andrews, West Side Story (1961) because of the dancing and arguably the greatest Broadway
score, and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) because of the cinematography and mise en scene.  What about Streisand?  She breathed elegant, funky new life into movies, but Funny Girl drags incessantly in its last hour when one can only wonder what she sees in Omar Sharif, Hello Dolly! really was Channing’s role, and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever has gorgeous music and a ludicrous plot.  Those dozen or so huge musicals were the superhero action genre for that period, but their sumptuousness and length strangled the spontaneity and fun of the musicals that started the genre with the advent of sound and peaked in anything with which Arthur Freed was associated.

     As I’ve said before, the musical hasn’t really gone out of style, obvious in the popularity of America Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, and So You Think You Can Dance.  These shows work because they’re about the music and the dancing and aren’t trapped in antiquated story conventions.  However, there is a narrative for this sub-genre that links lyrical creativity with Darwinian survival.  There have been some intriguing musicals since the 1970s, though they weren’t always sold that way.  Here are a few worth checking out, but be warned that there’s sex, violence, and foul language.  Even the new Annie is a PG.  Sorry, but the days of Fred and Ginger ended in 1949.

     Cabaret (1973) took the groundbreaking stage show that threw out the integrated approach and intensified the ambivalent fun/decadence, the cauldron of political viciousness, and the simultaneous connection and alienation between what happens onstage at the Kit Kat Klub and the offstage lives of characters connected by a cheap Berlin rooming house.  Everything works, everyone’s brilliant, Bob Fosse’s masterpiece, and hands down, the best movie musical since 1965.

DeNiro and Minnelli
     New York, New York (1977), a movie I’ve written about before because I’m deeply connected to it personally.  Martin Scorsese was lambasted for it at the time, but it says so much about Big Band and Bebop as well as the passion of performers for their art and each other.  The scene design looks like the 1970s recalling the 1940s.  DeNiro and Minnelli play rhythmically in their performances – he’s Neo-Bebop and she’s the Neo-MGM orchestra – and their Italian heritage works an intriguing counterpoint to a story that seems loosely based on Doris Day and Artie Shaw’s relationship.  They talk like people in the ‘40s really spoke, rather than how the Hollywood studios filtered that talk.

Bette Midler in The Rose
     Bette Midler blew the roof off the musical biography in a fictionalized look at Janis Joplin’s final weeks in The Rose (1979).  She never did anything as raw, vulnerable, or wonderful in movies after this.  Alan Bates, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton offer excellent support as the significant males in her life.  Her final concert is gut-wrenching.  

All That Jazz
     Another gem from 1979 was Fosse’s All That Jazz which fused his own autobiography with a structure out of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and then threw in one of the most erotic dance numbers ever filmed (“Take Off with Us”) after one of the most charming (“Everything Old is New Again”).  The editing is breathtaking and the first ten minutes trumps A Chorus Line.  Like Midler in The Rose, Roy Scheider seemed possessed and never did anything so incredible afterwards.

Bernadette Peters in Pennies from Heaven
     Pennies from Heaven (1981) shows off the wild dancing skills of Christopher Walken and the wit and discretion of Steve Martin to blend into almost any genre.  Bernadette Peters actually gets a leading musical role on film!  The art direction mirrors Reginald Marsh, Busby Berkeley, and a host of other 1930s icons.  Gordon Willis’ cinematography is an undiscovered treasure.  Be warned: everything’s lip-synced and it is for metaphorical reasons, but it’s disappointing since Peters is a Broadway Empress and both Martin and Walken can sing.

     Two NYC “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” choices:  Fame (1980) somehow merged the styles of ‘70s Broadway, especially A Chorus Line, with Disco, Punk, and early electronic.  One of the principal characters is an electronic composer.  An ethnically diverse cast performs vigorously to a backdrop of New York as either the bowels of Hell or the last vestiges of the Gilded Age.  The ending shows the characters in a moment of triumph, but implies it may be ephemeral.  
Beat Street (1984) examines hip-hop, breakdancing, and graffiti after they’d been around in NYC for a while, but just before they took off in the popular consciousness.  Lively, youthful, and with some performers on the cusp of establishing themselves, its ending is tougher than expected.

