That’s Entertainment: A personal journey through Musical Cinema

They say people don’t change. I think that’s crap. I mean, look at me. When I was a kid, you couldn’t get me to touch a Musical with a ten-foot pole. I thought it was boring, frankly. The plot halting every once in a while because people burst out singing. I was into Spielberg and idiotic 80’s comedies like the Police Academy films (which were the funniest thing in the world as far as I was concerned). Musicals seemed old, slow, and too long. Indeed, the early Eighties didn’t see a lot of musicals, at least not many good ones. There were some movies I did like, though. I think I liked Hair from the get-go (maybe because we had the vinyl at home), and Grease too, Just because they were relatively new and fast paced. But as a genre, Musicals were at the bottom of the hip for me.

But then something happened. When I got older, and got more and more interested in Cinema and especially Genre cinema, I discovered that Musicals, good Musicals, can be splendid visual fists. Gradually, I began watching more and more of them, especially from the Fifties and Sixties. I watched That’s Entertainment and got a new appreciation for the skill and talent involved in these films. It’s very hard to do a good Musical, and a bad Musical is something really horrendous. Interestingly enough, two of the genres I disliked in my youth and came to love later in life – Musicals and Horror films – are the two most visually interesting genres cinema has to offer. Can the dancing of Fred Astaire be transmitted through Radio, or even be described? No, you have to see it. Can the shadows and lighting games and weird angles of many horror movies can be duplicated in any other form? No. Only when you learn to appreciate the visual uniqueness of theses films can you begin to really appreciate them – thematically and artistically.

Many people in the modern age don’t like Musicals. Some think they’re silly, because it’s stupid to just spontaneously sing and dance (As opposed to, let’s say, dress as a giant bat and fight criminals). I can only feel sorry for these poor saps. A good musical is a celebration of life. In a good Musical, when a character starts to sing for no apparent reason, you feel uplifted, like you’re hovering a few inches above the ground. The marriage of sight and sound is powerful. You just need to let yourself open up and be swept by it, and if you’ll do that, you’ll find that Musicals can evoke tremendous feelings of joy, excitement and emotion, like no other genre can.

In the last three decades, the world has become more and more cynical. Our entertainment and culture is dominated by money-hungry corporations. The bottom line is dollars. The materialism and each-to-his-own state of mind has seeped into everyday life. People are afraid to feel , or rather admit that they’re feeling. No, I’m not saying that guys should go and admit to their girlfriends that they cried in Titanic. Some lines should never be crossed. But the reason Musicals have practically faded out of cinemas in the last 30 years is because the genre became too out-there, too loose, to unbelievable for our reality (TV)-grounded world. So many movies today remind us that the world is a crappy place. That people are mean. That everything’s gone to shit. Hell, we know that, but every coin has two sides. I’m a sarcastic bastard myself and I still believe the world has many wonderful things to offer along with the bad ones. I think there’s a place for this kind of escapist cinema to exist next to the more realistic ones (even comic book movies have become depressing). The 30’s and 40’s and 50’s weren’t better than today. There was depression and wars. But people still went to see Musicals (and a lot of other movies), to dream in the dark for two hours. Irt was a period very different than our overly analytical, criticism-filled world.

That’s why I was so glad to see Hairspray, probably the best Musical in years. It reminded me of Grease in many ways – It is set in the 60’s, it concerns teenagers, it has John Travolta in it (who appears next to Michelle Pfeiffer, a Grease 2 alumni) – but it has it’s own spirit. It’s so fun, energetic and cool, it’s almost defies description.

So I present to you, without further ado, my favorite Musicals of all time, in chronological order. In my opinion, these are some of the best Musicals ever made and they are prime examples of what the genre, in it’s peak, can accomplish.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

There’s not much I can say about this picture that haven’t been said already. Dorothy goes over the rainbow to find there’s No Place Like Home. MGM, the king of Hollywood in the golden age and undisputed House of Musicals, produced this lavish fantasy musical almost 70 years ago and the film still feels fresh, with all its themes of friendship and dream-fulfillment intact. MGM had an incredible stable of talents and this is a good showcase for many of them, led by the timeless Judy Garland. Highlights include “Follow the Yellow Brick road” and of course, “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, the song that almost didn’t make it into the film. The Wizard of Oz was a film that grew on me. When I first saw it, so long ago, it was a fun film, no more. But when I was older and started looking at it in more deeper ways, it became one of my favorite films – and not just Musical films – of all time.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

