by Heath Holland
For some reason, I associate November and December with musicals. It’s probably all those bad Rankin-Bass holiday specials and their exceptional songwriting (example: “Jingle jingle jingle, you will hear my sleigh bells ring, I am old Kris Kringle, I’m the king of jingling.” Goosebumps, you guys). Or maybe it’s crowding around the television to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas or watching The Wizard of Oz with my family every single year. Point is, I don’t know why, but when the temperature drops, I find myself wanting to breeeeeeaaaaaak intooooo soooooong! Here’s just a few musicals that have nothing to do with the holidays, but that you might want to stick in your DVD player’s face while you’re stuffing yours.
Enchanted (2007, dir. Kevin Lima)
I’m leaving Disney’s animated films off this list because that just wouldn’t be fair, but I’m cheating a little bit by adding this Disney film from 2007. Enchanted blurs the line between animation and live action by mixing cartoon characters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit style. Enchanted stars Amy Adams as Giselle, a typical Disney princess transported from an animated world into modern day New York City; Patrick Dempsey is her modern-day Prince Charming. Wait, it’s not nearly as sappy as it sounds; Enchanted gets plenty of mileage out of the juxtaposition of a naive Giselle in our current cynical society in a way that’s not preachy, but fun. In other words, it’s in on the joke. Idina Menzel (or Adele Dazeem, if you prefer), James Marsden, and Susan Sarandon appear in supporting roles. Also, spoilers, Sarandon turns into a dragon. And it’s awesome…because, dragon.
Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin with Howard Ashman, wrote the songs for this film. Looking back, Disney was experimenting with the formula that they later mined with the live-action films Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent in which they take a Disney classic and give it a modern twist. Unlike those movies, Enchanted is based on a completely original story and idea, and it’s all the better for it.
Jailhouse Rock (1957, dir. Richard Thorpe)
There’s a lot going on in this little musical from 1957. It’s Elvis Presley’s third movie, but this is where I think he became a movie star. It didn’t take very long for later Elvis movies to venture into tepid repetition, and Elvis is probably more known for the goofy 1960s comedies in which he phoned in a performance than he is for the edgy, hungry turn we see in Jailhouse Rock, but this movie finds a young and hungry guy with a hunk of burnin’ love.
Elvis plays an alternate version of himself in the film, a smart-mouthed guy serving time for manslaughter in prison, where he realizes he has musical talent as a singer. Upon his release he’s courted by the music industry and has a quick rise to stardom before bad decisions and a bad attitude cause everything to come crashing down. It’s grittier and way more realistic than most of what would come afterward, and the music scenes follow suit by possessing much of the same subversive rebellion as their performer. I can’t think many actors who have starred in the number of musicals than Elvis Presley did, but this is one of the VERY few in which he portrays a three-dimensional person. This is also arguably the most iconic image of Elvis, and the one that springs to my mind when I think of him.
The Muppet Movie (1979, dir. James Frawley)
If you’re remotely the same age as me, there isn’t much that can top The Muppets during their ‘70s heyday, and this movie was the crowning achievement of Jim Henson’s creations. With songs like “Movin’ Right Along,” and “Rainbow Connection,” not to mention over a dozen cameos from actors like Orson Welles, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Elliot Gould, this movie is as good as it gets. There have been lots of Muppets movies in the years since this one first came out (and I like all of them to some extent), but this one will always be my favorite.
West Side Story (1961, dir. Robert Wise)
Robert Wise directed two of the most famous movie musicals of all time: the 1961 adaptation (with Jerome Robbins) of Bernstein/Sondheim’s West Side Story and the 1965 adaptation of the Rogers and Hammerstein production of The Sound of Music. You won’t find the latter film on this list because I prefer West Side Story and its more realistic urban tone and setting. Plus, how can you go wrong with rival gangs Sharks and Jets going to war with snaps and highly choreographed dance routines as their primary weapons?
