Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Heath Holland On...Musicals!

by Heath Holland
The hills are alive with the sound of screaming. No, music! I meant to say music.

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.
The real draw for this movie is the songs, which feel timeless, but the film is smart enough to play up how bizarre Disney musical numbers are when they take place in our own, non-magical world. Songwriter Alan Menken, who co-wrote all those great songs from Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, 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?
It’s unfortunate that the very white Natalie Wood was cast as a Hispanic character, but the prominent placement of Rita Moreno ALMOST makes up for it. Moreno was the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award, and it was this movie and her performance in it that got her the statue. So that’s progress, and it’s just another reason West Side Story, alongside the film’s anti-gang, anti-violence message, is a pretty great musical.

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.
All in all, there are 34 Beatles songs that pop up in the film. Of course, none of them sound nearly as good as the Beatles versions, but that’s not really the point. While I can’t imagine ever sitting and listening to the soundtrack of the film, the songs work remarkably well in the framework of the movie itself and tell a story that I’m more than willing to invest myself in. You can tell that the filmmakers have a ton of affection for The Beatles, which means that the movie comes across as sincere and loving rather than exploitative…at least, how I read it. Turn of the lights, turn up the sound, and have some tea while you watch the words and music of The Beatles come to life.

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.
The music is, in a word, rousing. Going back to the jazz standards of the 1920s for inspiration, the songs that were written for the stage in 1975 by John Kander and Fred Ebb still feel as fresh and full of energy as they did almost 40 years ago. Every single song is a winner and nothing feels dull or flat. For a musical to maintain the pace that the film does (with frequent digressions and dance breaks) and still not lose any momentum is a testament to how great the filmmaking is. The Academy agreed and gave the film six Oscars, including Best Picture. I haven’t numbered the movies I’ve listed here in any sort of order, but I do think I’ve saved my favorite for last. It’s worth noting that Rob Marshall tried to return to the musical well in 2009 with the similar film Nine, but I found the results to be mostly forgettable.

Do you have a favorite musical that you find yourself returning to over and over again? Tell me aaaaaaaaaall abouuuuuuuut iiiiiiiiiiit!

*jazz hands*


  1. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, for me. Sure, the entire plot is slightly problematic with the treatment of women, but if you get past that minor issue it's a damn fine piece of work highlighted by Howard Keel and some really fantastic dancing.

    As for Chicago, I may not be the biggest fan in the world of it but there is a lot to like; John C. Reilly's lovely performance, the staging of The Cell Block Tango (with choreography by Denise Faye, who was the arsenic murderer as well) and especially for how it's one of the few movies I like Richard Gere in.

  2. Singin' in the Rain would have to be my choice, of course. Not only is it the best musical ever made (in my opinion), but it is also my second favorite movie of all time in general. I will also give major props to the '60s film adaptation of The Music Man. That movie is really great with wonderful music and fun to watch thanks to excellent performances from Robert Preston and Shirley Jones.

    Good calls on Enchanted, West Side Story, The Muppet Movie (Rainbow Connection is still an amazing song in my eyes), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! All awesome choices!

    1. I haven't seen Singing in the Rain. I KNOW. There are so many old musicals from the classic era of Hollywood that I need to catch up on. Another one on my list is James Whale's version of Show Boat. I'll have to make time to catch up.

    2. Ah, well, I would highly suggest putting Singin' in the Rain toward the top of your watch list. It's fun, funny, and features some GREAT songs and dance numbers, and the performances are all tops. It's absolutely a classic for a reason.

  3. Some great choices plus a couple I have not seen and need to track down now

    The musical that I actually love. I might get some stick here. But Bigger longer uncut. The Southpark movie. From that opening song till the last I can sing every line of every song from memory. I even copied it to audio so I can just listen to the movie and sing along. Its brilliant

    1. I'm not going to give you stick over the South Park movie, it's really entertaining and has great songs. Curious, have you seen Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical?

    2. No I havent. It must of sneaked by me. Is it worth a look?

    3. Oh, yes. Patrick wrote about it earlier this year:

    4. Cheers Heath. That looks really interesting. Pre South park too.

  4. Ah the good old musicals, I'm not a fan of a ton of them but the ones that I love I am pretty hardcore about. Sound of Music is probably my most recent favorite that I have made a yearly tradition to watch the last few holiday times. Singin in the Rain is another great one. Willy Wonka and the Chocoalte Factory is one of those movies I have "memorized" and is one song short of being absolutely perfect (sorry "Cheer up Charlie")

    One thing I enjoy about these movies is that they dont sing ALL the time. (Looking at you yet again Les Miserables) They have a good flow to them. As much action as the Raid movies have they aren't literally all action from start to finish. This is one of my bigger beefs with the last few musicals that have come to theatres as of the last decade.

    One honorable mention goes to the 2005 The Producers with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. While the movie isnt shot well at all (boring medium shots and clearly no skill from director behind the camera) the songs are the most catchy of any musical I've ever heard. Its a crying shame Mel Brooks didnt come out of unofficial retirement to helm that one, we need one more great Mel Brooks movie.

    P.S. I need to give Cannibal the Musical another chance, thanks for the reminder Heath

  5. Yay musicals! Haha you beat Cameron and I to it! My favourites will be mentioned on that video pocast (coming soon to a youtube near you). Enchanted! I'm a crazy Fanzel and have been for many years (over 6 now) so I went just for her and yelled I love Idina Menzel like a crazy person. And cheered at the credits. I love all the movies you picked but haven't seen Across the universe yet. One of the few I haven't. Thanks Heath for this great article and for getting people talking about musicals again. Check out JB's musical columns guys!