Here at Mostly Film we were very excited to hear that La La Land, the new Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling movie directed by Damian Chazelle which opens the Venice Film Festival this week, is being sold as a “reinvention of the musical”. In celebration, Fiona Pleasance introduces a look at some of our favourites of the genre.
The musical doesn’t do things by halves. It can’t, really. If you’re going to pull off a big production number with hundreds of dancers or sing your guts out in the middle of the street, reticence is not your friend. Similarly, in my experience, people who get musicals love them with a fiery passion. People who don’t, not so much, and the twain are unlikely to meet and waltz off into the sunset together.
But for the past couple of decades, lovers of musical films haven’t exactly been spoilt for choice. Like that other great American genre, the Western, the musical has been missing, presumed dead, since about the 1980s. Oh sure, both genres have had occasional, even Oscar-winning, high points (Unforgiven for the western; Chicago for the musical). But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, and in recent years we’ve had to look either to movies aimed primarily at children (the High School Musicals and their ilk) or to television (Glee, Smash, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) for our singing and dancing kicks.
How lucky for musical lovers, then, that the genre has such a rich and varied history for us to fall back on. From its first heyday in the early 1930s, when so-called Backstage and Integrated Musicals competed for audience attention with those based on operettas, via quirky developments like Hellzapoppin’! in 1940, to the Technicolor glories of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s; musical-lovers are spoilt for choice.
But don’t believe for a moment that the musical has never reinvented itself before. Every genre constantly has to find the balance between adherence to convention on the one hand and renewal on the other, otherwise it becomes formulaic and boring. The musical’s first revamp took place in the early 1930s, after audiences had tired of the very first musical films – which adhered rather too closely to a stagey revue format – in just a couple of years. Further “reinventions” have followed regularly, even through the 1980s and beyond, including arguably the most successful movie musical iteration of recent years, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, with its amped-up melodrama and use of the “new” American songbook. But, sadly, its effects on film were not long-lasting.
So the question for recent musical history is less, “why doesn’t the musical reinvent itself?” than, “why don’t the reinventions take?” Is it true that audiences now are too cynical and jaded for the optimism and romance that are the stock in trade of classic musicals? Do we find it hard to suspend our disbelief to accommodate non-diegetic musical interludes, even though we have no trouble accepting heroes with superpowers and galaxies far, far away?
Gosh, I hope not. To be honest, I don’t really care whether La La Land “reinvents the musical” or not. I just want it to lead to more, and for it to transport me, the way that all good musicals do.
On The Town
As musical movies are so overtly preoccupied with emotion, not least its expression in dance and song, it isn’t really surprising that some people get rather emotional about musical films. So it is with me and On the Town. I do love Singin’ in the Rain, and secretly I will admit that it’s the better movie, but I fell hard for On the Town at a young age, and have held it in special regard ever since.
On the Town was shown on television not long after my family bought our first ever VCR, so I recorded it. If I didn’t actually wear out the tape, it was probably close. I memorised every note of the music, danced along to the ballet (except for the bit with the barre, because I didn’t have one), and sang along with Frank Sinatra’s and Betty Garrett’s parts in turn in their duets.
And what music! Leonard Bernstein’s score from the original Broadway production was adapted and extended for the movie by Roger Edens. What dancing! Kelly choreographed, with assistance from his co-director Stanley Donen, and talented hoofers Vera-Ellen and Ann Miller given solo spots. What singing! It was still early in Sinatra’s career, but it was his third movie with Kelly, and he is ably supported by Garrett, Miller and Kelly in the song department. And I shouldn’t forget to mention the comic relief, primarily Jules Munshin, with Betty Comden and Adolf Green adapting their own book and lyrics from the stage.
