Saturday, November 21, 2009
#41 - Movie Musicals
It was the decade when...
Hollywood started singing again.
It was the unlikeliest of comebacks. Unlike the Western, a film genre that, though dead, (or at least sputtering and wheezing like Doc Holliday after some saloon fisticuffs) inspires a perpetual reverence in critics nostalgic for the All-American mythos, expansive cinemascope vistas and moral clarity that are part and parcel of the genre, the movie musical had no such luck maintaining its highbrow cultural cache. The genre had cascaded down from the heights of popularity to near total irrelevance, musicals coming to seem a relic of a bygone era in American society, the social upheavals of the Sixties negating the overt sentimentality and escapism that had come to be associated with the genre. Whether this reputation was deserved or not matters little, the proof was in the pudding: the genre's biggest hits were either syrupy paeans to music, love and family (The Sound of Music) or acerbic, witty insider showbiz stories (Singing In The Rain, 42nd Street), neither of which could succeed in connecting with an increasingly disillusioned and sentiment-averse populace.
Other pressures pushed musicals even more away from the limelight. Advancements in camera technology allowed for more location shooting; with the shift to natural light and real locales the artifice of the sound stage was rendered sillier and sillier and if there is one thing a musical needs to sustain credulity it's artifice. The real death knell for the movie musical was the usurpation of show tunes by Rock 'N Roll as the hegemonic standard for popular music in America. Those who held onto affection for show music got more and more cult-like and ostracized from the mainstream. Musical theatre and musical cinema, once the most mainstream popular art forms in America, came to be associated almost entirely with older urbanites and, above all, homosexuals. When Oliver! won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1968 the victory was Pyrrhic; you can have a coronation for the king after the revolution if you like, it doesn't change the fact that the castle is trashed and the queen already beheaded.
Efforts were made at rehabilitation (HAIR, Cabaret) and, later, resurrection, (A Chorus Line, EVITA) but all was in vain. Musical movies were decidedly uncool, so entrenched in an antiquated style of filmmaking (and equally calcified ideological perspective) that no cultural defibrillator could bring the genre back to life. Until the Aughts.
Love him or hate him, there is no question that Baz Luhrmann and his hyperkenetic, maximalist aesthetic breathed new life into the corpse that was the movie musical with his 2001 hit Moulin Rouge. A love story as hackneyed as anything in a Jeanette McDonald/Nelson Eddie classic, Moulin Rouge aspired to turn the genre's vices into virtues. A epic romance supplemented by overwrought love songs with purple lyrics? Check. A glamorous showbiz setting? Check. An artificial mise en scene employing clearly unrealistic settings that smack of the theatrical? Check. Just edit the thing like you're Vincent Minnelli on a Meth jag and you've made a modern musical classic for a post-MTV Generation. Employing a melange of musical genres ranging from Whitney Houston power ballads to Jule Styne charm songs and beyond, Luhrman displays less a catholicity of taste than a post-modern desire to incorporate the entirety of 20th Century popular music into his own meticulously crafted, hermetically sealed universe, a world baring little relation to the bohemian Paris it ostensibly represents. The gambit paid off and Moulin Rouge proved a box office smash, clearing the air for other movie musicals to climb mount improbable and achieve mainstream success. If only Mr. Luhrman's vision, for all it's contemporary stylings, included content and characters that weren't as creaky as a Parisian flat's floorboards.
With Rouge convincing Hollywood executives that a little razzle dazzle was on the menu for the American public, it became only a matter of time before the eternally postponed film version of Kander and Ebb's classic musical Chicago would finally get its cinematic bow. Helmed by Broadway director Rob Marshall making his big screen debut, Chicago was an unprecedented success. Hewing close to its source material, Chicago was a big, splashy, sexy, bootlegged cocktail of a movie with a chaser of satire. The biggest moneymaker in Miramax history, Chicago dominated awards season, taking the top prize at the 2003 Academy Awards, the first time a musical had done so in over three decades. Though the dance sequences (or should I say sequin-ses) were over-edited and the performances less revelatory than many critics claimed (Did Queen Latifah really deserve that Oscar nom?) Chicago was still something of a revelation, a Broadway show transferred to a different medium with near total success. receiving acclaim from both critics, laymen and, toughest to please of all, theatre queens.
Suddenly, cineplexes were flush with singing and dancing, but, the new welcoming attitude toward movie musicals inevitably led to overstretching; lapses in judgment were inevitable. Sadly, two high profile projects threatened to derail the genre's revival altogether, making Chicago look more a one-off than game changer. A juggernaut when it landed on Broadway, The Producers was inevitably destined for a cinematic treatment after Chicago proved that movie musicals could still rake it in (and help boost slagging ticket sales on the Rialto as well). Already a cinema classic with starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, this new Producers was playing with fire before a frame was filmed. Having first-time director Susan Stroman behind the camera didn't help; all her inventiveness and wit went flat when asked to think in two dimensions. The Producers was little more than a record of the stage show, pickled and canned for posterity.
RENT, though faring better at the Box Office, was even more creatively bankrupt. Directed by the middling, eager-to-please Chris Columbus, RENT was filmed with an almost naive literalness that served to highlight, not minimize, the shows flaws, mainly, its weepy melodramatics and occasionally self-pitying attitude. (It is based on an Opera after all.) Michael Grief's original theatrical staging was deliberately icy, sparse and unsentimental; it's what gave the musical its gloss of "coolness" and made the lachrymose storytelling palatable. Without inventing an analogue in cinematic terms, the musical fell flat, disappointing a small army of RENT-heads for whom the show was the I CHING, King James Bible and Hammurabi's code rolled into one.
And there was more. The Phantom of the Opera, the movie. Yeah, that happened. The High School Musical series proved that young people couldn't get enough singing and dancing in their entertainment, the more toothless the better. Puppet wrangler and Lion King wunderkind Julie Taymor made a psychedelic Beatles musical called Across The Universe but few cared. Though Dreamgirls won Jennifer Hudson an Oscar and made 100 Million domestically, the expectations for the movie were so sky high that modest success felt like a disappointment. Hairspray got John Travolta back where he belongs: in a fat suit, high kicking. The public couldn't stop the beat, minting the John Waters adaptation a cool 118 Million domestically. And, when an actress named Streep agreed to sing some songs by a band called Abba for the film version of the tourist-friendly claptrap known as Mamma Mia the box office was bound to be good. 600 Million Dollars later, mouths are still agape. The winner takes it all indeed.
The best of the lot was Tim Burton's blood soaked adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece Sweeney Todd. Nary a sequins in sight, Sweeney was unlike any musical movie ever made. A horror film as much as anything, perhaps only Burton, with his unique brand of carnival macabre, could supply the delicate combination of menace and mirth that Sweeney trades in. Brechtian tropes be damned, Burton's Sweeney was an old fashioned thriller, a Hammer horror creepshow with better art direction (it's only Oscar win). Oh, and in this horror movie, the monsters sing. The film was critically lauded and performed modestly well at the box office, though a massive smash was probably never in the cards for Sweeney; some projects are simply too brilliant and original to fit into any proscribed marketing model.
With Rob Marshall's adaptation of Nine set for release this December starring a starry a cast of Oscar favorites, there is no doubt that the movie musical is hitting a stride. A Miss Saigon film is already in the works and one can imagine that it's only a matter of time before Wicked gets a celluloid makeover. When Hugh Jackman, the actor most destined to star in a movie musical (can Carousel happen, like, NOW?), hosted the Oscars this year and announced while opening a big production number "The Musical Is Back!" what could one do but agree and rejoice. The Musical IS back. It's really great and all that jazz...
You AUGHT to remember...