Dear God More Musical Stuff: Today – Movies! (of musicals)

Posted: July 9, 2009 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: ,

Watching live performances of musical theatre is often a discomforting West Side Storycombination of two of my least favorite acts – sitting with other fans, and watching actors act.

…Let me explain.

Concerts often displease me because I don’t like watching how strangers respond to music I enjoy. It’s not unusual to feel a personal link to a song or artist, and so to see someone you don’t know react to the stimulus – often in weirdly moved ways – is…irksome. (I’m sorry, I don’t care how much you love Feist, there’s no reason to be swaying in your balcony seat and mouthing the lyrics!)

Regarding actors, well, I’ve performed on stage (and yes, I kicked ass, don’t believe anything anyone else says but also if there are any videos on YouTube don’t watch them). I know how the sausage is made, so I can’t ever just “watch” a play – I’m also watching how the actors hit their marks, where the stagehands are , which lines are about to get flubbed and how the actors will cover it. It’s hard for me to build the necessary suspension of disbelief to immerse myself in the drama.

For these reasons, I love the shit out of good film adaptations of musicals. Because they resolve my issues with audiences and live actors, both the movies and I as a viewer can focus on plot, tone, and theme – the important stuff. And as a bonus, they have the propensity to be not just good adaptations, but great films in their own right.

I’m thinking the common thread is the director, so let’s take a partial list of my favorite movie musicals:

West Side Story (directed by Robert Wise, who also did The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and The Haunting): It doesn’t hurt that choreographer Jerome Robbins did the legwork (heh!) here, or that the story itself is an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, but the mixture of swooning romance, adolescent rage, and class/ethnic warfare creates something that is all at once jazzy, intense, and heartbreaking. Wise knows how to set a scene with the right mix of artifice (these were filmed on studio backlots, after all) and real emotion (during “Maria,” there are enough close-ups on Tony that it’s hard not to feel for him – it looks like it confuses and hurts him to sing, “Say it loud and there’s music playing/say it soft and it’s almost like praying”). Toss in the simmering anger of “Cool,” with the actors stewing with directionless rage in a parking garage. This isn’t a dance-driven musical, it’s a story of post-adolescent frustration, and Wise films it like that. In fact, he films it as though he were directing Romeo & Juliet.

Jesus Christ SuperstarJesus Christ Superstar
(directed by Norman Jewison, who also did In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, and…uh, Rollerball): This was actually an Easter staple at the Holland house. As a kid, I disliked its shrillness (and the leper scene kinda unnerved me). Until I was in high school, when I watched it less as a bible story and more as an actual movie. After all, with the desert scenery and uber-hippy costuming, it didn’t feel particularly Christian-Rocky. And Jewison focused on Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson’s portrayals of Jesus and Judas, both fighting against their fates as a messianic leader and a troubled realist to sell the story not as a biblical retelling so much as an allegory for a failed political coup and its horrendous fallout. Suddenly, the film became fascinating to me. (This realization also started me on the path to ditching Christianity, in the worst-feeling way possible – by realizing that, if Judas wasn’t necessarily the “bad guy” after all, then all the conventional logic gets called into question, and then…) And seriously, as the years have gone on and the styles have changed, it looks less like a reflection of the 70’s and more like some way-out sci-fi jaunt (which might explain Jewison’s urge to direct Rollerball).

South Pacific (directed by Joshua Logan, who also did Camelot and Paint Your Wagon): I have less to say about this because as I’ve previously mentioned…there’s not a lot of story here. On the other hand, there’s some absolutely gorgeous footage of Hawaii at sunset, and the film (one of the first to make heavy use of TechniColor) utilized it to its fullest extent. (I should also mention, another Holland family staple was our annual fondue-musical night, which covered all three of Logan’s films, and while Paint Your Wagon ain’t exactly a classic, it’s worth watching just to be able to say you saw the movie where Clint Eastwood AND Lee Marvin sing; also, “They Call the Wind Mariah” is a fucking badass song.)

Sweeny Todd (directed by Tim Burton, who also…oh, you know): If you haven’t caught this one yet, I urge you, because you’ve never seen a director make source material his own so completely as this. Few of the actors are natural-born singers (poor Helena Bonham Carter’s voice is a bit too reedy to Sweeney Toddcarry her tunes, though Johnny Depp’s guttural talk-singing does a lot towards fleshing out the title character’s wounded malevolence), but it all works within Burton’s cartoon-gothic sensibilities, because he lets the actors act to the camera in settings that would look over-developed on a stage but on film looks like, well, a Tim Burton movie set to music. And honestly, if you saw Nightmare Before Christmas, weren’t you kind of hoping for something a little more Sondheim and a little less Danny Elfman from him at some point?