     1991 saw two movies re-examine the importance of American Soul music – Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats, which plays like as a grittier male version of Dreamgirls, and shares some elements of The Dells’ real-life story.  Wonderful performances by Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, and Harry Lennix dominate.  Why wasn’t this a hit?  Maybe its authenticity turned off audiences that wanted black dominated music channeled through white Irish younger performers in a contemporary setting instead.  The Commitments was rough, fun, and sort of sweet yet borrowed.  The ending, fortunately, showed that it wasn’t naïve. 

Sir Arthur Sullivan and His Mistress in Topsy Turvy
     Mike Leigh put aside his musings on the contemporary British class system to take on the entirety of 1880s Victorian Empire in the masterful Topsy-Turvy (1999).  Ostensibly about Gilbert and Sullivan creating The Mikado, it’s really about how one artistic work is both engendered by its historical and cultural era and how it reflects back. This has a sumptuous, smoky, lived-in look.  The best British cast without a dame or knight in sight.  One section will either enthrall or annoy the viewer:  a rehearsal where a scene is in trouble and the writers and actors have to confront the limits and expansiveness of their creativity together.  The degree of their politeness increases directly with the level of their irritation. However, it shows how performers really work.

The Triplets of Belleville
     8 Women (2002) a one-of-a-kind French offering by François Ozon that takes some of the greatest female icons of French cinema and drops them in a country house murder mystery situation with musical numbers is both charming and sort of nuts.  For an animated delight that’s also Gallic, The Triplets of Belleville (2003) takes on cycling, musicians, dopey adolescence, and old age.

     Two stage adaptations that demand mention, though maybe not repeated attention:  Chicago (2002), unimaginable without the great Catherine Zeta-Jones (Traffic was also unimaginable without her two years earlier) and the constantly underestimated Richard Gere – he could be the Robert Mitchum of his generation, i.e. people get how terrific he is once he’s no longer the leading man.  It was bright, ‘wicked’ 
Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls
fun, but not glitteringly dangerous the way Cabaret was; and Dreamgirls (2006), unimaginable without Jennifer Hudson, behaves like a ‘70s mini-series even down to the end titles.  Smartly, it presents a gossipy roman à clef about the Supremes, but not close enough to get sued.  It’s more about Diana Ross and Etta James and what they represent as icons and what it meant for a specific genre like R & B (or “race” music) to pursue the mainstream (the white audience) and literally/metaphorically sell its soul.  Added bonus – the original stage Dreamgirls show up in cameos.  

Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan
in Prairie Home Companion
     A Prairie Home Companion (2006) was Robert Altman’s last movie and it’s funny, sad, and shows Middle America at its best.  Ostensibly about the end of a long-running NPR show, it’s really a valentine to the big cast, hyper-link masterpieces Altman created – Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993) – featuring Lily Tomlin as one of his muses as well as the endurance of radio and Midwestern values, and a ghost story.  The cast amazes by playing like also-rans, rather than the stars they were and are:  Streep (yes, this is the musical in which to see her), Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan (knowing what would happen to her makes her talent in this even more poignant), Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Virginia Madsen (the most beautiful overlooked American screen actress of the past twenty years), Tommy Lee Jones, Maya Rudolph, and the wry, American legend Garrison Keillor.  

     The real Irish deal was John Carney’s Once (2006), an understated, aching and honest love story.  It doesn’t pull its punches.  This is how musicians actually speak and behave with one another.  The savage unrest in Eastern Europe (something most Americans rarely consider) plays in the background of Dublin as a diverse city and haven for many ex-patriots as refugees.  This was Neil’s favorite movie of that year.

     My favorite movie of 2007 was I’m Not There, a mind-blower by Todd Haynes that presents Bob Dylan’s biography as well as how he (and we) thought of himself as an icon.  Half a dozen performers display different aspects of Dylan (including Gere again) with Cate Blanchett becoming a shaman channeling him at his popular and artistic height in the mid-1960s.  This movie takes so many risks that it stunned us both.  The look changes with each different section, the music is sensational (I’ve always thought Dylan’s and Neil Diamond’s music sounded better when performed by others), and the effect is ambivalent.  Dialectically, it presents both the object (Dylan), a kaleidoscope of manifestations of that object, yet not the object itself (Dylan never sings nor is seen, though he’s overwhelmingly there).  Full disclosure – there were a couple of moments when the continuity lost me and I couldn’t tell what the relation was between two moments or scenes, but I had to let that go and just take it all in.
     Our fingers are crossed for Annie and Into the Woods.  If either doesn’t perform, Hollywood will hold back its pipeline for developing, making, and releasing the next generation of musicals.

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