Celluloid Heroes: Eight Musicals of the 21st Century

A funny thing happened this decade — the once dying genre of live-action movie musicals seems to have returned to the movie repertoire. As the decade closes, I can think of exactly two major westerns, but I keep remembering musicals that I should consider for this piece (including the mostly well-regarded French musical “Love Songs,” which I forgot to see before writing this, je suis désolé).

As a lifelong fan and a nearly lifelong tough critic of musicals, I love most of these films. However, this list is not so much a traditional “best of” and I’ve included one choice I definitely don’t like. (It won’t be hard to guess which.) These are musicals that I think contributed to the development of this polarizing and hard to pull off genre. They don’t hark back to times gone by or try to recapture a past glory that will never return, but actually take us into the future. That’s important now that musicals seem to have a future.

“Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Earlier this year, the brilliant but often irritating Danish director Lars von Trier shocked hard-to-shock European festival audiences with graphic sexual violence in “Antichrist.” Back in 2000, all he needed to divide audiences was some really intense melodrama and an approach to making dark musicals partially borrowed from TV creator Dennis Potter (“Pennies from Heaven,” “The Singing Detective”).

Featuring a literally once-in-a-lifetime lead performance by singer-songwriter Björk as a young mother ready to sacrifice everything to save her son’s failing eyesight, “Dancer in the Dark” is maybe the most emotionally potent story of parental love I’ve ever seen. As a musical, it’s strange and arresting.

Like the Potter television shows and movies and “Chicago,” further down the list, the musical numbers take place in the mind of the lead character. In this case, however, it is particularly poignant as our heroine is a fan of musicals who, though she is gradually going blind, is attempting to appear in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music.” Below, she musically confesses her situation to a smitten Peter Stormare (yes, the guy from “Fargo”). Lumberjacks or not, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” sure seems like a long time ago.

Moulin Rouge” (2001)
As the non-musical Pixar films became the dominant template for animation and the musical form lost its last apparent movie bastion, big studios began to experiment with musicals starring humans. Unfortunately for me, the first and still one of the most popular of this decade’s high profile film musicals was Baz Luhrmann’s beautifully shot, amazingly designed, dull-witted, and over-edited “Moulin Rouge.”

Yes, this musical fan is not a fan of the musical that’s been credited with resurrecting the genre. Why? A couple of sequences work, but on the whole I expect the funny parts of a movie to make me laugh and, even more important, I like to see the movies I’m seeing. As far as I can tell, Luhrmann simply doesn’t have the confidence in this film to allow us time to view the arresting images he’s worked so hard to craft, nor does he permit time to actually see the hard work his dancers and actors put in. Editor Jil Bilcock is expected to do all the performing instead.

As for what Luhrmann and his arrangers did with the various classic songs they threw into a musical Cuisinart, the less I say about it the better. At the risk of sounding like a fogey (or a member of an 18th century Austrian court), too many notes. Way, way, way, too many notes. See if you disagree.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

John Cameron Mitchell pulled off a tremendous coup in adapting his stage hit, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” into a film that, though something of a cult success, is still vastly under-recognized. The live “Hedwig” was essentially a rock concert combined with a one-person show, so turning it into a relatively conventional dramatic movie meant adding a great deal of new material. Working on a very modest budget and studying his Fosse, he crafted a new kind of music film that blended wondrous David Bowie/T-Rex-style glam rock composed by Stephen Trask, outrageous comedy, and some fairly searing drama with imaginative performance sequences and elements of more traditional musical theater. That same year, Todd Haynes’ historical musical, “Velvet Goldmine,” explicitly tried the same thing on a much larger, vastly less humorous, scale with a fictionalized story of the glitter rock era. It’s actually a terrific movie in many respects, but it didn’t have the needed emotional resonance or connect with an audience in the same way as “Hedwig.”

Here, Hedwig, the lonely but unflaggingly flamboyant East German not-quite-transsexual victim of a badly botched sex change operation, experiences a wondrous musical rebirth just as the Berlin Wall falls. This, my friends, is one way to shoot a musical number on a budget. It starts a bit downbeat and slow, but it rewards a little patience.

Hedwig & the Angry Inch – Wig in a Box

| MySpace Video

“Chicago” (2002)

After “Moulin Rouge” became a surprise hit on DVD, it was decreed somewhere that most musicals should be over-edited ADHD extravaganzas. Largely because he had a brilliant adaptation by Bill Condon to work with, director Rob Marshall actually could have done a lot worse with “Chicago.” It’s a movie I like very much, even though it was so over-cut that I wondered if Marshall was trying to hide the fact that, as dancers go, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere can’t really be expected to be Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Since he shot his next film, the non-musical melodrama, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” in almost the same way, I’m still not sure.

Bob Fosse, easily one of my four or five favorite directors, basically invented the highly edited musical comedy sequence with his first film, 1969’s “Sweet Charity.” However, first and foremost a dancer and choreographer himself, he never lost site of the action even as he jazzed up the presentation in brilliant new ways. In adapting the choreography Fosse created in the seventies for the original stage show of “Chicago,” Marshall loses something. Even with a group of first rate dancers, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, he can’t hold a shot for more than a second. The miracle is the following signature sequence from the film still works, but I’m convinced it would be even better if only he’d laid off the cine-caffeine a little. (“Cell Block Tango” starts at 2:07.)

