Celebrating the worst (and occasionally the best) musicals on film
Located on a small expansion shelf about midway between the Third and Fourth Circles, Musical Hell is presided over by Diva, a minor demon charged with passing judgement on the worst musicals ever committed to film. (She still hasn't figured out if this is their punishment or hers.) Take a seat on the bench and have your earplugs ready, because court is now in session.
New videos posted on the first Monday of the month. Other viewpoints, news, and general ramblings posted when they crop up.
Here's the first of my YouTube Captioning blog posts! Children of the 90s may remember the Backstreet Boys, where were one of roughly sixty million boy bands floating around the pop charts at the time. Here's my take on their video "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" in which the blandly pretty boys go all Thriller on several classic movie monsters (three of whom inspired musicals to varying degrees of success). Don't forget to check out the YouTube Captioning Blog, and be sure to come back next Monday for an all-new Musical Hell Review!
Two entries in the continuing parade of “musicals based on mid-grade movies” premiered on Broadway this week, Ghost and Leap of Faith. Ghost got some pretty bad reviews, but if I'm honest it looks...interesting. Not great, but something I might see once and file away with all the other vaguely-remembered shows sloshing around my brain. I'll admit to getting all weepy over the movie when it came out, but then again it came out when I was a teenage girl and getting weepy was pretty much what I did back then.
Leap of Faith, on the other hand, got even worse reviews and from the looks of things it deserved them. I can't say any of this preview reel excites me at all. Alan Menken, is this the best you can do? How the mighty have fallen...
And speaking of terrible shows, Love Never Dies still refuses to go gently into the good night of music theater obscurity, lurching along like a zombie searching for a brain (and for basically the same reason). The Det Ny Theatre in Copenhagen announced it would be producing the world's most infamous fan fiction for their 2012 season. On the plus side, translating lyrics like these into another language can only be an improvement:
Finally, my determination to avoid further spoiler footage of Les Miserables has been sorely tempted this week with the news that Universal released a teaser at CinemaCon featuring Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” And it's apparently extremely awesome. It hasn't made its way onto the Internet yet, but we all know it's a matter of time. But I'm not going to watch it. I mean it...really...no matter how much I want to...oh dear Lord, it is going to be a long wait until the official trailer, isn't it?
This is a real love-it-or-hate-it movie and, well, I love it. Maybe it's my weakness for no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-wall Victorian melodrama. Maybe it's the sumptuous costumes, or my admiration for the shameless audacity of the whole concept (what kind of wonderfully twisted mind comes up with Jim Broadbent and Richard Roxburgh singing “Like A Virgin” while a bunch of waiters cavort around them like some demented version of Hello, Dolly?). But I think it's probably because Baz Luhrmann is one of the few modern directors who understands how a musical works. Unlike so many twenty-first century directors who panicked, stumbled, or copped out when they were asked to film people (gasp!) singing and dancing, he did what he was supposed to and used the musical sequences as an effective device to convey the story. It's a rare jukebox musical where the songs fit in the story, but when Ewan McGregor sings “Your Song” to Nicole Kidman, it actually means something. This movie is certainly not to everyone's taste (and I can understand why), but it suits me just fine.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert (2001)
There are three versions of this Sondheim masterwork released on DVD—two stage performances and a feature film—and all are worth watching in their way. But Betsy Joslyn's Johanna on the 1982 George Hearn/Angela Lansbury recording freaks me out, and while the Tim Burton movie features a surprsingly effective turn by Johnny Depp in the title role, the excising of the chorus numbers and Helena Bonham-Carter's frail-voiced Mrs. Lovett are still liabilities. So for the ultimate Sweeney experience, my vote goes to this brilliant 2001 concert performance staged by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The cast, headed by Hearn and Patti LuPone, is uniformly excellent, and the spare production values allow the magnificence of the score to take pride of place, while remaining quite effective in conveying the horror of Sweeney's violent rampage and decent into revenge for revenge's sake. As a further bonus this production also contains the fabulous cut scene where Judge Turpin tries to master his lust for his pretty ward in one of the most wonderfully creepy villain songs ever written.