They just don’t make ’em like they used to. Performers, that is. Take Gene Kelly, for example. The man could act, sing, dance, choreograph and direct. Amazing. This movie, directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen (top Musicals director at MGM at that time, along with Vincent Minelly), is another great classic from MGM. It takes place in the 1920’s when Hollywood moved from silent pictures to “talkies”, and includes some of the most iconic musical sequences in the history of film, topped, of course, by Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain bit. In this scene, fellow talent powerhouse Donald O’Connor tries to articulate to Kelly the mythic influence that a good comedian has on his audience, using unbelievable physical agility.

West Side Story (1961)

By the Sixties, the lavish MGM Musical was no more. The studio system has collapsed and the golden age of Hollywood has ended, partly because of TV, partly because people were now far removed from Vaudeville days and didn’t see the need to have song and dance in every other movie.
On paper, this might have sounded like a problematic idea. Take two youth gangs from New York’s Upper West Side and have them prancing and dancing in the streets while they fight for control over the neighborhood in a modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette.
Adapted from the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story proves that if you have the right talent, you can make everything work. The story has transferred seamlessly to the big screen, with wonderful, poignant songs and Jerome Robbins’ beautiful, energetic choreography. The movie is musical even when there’s nobody singing. The dialogue has a certain staccato to it, as if the conversations are being sung too. As lovers from rival camps, Tony and Maria try to break away from the laws that bind them – laws they did not agree to in the first place. it ends in tragedy. West Side Story is one of a handful of Musicals who deliver a powerful story that exits in its own right and doesn’t serve as an excuse for a string of songs. The film was directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), who makes wonderful use of the Cinemascope photography, positioning his performers in a wide plain of field as if everything is taking place on a vast stage. It is heartfelt and sad, mischievous and dangerous, full of raw emotions and stunning music. This picture may well be the greatest Musical ever made.

Oliver! (1968)

We move now across the Atlantic to Great Britain, maybe not the most obvious place to look for lavish musicals, and if we’re talking about ideas that seem… well, strange in theory. how about this one? Take Charles Dickens’ dark tale of growing-up the hard way in London, and turn it into a… Musical?
Well, that’s exactly what British Composer Lionel Bart did. The result, a hugely successful stage play, later adapted to the big screen by British director Carol Reed, Oliver! the movie is one fantastic musical which, naturally, has a great story to boot. From the first scene, when Oliver says the famous line: “Please, sir, I want some more” while asking for another helping of disgusting porridge, until the final amusing scene between Fagin and the Artful Dodger, the movie is pure joy, and won the best picture Oscar in 1968.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Can you love a movie fiercely? Love him in the sense that every time you watch it you feel all giddy inside, like you’re a kid again, and your parents took you to the rides in the amusement park and bought you a cotton candy? This is what this movie does to me. Roald Dahl’s classic book has turned into a classic film. It’s not the best Musical ever made or the best film ever made, far from it. But it is a delightful little film, full of whimsy and fun and yes, pure imagination. And above all, the towering performance of the one and only Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (don’t even get me started on that Johnny Depp travesty). This magical tale, about one child’s journey into a fantastic candy factory and the lessons that he learns there isn’t loaded with songs, but the ones that are there are charming and catchy. From the candy-man song (and the craving for sweets it brings with it), to the charming Oompa-Loompas moral sing-a-longs, none is more poignant and beautiful than the most famous song from the most famous scene in the movie.
Oh my… did I mention how I love this movie?

Grease (1978)

Sure, the story is corny and the characters are mostly flat, but the music, oh, the music, and John Travolta’s dancing, that makes up for all of it with spades.
Grease is an institute, the most successful movie Musical, a bona fide box office hit filled with memorable and some less memorable songs, but nevertheless it is a pop musical done right. It doesn’t hold a candle to the story and performances of West Side Story or Oliver!, but it stays buoyant by its sheer fun factor. The dancing scene at the Gym is amazing and Summer Nights is a classic. It’s a Musical that while not being highly regarded for its cinematic or narrative qualities, is nevertheless one of the most energetic and fun musicals ever made. I’ve watched it dozens of times and I never get tired of it. Followed by a 1982 sequel that is much better than people would have you think, although it can’t hold a candle to the original. Grease is indeed the word.

