Musical Round Up

In which we dust off the karaoke machine, clear our throats and put on our dancing shoes for some musical movies.
Dance Safely, People!

So, a weekend watching various appearances at Glastonbury set me thinking about musical films I've seen recently. By the way, wasn’t Beyonce’s set very impressive? And the songs she sang were okay too. Ba-dum-tish!! To be honest, though, musical films don’t normally float my boat. That may surprise those who know me, since I am such a talented singer and dancer myself, but I’m not that keen on all that spontaneous bursting into song and dance, unless it’s me grabbing the mike and busting some moves at a wedding. Still, in the unlikely chance that I might learn some new moves (Pah! As if!), I cast a critical eye over the following movers and shakers.

So, let’s start by gallantly escorting Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936) to the floor for the first dance. Plotwise, this is fairly uninspired stuff and not worth explaining here. But when Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers break into song and dance, and when Fred has a dance-off against triplicate silhouettes of himself, trivial elements like plot seems rather unimportant indeed. Lovely.

Moving on to our second partner of the night, we charm Singin' In The Rain (Kelly & Donen, 1952) into a boogie. Naturally, the bit with Gene Kelly singing in the rain is just fabulous and a truly iconic movie moment (you'd never guess Kelly was sick with fever during the filming of that scene), but the rest of the film never really hits those heights again. Still, the plot about the impact of 'talkies' in the movies is more substantial than most musicals and there's enough going on to make you feel happy again. Getting a little promiscuous now, as we set our eyes upon The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964), in which every single line of dialogue is sang. A simple boy-meets-girl romance with great music, vibrant colours, a soapy storyline, irritatingly shrill singing at times, and some shockingly bad 60s wallpaper.

Time to slooooow it right down now as we have a smoochy number with West Side Story (Wise & Robbins, 1961) which relocated the story of Romeo and Juliet to the Bronx, won 10 Oscars and, despite that, is all rather disappointing. Sure, it does that finger-snapping, crouching dance-move towards the camera and has a couple of great songs like 'America' and 'I Feel Pretty', but at this stage of the night we need something to capture our heart and stir our emotions. Sadly, this does neither. Already feeling vulnerable from that underwhelming dance, Dancer In The Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000) really does a good job of losing that loving feeling. A surprisingly excellent Björk stars as an immigrant factory worker in the US working to save enough money to pay for an operation to cure her son’s eye disease, which she herself is going slowly blind from. As her sight worsens, she retreats into a world of fantasy musical sequences, which the everyday sounds of the factory contribute too. It’s inventive, very affecting and builds to a devastating climax, which may well result in you sobbing in the toilets for a few minutes until you compose yourself.

Still, the show must go on, so time to adjust my dead swan dress, fix the make-up and hit the floor again for the multi-Oscar winning Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972). Although this story of the 30s niteclub scene in Berlin might surprise some with it's political overtones, not least in the rendition of 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me', a stirring song until we slowly become aware who is singing it. All in all, a distinctive, decadent musical with some great tunes and setpieces. And it might be the beer talking, but Liza Minelli really was quite a looker back in the day.

The drink is starting to work its magic as I'll dance with any old slapper now. A lot of people going to see Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007) didn't even realise it was a musical, since the producers had cunningly omitted that information from the trailers. Despite the best efforts of cast and crew, it's fairly uninspired stuff with forgettable songs - the musical equivalent of that person you danced with one night and can't even remember what they looked like. So time to abandon the dance floor and start to get a little rowdy singing going at the bar instead. Who would have thought the crude and crudely-drawn South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999) would not only turn out to be a razor-sharp satire, but a superb, toe-tapping musical to boot? There's several hilariously inventive parodies of musical numbers from big Broadway shows and other films, but there’s still room for joyous sing-a-long efforts like the immortal 'Uncle Fucker' and 'Kyle’s Mom's a Bitch'.  Very clever, very rude and very funny.

Look! It's my jazz hand!
Getting late, now. It all catches up with you in the end. In the mid-70s, Bob Fosse found that being a workaholic, womanizing, drug-addicted choreographer-director working manically to edit a film (Lenny) and stage a musical (Chicago) at the same time was likely to be bad for your health. Naturally, a few years later he used his experiences to inspire All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979) in which Roy Scheider puts in a great performance, whilst jagged editing, sound design and choreography lends the whole thing an almost hallucinatory quality. Ultimately, it’s all a bit too unfocused and the musical numbers aren’t particularly memorable (except the closing sequence, which is a fabulous version of The Everly Brothers' Bye Bye Love), but it’s distinctive and interesting and I ended up more impressed than I expected to be.

And so to bed, with a raw throat and aching feet from all that singing and dancing. I'm not completely converted to loving musical films, but there's some good stuff out there and I do think that most troubles in life can be addressed by having a good old song and dance. As a wise man (I think it was Confucious) once said "You can dance if you want to, you can leave your friends behind. Because your friends won't dance, and if they don't dance, they're no friends of mine."

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