After nearly three decades of (non-animated) musicals being out of favor in Hollywood (and understandably so), Chicago was instrumental in restoring respectability to the genre. To make the whole bursting-into-song thing palatable to as broad an audience as possible, Rob Marshall uses a gimmick of staging the musical scenes as fantasies inside Roxie's head—a concept which wouldn't work for about ninety percent of musicals out there, but suits this one rather well. (Marshall revisited the idea with Nine, to mixed results). He also assembles that rare golden standard of musical casting, finding big name stars (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah) who actually sing the score reasonably well. (Renee Zellweiger as Roxie is a little more uneven, but this works for a character whose ambition exceeds her talent.) Like Cabaret, the story of celebrity culture and manipulating the public opinion hits as hard (and disturbingly so) as when it was first written.
Reefer Madness (2005)
If it had just been a tongue-in-cheek musicalization of the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film, Reefer Madness would have been good silly fun—and it still is, in a way. (Come on, how seriously can you take a scene where Jesus and Joan of Arc do a production number about the evils of smoking pot?) But the framing device added by Kevin Murphy (not the MST3K guy) and Dan Studney add a black note to the comedy as they examine how paranoia is cultivated and exploited. While presenting his sordid cautionary tale of two clean-cut teens who have a couple joints and find themselves dragged into a world of illicit sex, murder, cannibalism, and getting ass-raped by Satan, Alan Cumming's Lecturer uses innuendo, prejudice, and guilt by association to work on his audience's fears and quash dissent. (“Kolchinski...Russian, right?” he sneers at a man who dares question his logic. “Polish,” the poor man mutters, but the damage is done.) I'm always fond of stories that make you laugh while still having something important to say, and Reefer Madness does that very well.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)
Who would have thought one of the best musicals in recent years would be a low-budget internet movie cooked up by a bunch of people looking for something to do during a writer's strike? The brainchild of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, Doctor Horrible was made with little more than heart and enthusiasm (much of the cast worked on nothing but the hope that the project might make enough money to give them a paycheck), but that's plenty when you consider the talent involved: Whedon (director and co-creator of the score with brother Jed), Neil Patrick Harris (as the eponymous wannabe supervillain), Nathan Fillion (the hilariously super-dickish Captain Hammer), and Felicia Day (the sweet social crusader who comes between them). True to a lot of Whedon's work, Doctor Horrible starts off as a funny deconstruction of common fiction tropes, then gets gradually moodier before a sucker-punch ending that, at first glance, seems incongruous with the relatively lighthearted humor that came before. Yet on reflection, it makes a lot of sense: it's a fitting conclusion to Dr. Horrible's arc, which starts out with him as a shy and somewhat well-intentioned guy but gradually reveals a real darkness lurking inside of him. Reports indicate a sequel is in the works, which I'm not sure is a good idea—the story works so well as a self-contained piece that further elaboration may not be necessary. But if anyone could pull off a genuinely good musical sequel, it would be this group.
I have been watching the news of the Les Miserables movie with some interest, and I've been amply rewarded. Rather more than I expected, actually. It seems like every other day someone is posting grainy-sounding smartphone footage of this actor in costume or that scene being filmed. I'm not used to obsessively following movies in development so I don't know if this is normal or not, but the sheer amount of paparazzi footage has started to reach an over-saturation point, at least for me. While I do love behind-the-scenes footage (something about seeing the creative process in action has always fascinated me), I do want some surprises when this thing finally does reach theaters.
So I'm calling a break. I'm going to do my best to avoid future Les Mis spoilers (beyond official trailers and such). I'm afraid if I keep it up, there won't be anything left for me to watch in December.
Besides, there's no longer any need. Part of my intense curiosity about this movie was due to anxiety and fear of disappointment. So many movie musicals in recent years have let me down (Nine? Rent? Phantom? I'm looking in your directions), that I was desperately searching for evidence, any evidence, that Tom Hooper, Hugh Jackman and all would not do the same.
After seeing the footage of the finale being filmed, I no longer need to worry. This movie is going to be awesome. It's going to be beyond awesome. It's going to be a double helping of awesome wrapped in epic with a side of amazing and smothered in orgasm sauce. Sadly the footage of the full chorus has since been yanked, but this brief shot of Jackman and Anne Hathaway should give you a small idea of what I'm talking about:
And that, for now, is my final word on the subject. I hope.
Lea Michele, Bernadette Peters and Megan Hilty did a promotional blurb for ET regarding her new movie Dorothy of Oz, which comes out....sometime in the next year, I guess? The film looks kind of meh, but it's amusing to watch Michele try to describe the experience of “working” with Peters and Hilty when none of them were, you know, actually in a studio together at any time.