So yes. While musical theatre can be a chore on the stage, there’s still no reason you can’t enjoy musicals as a cinematic genre.

Unless you hate all these movies, in which case…uhm…shut up.

  1. K. Holland says:

    Now that we have had musical on stage, and musical movies, are you going to do musicals on TV next? Seems like I need to watch Jesus Christ Superstar.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    I think more likely would me “musicals on the web.”

    But that’s just me saying, “Hey, you know what was good? Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog,” which is not exactly the meatiest of topics to devote a post to.

    Though you should really watch it. And also get the DVD so you can hear “Commentary! The Musical.”

  3. braak says:

    Some things:

    1) Sweeney Todd is a Stephen Sondheim musical; West Side Story has Sondheim lyrics and music by Leonard Bernstein. South Pacific is Rodgers and Hammerstein; JCS is Andrew Lloyd Weber, both at the the peak of their abilities (Rogers and Hammerstein got better with practice; Weber started out good and got shitty, quickly). So, you’re also looking at top-notch music for all of these pieces.

    2) I actually don’t think the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd is that great, because I think it undercuts the play’s theatricality, which is one of its primary selling points. Also, it cuts out “City on Fire,” which is a great song and used as the basis for every fast-paced scary crowd song ever since. I would, instead, urge people to see the filmed version of the stage play, starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury. Or, not instead–in addition to, I guess.

    3) What happened to 1776!??!?!? This was a 4th of July tradition at the Braak house for a long time; part of the family’s quest to establish an identity context in which to frame itself.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    @braak: If only you’d had fondue nights. It quickly established an identity for the culturally-rootless Holland family as “a bunch of folks who quite like fondue.”

    But I’d already written this post when you mentioned 1776. So yes, you all should watch 1776, for the greatest performance ever by Mr. Feeney from “Boy Meets World.”

    As an added bonus, you will forever be unsure whether it’s actually supposed to be unalienable or inalienable. Thanks a lot, Adams!

    (And the movie also frequently got my dad bellowing, “Molasses…rum…and slaaaaaaaves,” because those were the only lyrics he could remember, which is another indelible childhood memory.)

  5. braak says:

    I don’t like fondue, though.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    Not chocolate fondue?
    Say it’s not true!

    Not cheese fondue?
    You haven’t a clue!

    Not oil fondue?
    Your mouth would go “woo!”

    (From my forthcoming musical, “Fondue The Right Thing”)

  7. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Firstly, I love the famous Holland line:

    “…Let me explain.”

    I’m guessing someone’s (since Braak loves the passive voice, so) the provocative one of his group…

    Secondly: Wow! Family musical/fondue nights? Why is everyone’s family cooler than mine? These are the kind of bio tidbits–little drops of the story behind the mouse–that will hold us over until Holland’s “E: Hollywood True Story” comes out. It was a hard fall, man, but we’re all glad you’re back—and better than ever!

    Fecundly: Julie Andrews. What can’t be made better by Julie Andrews? She is the embodiment of musical-theater-to-screen: Topically, energetic and polished; after bows, bawdy. It’s like a running inside joke between audience and performer, with Julie Andrews. You know she’d be the one hitting bars with her crew and flashing passersby after three snuffersful of Brandy—-and when the Maitre d’ comes over to see what’s been going on, she’d say: “Did you see that? She just breezed through and exposed herself to everyone. I found it exceedingly offensive and wonder what sort of establishment you’re really running, here.”

    Special mention:

    – Carol Burnett (Julie Andrews’ “partner-in-crime”) in “Annie”
    – Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain”
    – Lesley Ann Warren in “Victor/Victoria” (she always played “dingbat-doofy” so well)
    – Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” (not one of my favorite musicals, but he was excellent as the original “House”)
    – Barbra “her-skin-is-like-buttah” Streisand in “Funny Girl”. People can make all the jokes they want about Streisand, but she was an excellent “Fanny Brice”—both goofy and touching—and always “pops” with personality onscreen.