On top of all of that, as if it weren’t enough, the movie looks gorgeous. It was the first Technicolor musical to shoot on location, for the opening sequence (see the onlookers who can’t believe their luck behind the stars at the Rockefeller Center fountain). And though the rest of the film is obviously studio bound, the set design, props and costumes are uniformly delightful. I even thought I detected a little homage to the earlier film in the La La Land trailer:
Of course, we can expect nothing less from an Arthur Freed production. Between the late 1930s and the early 1960s, the Freed Unit at MGM was the source of a stream of top-notch musicals, many of which are high on the list of the greatest ever made. Gene Kelly was one of the stars Freed nurtured and gave the freedom to learn and develop as a star, choreographer and director. On the Town was Kelly’s (and Donen’s) directorial debut, and points the way to the glories to come: An American in Paris (directed by Vincente Minnelli) and Singin’ in the Rain.
It’s also a pleasure in its own right. Like all the best musicals, On the Town bursts with energy, romance and joie de vivre. It’s such a simple idea: just three sailors on shore leave in their best white suits; young men determined to use their one day of freedom to pick up girls and have a blast. And they do. Nice of them to take us along for the ride.
The Band Wagon
The Band Wagon starts with a failed attempt to auction off Fred Astaire’s iconic top hat and cane, which ends with the auctioneer plaintively asking for a bid of, maybe, fifty cents? Cut to Astaire getting off a train, walking straight into a mob of paparazzi – but, it turns out, they’re only there to photograph Ava Gardner. So the film opens with an insouciant little song from Astaire about being old and washed up. He was fifty-three, which – I suppose – is pretty over-the-hill for a hoofer. But he’s not out of the game yet.
Before long he’s been recruited to take part in a new show that might revitalise his career. The only snag is that it has all the hallmarks of a disaster. Directed by a Wellesian blowhard wunderkind, Jeffrey Cordova, and based on Faust, it’s planned as a wrongheaded fusion of classical ballet with showbiz hoofing. Astaire is (in the film as, reportedly, in real life) worried about going head to head with the statuesque & classically trained Cyd Charisse. The film follows the rehearsals, the disastrous out-of-town tryouts and the reworking of the show into a success, paralleling this with (of course) Astaire & Charisse’s romance. So it’s a typically meta Minelli confection, in some ways, filled with quirky little backstage vignettes and clever dialogue (mostly delivered by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, playing on-screen avatars of Band Wagon scriptwriters Comden & Green).
The self-referential fun of the storyline is definitely part of the appeal of this film, but only part. The real meat of it is, of course, the musical numbers, which Minelli pushes to the absolute limits of taste and sanity. Early on, there’s a dance routine based around a shoeshine stand (Minelli, inspired by a real-life shoeshine man Leroy Daniels, made him part of the film and had a routine choreographed for him and Astaire). This unique pair of lead dancers give an extraordinary, joyful performance, but the space around them is also crammed with delirious, pop-art set dressing, and every passer-by and extra becomes a crucial part of the routine.
Musicals from this period seemed to be in a competition to see who could come up with the most extraordinary, unlikely, weird-ass musical suites as their conclusion. The Girl Hunt Ballet is, for me, the apotheosis of this tendency. Inspired by the pulp fiction world of Mickey Spillane, it’s an astonishing twelve minutes of Lynchian weirdness, hyper-stylised Technicolor noir that pulverises the Frank Miller variety into dust, and truly disturbing Freudian sexual motifs. Even if you don’t like musicals, I reckon you’ll find something to weird you out enjoyably in this one.
My Fair Lady
They should have kept the classical title Pygmalion. My Fair Lady suggests knights and castles and romance, not this quirky bit of Edwardian social satire, this not-really-a love story, with an emotionally complex ending I still don’t properly understand.
Hollywood threw everything they had to bring the hit stage show to the big screen, including building a full size replica of Covent Garden market. Even now it looks really, really expensive: you can smell the mahogany bannisters inside 27A Wimpole Street. For once, they didn’t meddle with the score, which is probably one of the most cerebral and wittiest in the repertoire but still finds room for three knock-out standards and a show-stopping crowd pleaser. If I’m going to criticise, it’s all a little stagey. Long, talky scenes, no dancing to speak of, except a bit of cockney strutting and elbow flapping.