Earlier this week, I posted the first half of my list of favorite musicals. (I'm not posting a link because, you know, you can just scroll to the next post down.) Among those discussed was the American Playhouse version of Into the Woods, which I saw during my formative musical geek years. So I was surprised to discover Danielle Ferland, who performed the role of Little Red Riding Hood in that production, is now starring in a regional version of Into the Woods...as the Baker's wife. God, now I feel old.
And now Glee and Rock of Ages need to step down, because I have found the ultimate rendition of “Don't Stop Believin'.” (Fun game: watch this once to see how many movies you recognize, then hit the CC button for a list of the sources.)
And speaking of fun stuff on YouTube, in addition to posting my rambling opinions here I also contribute to the YouTube Captioning blog, which produces gag subs of various YouTube postings that really, really deserve them. I'll be cross-posting some relevant videos here in the future, to provide more material for my loyal readers (both of you). In the meantime, here's blog owner SpaceToast's very funny captioning of some J-Pop weirdness. Enjoy!
So just because it wouldn't be a movie commentary site without a list like this, here's my picks for all-time favorite musicals on film. The key word being film: there are several great stage musicals (A Chorus Line for example) that were served very poorly by their film adaptations. These are the list of musicals that I not only think are good but which, either by being recorded in their stage incarnation or being adapted successfully to the screen, make for a great movie watching experience.
The list is chronological because, to be honest, at a certain point I think ranking movies becomes an apples-to-oranges comparison. Every movie on this list is good in its own way, and that way is different than that of every other movie. Which one I prefer depends on what I'm in the mood for, and very frequently what day it is. That probably makes me sound wishy-washy, but I prefer the term “flexible.”
Anyway, enough self-justification. On with the list.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
It might be a bit cliché to put this one on a top musicals list, but with good reason: it really is that good. Singin' in the Rain contains some of the best song-and-dance scenes ever committed to film: “Make 'Em Laugh,” “Good Morning,” and the iconic title number to name a few. Gene Kelly's choreography needs no quick editing or artistic angles to make it effective; the fancy footwork speaks for itself. (Recent attempts to mimic Singin's film style—such as The Producers—have not fared so well as the staging is just not inventive enough to justify it.) The film was built around a catalog of songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, making it one of the earliest examples of a jukebox musical and one of the few I can truly claim to love (the other is further down the list). Part of this is because the story itself—a romp through Hollywood in the days when silent films were giving way to talkies—is so entertaining and funny in its own right: the scenes where Jean Hagen's cacophonic diva trades barbs with Kelly or gives her elocution teacher a lesson in futility are the funniest things in the movie that don't involve Donald O'Connor literally dancing up the walls.
Oklahoma! (1955 and 1999)
A sentimental favorite of mine, Oklahoma! was one of the first musicals I ever saw and the one that really got me into the genre. The story is simple almost to the point of silliness (the entire first act is basically a bunch of people arguing over who gets to take who to a country dance), but it's told with warmth and heart through Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic score. There are two film versions of the show available, and I adore both. The 1955 feature film directed by Fred Zimmerman features Agnes de Mille's groundbreaking choreography and classic powerhouse vocal performances from Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones in the leads. The 1999 DVD (a recording of the revival by the Royal National Theatre in London directed by Trevor Nunn and starring a then-unknown Hugh Jackman) takes a darker tone that focuses on the pride and insecurities that drive the main characters, revealing a surprising emotional complexity in the material (particularly from Shuler Hensley as a pitiful and increasingly unbalanced Jud Fry). Together, both movies show how two different productions can take the same material and make something unique of it.
The Music Man (1962)
Lord help me, this musical is just so much fun. There's just something comforting and endearing at its affectionate satire of small-town turn-of-the-century Americana, peopled with such familiar characters as the pompous malaprop-spewing mayor and the cluster of gossiping biddies twittering over the latest (imagined) scandal. The characters are puffed up enough that we enjoy seeing them get their comeuppance at the hands of skilled con artist Harold Hill (Robert Preston, effortlessly wrapping his tongue around some of the finest patter lyrics ever written), yet likable enough that we're happy when his snake-oil routine, strangely enough, ends up making them better people. Hill ends up being the better for it too, after he finds his heart touched by Marian the Librarian. (Though her name is now synonymous with the prim-and-proper library lady, Marian is actually pretty radical for her time and place, shocking the biddies by daring to read “Chaucer! Rabalais! BAAAAL-ZAC!”) Music Man is one of three musicals I consider to be technically perfect, and the only one where the feature film adaptation captures that perfection. (The less said of the 2003 remake with Matthew Broderick, however, the better.)