    OMGILoooove theme weeks! This is the funnest TQ week, EVER!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “Fondue the Right Thing”…

    HA! EXCELLENT! You know it would be sold-out. At least, for the first weekend…

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    Shit, “Singing in the Rain” is another one I accidentally left off the list (maybe because it was a movie first, it slipped off my radar – has this one been adapted to the stage?). Aside from the utter joy that is watching Gene Kelly dance, it’s also one of my favorite Hollywood satires, before that sub-genre got too inside-baseball for people to actually enjoy (sorry Altman, “The Player” is just insufferable).

    I’m also reminded of Hugh Jackman’s proclamation during this year’s Oscars, during the kind-of-annoying musical number. Not the opening bit – his take on The Reader (“The Reader! I didn’t see The Reader!”) killed me – but the other one, where he finished up by screaming, “MUSICALS ARE BACK!”

    Yeah, I guess the 80’s and 90’s were kind of a dry spell, but…did he mean good musicals are back? Because thinking briefly, it’s been a pretty rough decade so far:

    Phantom of the Opera
    Across the Universe
    Mama Mia (I didn’t know Pierce Brosnan sang like a walrus, did you?)
    Rent (god I hate Rent)

    I guess Chicago was okay. John C. Reilly carries a lot of weight for me.

    Outside of “Sweeney Todd,” have there actually been any flat-out good musicals so far this century?

  10. Jeff Holland says:

    I’m just using quotes and italics all willy-nilly, forgive me, AP-stylebook enthusiasts.

  11. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Ah, “Singin’ in the Rain”. I think it was adapted later and never really hit the circuits…but I cheated a little with that one because I like it so much. It’s one of those film musicals, where, even if you’re determined not to like it or determined not to give in to its warmth, you end up sighing and smiling after Kelly splashes his heart out, anyway. It is a pure joy, even if it was designed to be (does it really matter what Landon Pigg, Tom Chaplin or Ben Gibbard are singing about? You’re going to melt after listening to them, whether you like it or not).

    Subtlety in musicals can be very powerful because it catches people unawares–draws them in with flash and dance and then shows what’s behind the curtain; totally exposed, human emotion. Which is the reason why I also appreciated John C. Reilly in “Chicago”; talk about the “sad clown study” in “Mr. Cellophane”–he was the only true thing in a sea of skunk, swimming against a tide of corruption. Soon, it would seem, his kind would be extinct…but there was time for one last sigh.

    Concerning matters of punctuation-relaxation: “I found it exceedingly offensive and wonder what sort of establishment you’re really running, here.” (notice, I left my lack of question mark for educational purposes only.)

  12. katastic says:

    Are you deliberately excluding “Funny Girl” and “Cabaret” JUST to ANNOY me, Braak?
    Especially “Cabaret”.

  13. Jeff Holland says:

    Sorry, this post was one of mine, not Chris’s.

    But if my vague, childhood memories of being subjected to “Funny Girl” are anything to go by (and they aren’t), I remember feeling pretty betrayed by the movie for not being particularly funny.

    And Joel Grey creeps me out to no end. Those are all the thoughts I have on “Cabaret.”

  14. V.I.P. Referee says:

    My grandfather had this old ventriloquist’s dummy that he would bring out when we came to visit (my other grandfather breaks out an accordion and tells us his tale about putting on a show for military buds while stationed during the war…and how they booed and threw stuff at him because they’d expected “dancing girls” instead)—it was fun, but eerie. I can see how scores of “Twilight Zone” spin-offs and terrible 80’s movies were inspired by puppets, poppets and marionettes. Joel Grey in “Cabaret” reminded me of that dummy.

    Now, if my Grandfather had maneuvered the dummy to hold a fondue wand, I’d have some real memories to talk about.

  15. Jeff Holland says:

    “maneuvered the dummy to hold a fondue wand”

    Well – there’s a mental image you can’t unsee. Especially if you plaster Joel Grey’s creepy mug onto the dummy.


  16. braak says:

    @Katastic: Well, you know how I take pleasure in little else.


  17. katastic says:

    Then, Jeff, I am particularly disappointed in you. How can you say “Funny Girl” isn’t funny?! Um, hello? IT’S BOTH FUNNY AND POIGNANT.
    Shame on you. Shame.

  18. Jeff Holland says:

    I’m developing a theory about how movies with the word “Funny” are generally not:

    Funny Girl
    Funny Games
    Funny Farm (late-80’s Chevy Chase – ain’t nothing funny about that)

    Honorable Mention:

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