Cary Grant was apparently first choice to play the chauvinistic phonetics professor Henry Higgins (ironic, given his own singular accent) but had the sense and good grace to turn them down and the part went to Rex Harrison who had created the role on stage. I’m with Camille Paglia: Harrison is as good here as anyone has ever been in a movie.
Julie Andrews, the original Eliza Doolittle, didn’t make it (she would have her revenge, and her Oscar, with Mary Poppins). Instead it’s Audrey Hepburn, tall and gawky and out of place, like a trapped exotic bird. She’s too beautiful and strange, the voice is all wrong. Not Dick van Dyke wrong, but not right. They didn’t let her do her own singing, although she could sing, instead it’s Marni Nixon’s clear-as-a-bell soprano.
If there’s a presiding genius behind My Fair Lady, it’s not George Bernard Shaw or librettist Alan Jay Lerner or director George Cukor or Rex Harrison, but the photographer and designer Cecil Beaton, a kind of off-screen Higgins, who made Audrey Hepburn his own personal Galatea. If you’re going to watch it for anything, watch it for that.
“Excitement? Why, I got more arrows in the back of that coach than a porcupine has got stickers!”
I’m not the greatest fan of musicals. Singing, when a simple sentence would have done. The predominance of three facial expressions – happy, sad, angry – because apparently when you sing your ability to act significantly falters. But that’s not to say I dislike all musicals. Like anyone with a heart, connect the dots between the narrative story with the emotion in the songs and I am suckered. But no musical has ever suckered me as much as Calamity Jane and here’s why: It is about a tomboy who can shoot better than any man. Who can ride better than any man. Who needs no one to look after her but herself. Who is quite happy being who she is, thank you very much. And on top of all of that, she’s played by Doris Day, a woman who could connect the dots between acting and singing and had a voice so beautiful that you just couldn’t wait for her to open her mouth and use it.
I’m not going to claim that Calamity Jane is a great feminist statement. After all, the tomboy is seduced by lace, frills and love soon enough. She has a great friend whom she ends up in a cat fight with, over a man no less, and she is outwitted far too often by both her friend and Wild Bill, the man we all know she is really suited for. Nor will I claim that the songs will ever top the musical songbook charts, thigh-slap-along-able as they are. But quibbles aside, there is so much to love here. The energy of Doris’ performance. The unadulterated joy of shouting along with her: “Make mine sarsaparilla!” The scruffy brown leather ensemble that represents the greatest cowboy outfit of all time (as the audience we can clearly see the Disney princess behind the urchin guise, although those on screen have no idea it seems). The delight that is singing “Whip crack away, whip crack away, whip crack awaaay!” The dance hall numbers. The one-liners dropped with perfect comic timing by Day (particularly in Chicago) and the brilliant believable bickering between her character and Howard Keel’s Wild Bill. OK so it is an update on Cinderella and it’s not an accurate portrayal of Calamity Jane, but who cares?! I love this film as much now as I did as a kid, and there aren’t many films I can say that about, can you?
Here are a few things that happen in Hellzapoppin’, in more or less chronological order.
A musical number featuring ladies in sparkly dresses, standing on a staircase, singing about dreams of heaven. The stairs collapse, sending the ladies tumbling into a fiery pit of half-naked middle aged men. These men are devils. Singing and dancing devils.
A taxi explodes onto the stage, then it explodes again. Then it explodes a third time, this time turning into a horse with an incomplete noughts and crosses game on its flank.
A man tries to deliver a tree to Mrs Jones. Nobody knows who or where Mrs Jones is.
A woman throws a rose into a swimming pool. It turns into a synchronised swimming team who hurl themselves around in the water while the chorus sing the opening song fairly straight this time.
Stinky Miller goes home.
The staff of a stately home borrow the instruments intended for a show and do this:
There’s an actual show out on by the unflappable male lead. It’s not very good. Olsen and Johnson make it worse with sneezing powder, midgets on scooters, and ingenious use of fly paper. A visiting Broadway producer type loves it.