Hair (1979)

In Hair, Musicals as a genre has reached the other end of the spectrum. It was the waning days of the Musical. Far removed from the Vaudeville-inspired musical comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, where every featherweight movie had song and dance in it, the plots were paper thin, and everything was glossy and rosy and the worst problems the characters had to contend with were deciding between handsome man/woman no. 1 or no. 2. In those days, it was all about the music. The other stuff was just excuses.
But Hair was about war. And not just any war, but the most futile and brutal of them all, the Vietnam War. That agenda is delivered with a punch to the stomach in the final act. In my view, this is a great anti-war movie along with being a great musical. The juxtaposition between the free spirit of Berger, which is all about irresponsibility, free will, love and LSD – yep, a true hippie – and between his tragic, ironic end, is memorable. The reprise of “Manchester, England”, which takes a chilling new meaning in the final scenes, is unforgettable and so far removed from the garishly happy days of MGM musicals. But still, Hair has more than enough light moments to offer us before the final act, showing us Berger, his band of jolly hippies, and the naive country boy, Claude, dance and sing their way through the New York streets of the late 1960’s.
Hair, such an American film, directed by a Czech, Milos Forman, and was made a decade after the stage musical debuted, which may have rendered it a bit out-of-date with the movie-goers of the late 70’s. But even if the characters are a bit dated, the anti-war message resonates today as strong as ever (anti-war movies never go out of fashion, sadly). Aided by Twyla Tharp magnificent choreography, which the best to describe it would be “chaotic harmony”, Forman’s film is an exuberant experience, far-removed from its historic predecessors, while still being a classic musical in its own right.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Apart from some Disney films, the 1980’s were a wasteland when it comes to Musicals. The genre practically disappeared. The 80’s were the Age of Capitalism. America, leading the world with Ronald Reagan as president. The Musical movie wasn’t cut out for this dog-eat-dog world. People had no patience. People wanted heroic movies about real issues. One of the big misconceptions about the Musical is the notion that it can’t be about something. That it is just fluffy entertainment. I guess those people never saw West Side Story or Hair.
But through all this time, the Musical continued to flourish on Broadway. What people won’t take on the silver screen they have no problem accepting on the stage. Maybe because, for better or worse, the Musical is an artificial genre, and theater is much more artificial than film.
One of those stage musicals was adapted into a movie in 1986 and directed by Frank Oz from Muppets fame. It began its life as a low-budget horror film directed by the king of the B-movies, Roger Corman, and starring a very young Jack Nicholson. That movie, made in 1960, was, maybe ironically, not a musical. Then came the stage version by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (who wrote many songs for Disney movies such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast), and that was later adapted to the screen.
There’s something to be said about the period-piece nature of musicals. It seems that the vast majority of them takes place in the past, be it the 19th century or 1970’s. It’s as if not having the story take place in present time gives it some sort of quality that makes it easier for us to accept as a musical. And so, true to form, Little Shop of Horrors takes place in an undetermined 1960’s era New York neighborhood, where shy Seymour believes he can impress the girl he’s in love with by showing her his giant plant… Well, maybe the synopsis didn’t turn out like I wanted it to, but never mind. This is all great fun. From Steve Martin’s memorable insane Dentist Orin Scrivello, DDS, to Ellen Green’s squeaky Audrey, to Levi Stubbs booming voice as Audrey II, this is a rhythmic, swinging musical, and quite funny to boot. From Little Shop of Horrors, here’s the brilliant number “Skid Row”.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)

Those South Park goonies, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, made a somewhat unexpected turn when they created the first big screen adventure of Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny as a big, lavish, Broadway inspired musical, while still retaining the irreverence and sharp humor of the TV series. The result is delight from start to finish, as a war breaks out between the US and Canada, and all because of two Canadian comedians who dare corrupt the children of South Park with their Profanity filled movies.
But Parker and Stone have managed to do something that is almost unheard of. Create an uproariously funny musical. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, most musicals were light comedies, especially romantic ones, but they were rarely side-splitting funny. (As a side note, the Marx Brothers actually suffered from the inclusion of songs in their movies. When they moved from Paramount to MGM in the late 1930’s, the studio made them sing, which basically interfered with their manic energy and usually hurt the pacing of the films on some degree or another).