Cabaret is one of those movies that retains its relevance no matter how many years pass, and that's a pretty scary thing to contemplate. How often do we blithely breeze through life, ignoring weightier matters that could threaten everything we hold dear? The characters of Cabaret—foreigners, Jews, GLBTs,--stand to lose the most in the rising Nazi regime, yet they willfully close their eyes to the growing danger, unwilling to admit the party is coming to a swift and brutal end. By whittling down the score to the diegetic songs, Bob Fosse creates an important contrast between the seedy false glamor of the Kit Kat Klub and the hard reality beyond its doors. Only one song—the Nazi Youth anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”--takes place outside the cabaret, in what is probably the most chilling scene in the entire movie. Unlike the characters, we have the benefit of hindsight...but what dangers are lurking in our world, dangers so great that future generations will wonder how we missed them?
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Disney Animation Renaissance at its absolute finest, Beauty and the Beast shares many of the same building blocks as other animated features—the plucky heroine, the anthropomorphic comic relief characters, the nasty villain and his goofy sidekick, the Alan Menkin score—but puts them together in a glorious way that no other animated movie before or since has managed. The musical sequences are gorgeous, the comedic characters have real function and value in the plot, and the love story at the heart of the movie is well-developed and touching. (Side rant: no, Belle is not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, she's not a domestic abuse victim, and she has no interest in trying to reform the bad boy. She stands up to the Beast, runs away from him when he gets scary, and doesn't even start to like him until he starts shaping up on his own. If she were interested in rehabilitating jerks, she'd have probably just stuck with the brutish, bullying Gaston.) The first animated film to earn an Oscar nomination for best picture (and the only one to do it under the old five-picture limit), Beauty and the Beast is a feast for the eyes and ears that I never tire of.
Into the Woods (1991)
My first real exposure to Stephen Sondheim came through this filmed performance of Into the Woods' original Broadway production starring Bernadette Peters, which originally aired on PBS's American Playhouse. Nowadays it's more common to deconstruct fairytales than to play them straight, but few do it quite so well or as thought-provoking as in this clever mash-up of “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Rapunzel.” A baker and his wife (most of the characters, true to the archetypes the represent, go without proper names) on a quest to break a curse that has left them barren provide the thread connecting these fractured fables. Of course everything ends happily ever after...and then act two begins, and the story delves into the weightier themes of consequence, morality, and parent-child relations. As I've grown from child to adult to mother, the message of Into the Woods has taken on new resonance for me, and my perspective of it will probably continue to change as I grow in age and experience.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
I love Halloween. I love Christmas. So perhaps unsurprisingly, I love this Tim Burton-inspired tale of what happens when the two holidays clash. As someone who grew up associating “stop motion” with jerky-looking things like Rankin-Bass specials and The Magic Roundabout, the fluidity of the animation here was a revelation to me when I first saw it, and Danny Elfman's gleefully demented style has rarely been used so effectively as in this score. The story of what happens when Halloweentown's number-one citizen decides he'd like to try on Santa's hat this year—and the resulting message of “be happy with who you are”--doesn't hold any real surprises, but that doesn't make it any less fun. No wonder Jack Skellington, Sally, and the rest have pretty much become poster children for the cheerful misfits of the world.
So this past weekend I read a headline about Pamela Anderson being the next big star to step into Chicago on Broadway. I had a good laugh at the April Fool's joke. Then I remembered that April Fool's was the week before, and I died a little inside. People, people, don't we remember what happened the last time a Baywatch star tried their hand at this sort of thing?
On the Les Mis watch, Anne Hathaway has chopped off her hair and may or may not be undergoing a brutal 500-calorie-a-day diet to get ready for her scenes as Fantine. If thesepictures are any indication, she's cultivating a colony of head lice for the role as well. Now that's dedication.