Once (2007, dir. John Carney)
The Irish movie Once was so good that it served as the basis for a proper Broadway musical. Starring Glen Hansard, the frontman of the band The Frames (he’d also made a previous appearance in the film The Commitments), as well as Czech musician Marketa Irglova, Once tells the story of a street busker who finds himself building a romantic relationship with a flower seller. If the premise sounds a bit cute, that’s because in the hands of a Hollywood studio this would be the stuff of every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. However, the movie never allows itself to linger for too long on exaggerated sentiment and instead paints a realistic portrait of the relationship between two people who aren’t going the same direction. The music is heartbreaking but beautiful. Behind the scenes, the two leads were really falling in love with each other, and their real romance has many parallels to the relationship we see in this film, making Once feel incredibly fragile and authentic.
Across the Universe (2007, dir. Julie Taymor)
You may or may not know that I’m a HUGE Beatles fan (though I can’t hold a candle to JB’s love of the Fab Four), but I’ve never been much of a fan of cover versions of those original Beatles hits and I feel that most tribute bands and concerts don’t even come close to conveying the magic that The Beatles produced so easily. Imagine my surprise when I really enjoyed Across the Universe, a film that tells a story pulled exclusively from the music of The Beatles.
Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood are the two leads, Jude and Lucy. Populated with other characters named Prudence, Jojo, Sadie, Desmond, Dr. Robert, and even Mr. Kite, the whole thing is chock-a-block with every reference to the music of The Beatles that can be crammed into two hours and thirteen minutes. At this point, you’re either on board with the premise or you’re throwing up in your mouth; if it all comes across as a bit too on-the-nose, the movie still deserves points for committing to the gimmick.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, dir. Mel Stuart)
What is there to say about this film that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Gene Wilder will always be Willy Wonka to me and this will always be the definitive version of this story, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I even place this first screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory above the original book. And while certainly more faithful to that novel, Tim Burton’s 2005 remake/re-imagining of the story doesn’t quite click for me. There’s something about Mel Stuart’s direction, the atmosphere of Munich, Germany circa 1970 (where the film was shot), and the INCREDIBLE music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley that makes the film greater than the sum of its parts.
Wilder is AMAZING. His portrayal of Wonka as being somewhere between eccentric and completely mad is a masterpiece in performance; his dry delivery of lines like “you should open your mouth a little wider when you speak” and “I’m a trifle deaf in this ear, speak a little louder next time” get caught in your head and make the dialog endlessly quotable.
As far as songs having the power to transport us to another time and place, I think nothing tops the compositions from this film. You’ve got “The Candy Man Can,” the Oompa Loompa songs, and the most beautiful, moving ode to innocence and childlike wonder ever, “Pure Imagination.” Though it’s been attempted, I don’t think there is any improving on the magic that occurred in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Chicago (2002, dir. Rob Marshall)
I’m one of the few contributors to F This Movie that doesn’t hail from Chicago, but I’ve always had a fascination with the city. Movies like The Untouchables and Dick Tracy cast a big shadow when I was young and the city always seemed to be larger than life. It’s Chicago -- not New York City -- which many Batman comic book writers have used as inspiration for Gotham City; Christopher Nolan filming Chicago as Gotham only cements the connection.
So the 2002 big-screen version of Chicago had me from the word go. Here’s a story that manages to blend murder, the public’s fascination with celebrity culture, sleazy lawyers, and jazz into one cohesive, sexy story set against the backdrop of prohibition-era Chicago. Let’s start with the cast: I really dig Renee Zellweger (version 1.0) in the role of Roxie Hart, and Catherine Zeta Jones is great as the showgirl Velma Kelly. Richard Gere is an actor I don’t usually have an opinion on, but I like his casting too as Roxie’s lawyer. John C. Reilly is inspired as Roxie’s cuckolded husband. In fact, not a single member of the cast feels wasted or doesn’t click. Some of them, like Queen Latifah, prove to be a revelation.
Do you have a favorite musical that you find yourself returning to over and over again? Tell me aaaaaaaaaall abouuuuuuuut iiiiiiiiiiit!