In any case, the decision to do a South Park movie as a Musical is a bold one, and an interesting one. They could’ve made it straight and it still would’ve been cool. But the musical element adds a “larger than life” quality to the film and distinguishes it from the TV series. (Parker and Stone would repeat that later with Team America. There’s no two ways about it: These guys love musicals).

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

With this Baz Luhrman’s film there’s no middle ground. Either you love it or you hate it. I, as you’ve probably guessed already, belong to the first group. I think it’s a brilliant film.
Interestingly enough, there are people who love musicals and who don’t love this film. In the end, it’s a matter of personal taste. Granted, it’s not a classic musical. And for some it may ll seem much ado about nothing. Or too hectic. Or too over the top. Well, this is good problem for a movie. Love it or hate it, it evokes strong emotions.

A love story in turn-of-the-century Paris between an innocent poet and a very un-innocent courtesan, peppered with cover versions for songs ranging from Beck’s “Diamond Dogs” to Elton John’s “Your song” – This film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Full of color and rhythm, it is a kinetic experience to dazzle the senses. The performances are deliciously un-naturalistic and the musical arrangement is stunning. Extremely re-watchable (like any good Musical) and unabashedly kitschy. A movie to transport you to another world. That is why I love musicals so much, because they demand something essential from you. They demand you let go. Let go of, well, reality, just for two hours. Let yourself swept away. Getting swept away by a movie is what it’s all about. And if you can let Moulin Rouge take you on this journey, you’re going to have the time of your life.

Hairspray (2007)

And so, we’re back to the trigger for this celebratory post. Someday, someone should write a paper about the genre’s fascination with hair and hair products. We had Hair, we had Grease, and now we have Hairspray. I guess the next logical step will be Gel.
Actually, Hairspray, the big screen version of the stage musical based on John Waters’ 1988 film by the same name (which was not a musical – yes, much like Little Shop of Horrors and also Mel Brooks’ The Producers) – actually lies chronologically somewhere between Hair and Grease. If Hair took place in the late 1960’s and Grease at the 1950’s, Hairspray takes place in 1962 Baltimore, where a wide hipped girl named Tracy Turnblad wants to join the local dance show on TV to show that she can make it despite her looks and in the way gets to fight prejudice and make some new, unexpected friends. Hairspray is much more similar in spirit to Grease than to Hair, though. It’s all bubbly and energetic – the music almost never stops. It’s also quite Funny, with great performances from a great cast (including John Travolta as Tracy’s obese mother – it’s better than it sounds). The movie was directed by Adam Shankman, who began his career as a choreographer before moving on to directing mediocre comedies. After seeing this, Mr. Shankman should stick to what he does best. This candy-colored musical is absolutely, positively, awesomely great.

The current semi-renaissance of the Musical can probably be traced back to Moulin Rouge’s huge success in 2001. In the last six years we had more musicals then maybe in the entire 1990’s. Movies like Chicago (first musical to win an Oscar in a long time), The Producers, Disney’s High School Musical, and even Bring It On (no songs, but this has pure Musical vibe) to name just a few, have reinvigorated the genre and proven there’s still a market for these kinds of films. And through all these years, the Musical has been alive and kicking in Bollywood. Movie like Laggan, a four hour epic about a cricket match which is amazingly never dull – show what the genre can accomplish, even in modern times.

Many great musicals weren’t mentioned in this post, so just a passing nod to: Oklahoma!, The Lion King (and other Disney movies), The Blues Brothers, My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music, everything with Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly in it, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Mary Poppins, Busby Berkley musicals, and The Muppet movie, to name just a few.

Imagine: What if in real life we would sing and dance our way to work? Wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place? Just for an instant? Ironically, people who sing and talk to themselves on the street are considered somewhat mentally ill. But come on, admit it: How any of us sometimes have the urge to just sing or dance just for the heck of it? The closest thing we have to that is i-pods. Everyone has his own personal soundtrack, his own musical in his head. Now imagine throwing away the i-pod, imagine the world as a Musical, where everyone is doing that. Yes, it would collapse the music industry because everyone would be a super-talented singer/dancer, but really, wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be liberating?

Just imagine.


1 comment so far

  1. Galia S on

    Wow, how wonderfull!!!
    Al those musicals realy bring up memories from the past.
    I never thought I like musicals so much untill now.
    And yes, it would be very liberating if people sing and dance in the streets,
    at lest for a few days, then it will start being very annoying.
    Maybe there should be a “sing and dance in the streets day” once a year.

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