“Colma: The Musical” (2006)

Things were pretty slow in the way of half-way decent musicals during the middle of the decade. Christopher Columbus’s take on “Rent” was about as uninspired as you would expect and had me wondering why anyone liked the original show. The freakishly candy-colored direction of Joel Schumacher, which we all remember so well from his Batman movies, was combined with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s mock-classical dirges to make for a completely unwatchable “Phantom of the Opera” (I know this is true because I was completely unable to make myself watch more than a half hour of it.) Bill Condon’s attempt at duplicating Rob Marshall’s directing style on “Dreamgirls” was a lot better, but still just okay except for truly first-rate performances by Eddie Murphy and some great singing by Jennifer Hudson. I had an excuse to skip “High School Musical” because it was only a TV movie at the time.

And then, from a San Francisco suburb this lifelong Californian had never heard of, came one of those rare surprises that makes this whole cinephile/film critic thing worthwhile. A collaboration between first-time director Richard Wong and singer-songwriter-actor-screenwriter H.P. Mendoza, “Colma: The Musical” builds on the low-budget inventions of “Hedwig” by adopting the traditional singing-for-no-reason musical to the zero-budget aesthetic.

Brazenly getting around all the traditional problems with film musicals by taking a fresh, eye level approach to musical numbers and simply refusing to apologize for the fact that its characters have a weird habit of singing with an invisible power-pop band, “Colma” was also a musical version of maybe half the zero-budget indies ever filmed. A story of three eighteen year-old friends adjusting to adulthood and fraught relationships with lovers, family, and each other, it tends to drag a bit whenever the music stops. Fortunately, there’s lots of very smart pop music by Mendoza, whose style recalls They Might Be Giants and Amy Mann. After a good-but-not-great opening, the film explodes with a true single-take wonder: an eight minute, two-song “oner” that is eight of most fun minutes of any movie of the decade as far as I’m concerned.

Unfortunately, I can’t show you even part of that here, or any of Wong and Mendoza’s other fine music sequences. However, some unembeddable clips can be found on YouTube. You can also read what I wrote about “Colma: The Musical” a couple of years back here. But first, check out the trailer. It’s pretty cool.

“Once” (2007)

Of course, if you find making an old-school break-into-song musical a bit too much, you can always find a story about people who would actually perform music in real life and then simply not cut-away during the songs. You could call it the coward’s way out, but if it was good enough for Bob Fosse in “Cabaret,” it’s good enough for anyone else. And no film in recent years has used this approach more effectively than this gentle semi-romantic drama about a pair of street musicians, both with strong attachments to absent lovers, who meet and find happiness together — musically, that is. With a dash of “Brief Encounter” and little bit of “The Commitments,” “Once” cast quite a spell. Well, on me and a lot of people, but not everyone.

Still, even though the music by stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová is often haunting but not entirely my personal cup of ultra-laid-back modern folk, writer-director John Carney’s warmly matter of fact approach to the simple pleasure of musical perfomance made this cozy, joyful, and poignant little hang-out movie impossible to forget. Sorry, I couldn’t find any decent clips — or even a trailer I liked — online. Here, have a photo instead.

once-5

“Sweeney Todd” (2007)

The risky but logical choice of having Tim Burton, a past master of non-musical stylization, adapt Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd,” paid off in into a movie musical that was both unprecedented and old-fashioned, blending classical horror techniques going back to the 1930s with a straightforward approach to the musical drama and an awful lot of blood for a musical. Though I had concerns about casting two actors not especially known for their musical theater abilities in the lead roles, Johnny Depp proved to be a strong enough singer and a great enough actor that it wasn’t a problem; Helena Bonham Carter, if no Angela Lansbury, held her own rather and the supporting cast was first-rate. As for Burton, for once his genius with the design elements of the film was matched with some geniuinely great material.

The best part was that Burton had no problem keeping things simple and letting the drama and suspense just play itself out, as in this brilliant duet of would-be murder between Depp and Alan Rickman (a better singer than you’d expect) as the vile Judge Turpin. Here, Sweeney learns that revenge may be a dish best served warm after all.

“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (2009)

Purists might scream, I suppose, that since it’s primarily been viewed on the Internet, this effort by Joss Whedon and various friends and family members doesn’t qualify as a movie. All I can say is that it has screened at the American Cinematheque and it’s never been on TV, and I say that makes it a movie, damnit. What, you interject, I already included this in my “TV in the 2000s” entry on Joss Whedon? To that, I can only say, “posh!” and “balderdash!” and “who cares what you think little accuracy person?” Just be grateful I couldn’t figure out how to shoehorn the musical “Buffy” episode in here, too — ’cause I was thinking about it!

Okay, before I get any more carried away over-channeling Joss Whedon’s sense of humor, I’ll tell you that the real reason I’m including this is because I really do believe that, as much as any film here, the combination of DIY financing and highly professional talent makes “Dr. Horrible” one intriguing pathway to the future of musicals and, because of how it was presented, the future of entertainment in general. Moreover, the Whedon clan understands an awful lot about entertainment and, without resorting to fancy tricks they sell a very silly musical tragicomedy about a lovesick aspiring supervillain (played by musical theater pro and comedy genius Neil Patrick Harris) and fill it with social satire, shticky jokes, and sadness. In others words, if you simply commit you can tell just about any story.

There’ll be a sequel to “Dr. Horrible,” but perhaps its example is just as important. The future of musicals is wide open and anyone can make one. Sure, not everyone can make a good one, but anyone can try and more people should. It’s a brand new day.

  

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