Martha Raye’s big dance number is ruined by a man trying to read a book in her spotlight. She falls off the stage and gets thrown back on again by Frankenstein’s monster.
The boy eventually gets the girl and the “show” goes to Broadway. Olsen and Johnson are made invisible. They return to visibility, riding two pigs.
Hellzapoppin’ is the world turned upside down, a live-action Tex Avery cartoon. It’s baggy, chaotic, endlessly self-referential and doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as bulldoze it and build a swimming pool on the remains. The nearest live action thing I could come up with as a comparison would be the Marx Brothers, but while the Marx Brothers films are quite mad, they work to a strict internal logic and a recyclable plot that showcases each brother’s principal talents while getting poor old Margaret Dumont into a pickle. And although there may be the occasional aside from a character, that wall stays firmly in place.
But Hellzapoppin’ feels familiar, despite the weirdness, and that’s because Olsen and Johnson’s film is distilled American vaudeville. With its sight gags, awful puns, quickfire surrealism and running jokes, it showcases the inspiration for pretty much most modern comedy; from everything Mel Brooks ever did, to Eric Morecambe sabotaging Ernie Wise’s plays wot he wrote, to every Goon Show ever written, to the Simpsons gleefully rewriting the opening song for their dinner theatre version of Guys and Dolls:
The stage version ran on Broadway for three years and the show was regularly rewritten to keep it up to date with the latest in 1930s New York craziness. Olsen and Johnson weren’t concerned with the craft of performance. They wanted gags. Lots of ‘em. And bananas. And perhaps a bear on a scooter…
Dickens’ novel about a boy born into dreadful poverty who rises to the dizzy heights of stealing handkerchiefs from inattentive London fancypantses has musical written all over it . Even so, changes were made on the way to the stage. The main difference, apart from the songs of course, is that the the Oliver of the book doesn’t spell his name with an exclamation mark. Dickens presumably thought the poor boy’s start in life was hard enough already, but in musicals-world everything has to be a bit bigger and blowsier because they can’t go five yards down the street without waving their hands about, so there it is: a boy in Victorian England going around with a name that means people always sounds surprised to see him.
Things like that mostly make me hate musicals, with their showiness and their ridiculous overacting extras gurning wildly at each other as they listen in on a conversation that has nothing to do with them, but Oliver! is redeemed because it is full of kids. Musicals absolutely must not be taken seriously, or they will get you. There you sit, absorbed in the story of a penniless young woman’s battle to make her mark in the city when boom, she starts dancing around in the street and singing about her mid- to long-term ambitions, which is bad enough, but then total strangers join in, and there you are, feeling a fool for caring. No, to enjoy a musical you need to feel safe that you aren’t about to be made a fool of, and the only way that works is if kids are there. If film genres were Olympic events the musical would be the egg and spoon race, and I can’t watch adults compete in an egg and spoon race; there’s no dignity in it for anyone. Kids, though: yeah, go on then.
The other redeeming thing about Oliver! is that the songs are great and don’t outstay their welcome. If you’ve seen Guys And Dolls then I expect that when Luck Be A Lady Tonight entered its fourth hour you too shouted “Just roll the fucking dice!” It never seems to end. If he did that in a casino they’d throw him out and rightly so.
Speaking of the songs, which I suppose is fair enough since this is a piece about a musical, how often has Fagin – played so well by Ron Moody that it should have been illegal for anyone else to ever perform the role again – made his gang sing You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two? Presumably once for every time the Artful Dodger has brought home a potential new recruit, since it seems to be part of the pitch. “Won’t sing it boy? Fed up with it? We sang it for you didn’t we? Now, follow me, and Bates, you keep in tune or so help me. We lost that last one because you missed that top note.”
So there you have it. Oliver! is the best musical because a) it’s got kids in it, b) the songs are great and c) Ron Moody is brilliant. Oh, and you get to stick your elbows out when you sing the songs.