Seriously, the amount of information coming out on the Les Miserables filming is approaching almost ridiculous levels. At this rate, we should be able to completely reconstruct the movie about three months before it opens. On the positive side, the plethora of behind-the-scenes sneak peaks all indicate that this is shaping up to be an awesome movie. Check out this blog post featuring several pics of the filming for “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (which the author assures us sounds wonderful) and these great shots of Eddie Remayne and Aaron Tveit (in a smokin' hot revolutionary red jacket!).
This week, The Lion King surpassed Phantom of the Opera as Broadway's highest grossing musical. Since Lion King has been running fifteen years as opposed to Phantom's twenty-five, this is mainly an achievement in having higher ticket prices. Both musicals are notable for being lavish, spectacular productions with stories that have broad audience appeal. Also, both have crappy sequels, but Lion King at least had the decency to send its crappy sequel direct to DVD rather than parading it around onstage for a couple years beforehand.
Finally, Joel Grey celebrated his 80th birthday on Wednesday. Eighty years old, and still singing and dancing. I hope I live to be that hardy in my old age. Oh, and to dance with Muppets.
You would think, being the musical nut that I am, that I'd be thrilled that there are not one, but two network television series that feature singing and dancing up the wazoo. Part of me wishes I could be thrilled—but truth be told, you won't find either Glee or Smash on my DVR list anywhere. There is a very good, complicated, and well-thought-out reason why this is: they both suck.
I wanted to like these series, truly. I actually did like Glee for about half a season when it burst onto the scene like a slushie-throwing, Auto-Tuned supernova. It was like High School Musical if High School Musical had better songs and teenagers who have actual teenage problems instead of fake G-rated Disney manufactured problems. Matthew Morrison was cute. Jane Lynch was clearly having the time of her life playing the most deliciously over-the-top villain this side of Snidely Whiplash. Brittney was like a blonde, cheerleading Ralph Wiggum. Life was good.
But as the second season wore on, the bloom was quite clearly off the rose. I suppose it's because when it comes to television series, I have a very low tolerance for characters who rehash the same problems over and over again instead of actually moving on with their lives. It's the reason why I gave up on Niles and Daphne, and on Ross and Rachel. If Lost had gone on another season, I probably would have gotten fed up with Kate waffling between Jack and Sawyer and people taking Ben Linus at his word when he's quite clearly a pathological liar. So after about the tenth episode of Rachel Berry pulling her neurotic prima donna act and having contrived relationship drama with Finn, the appeal kind of wore off.
The Auto-Tune began to grate on me too. Partially because it tends to make the human voice slip slightly into the Uncanny Valley, but mostly because a lot of the singing in Glee is diegetic. People sing in the series because they're in a situation where they would sing in real life—if real life involved show choirs that spent all their time studying Madonna or power ballads or whatever instead of actually rehearsing their repertoire—and excessive post-production tweaking contradicts the naturalness of the performance. When Darrin Criss and his prep school a cappella cronies starting harmonizing with that distinctive reverb in their voices, it was pretty much the straw that broke the camel's back. Although the ten thousand “gee, aren't we so clever?” straws that came before that helped too.
Smash was an entirely different matter; I only needed two episodes to decide it wasn't worth my time. The pilot appeared to have been written by someone creating a drinking game of showbusiness cliches: the talented young ingenue just waiting for her big break, her more experienced rival, the asshole director who abuses his power on the casting couch, the gay songwriter. Then they threw in a few more standard cliches for good measure: the parent struggling to balance work and family, the sullen teenage boy, the embittered divorcees, etc., etc. There wasn't a single character or situation that hadn't sprung from a thousand other serials and backstage dramas.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. You can write a pretty good story using nothing but basic trope awareness, if the characters and story are engaging enough to appeal to the audience. And that was my problem with Smash: I didn't like anybody in it. The characters didn't resonate with me, and they seemed to do things for no other reason than the plot demanded it of them. Example: why, when Karen the Ingenue was working with Derek the Asshole Director, did she not take fifteen seconds to call her boyfriend and tell him she was going to be late for dinner? Answer: so they could get into a fight over her standing him up later. Any series where the lead character lacks either the knowledge or agency to employ basic cell phone skills is not a series I need to spend my time on.
Maybe a weekly series is the wrong format for musicals. There's something about the whole bursting-into-song thing that makes it hard to sustain for any story longer than a few hours. Maybe it's the intensity of the emotion. Maybe there's only just so many ways you can belt out a heartfelt ballad before it becomes contrived. Whatever the reason, I think I'll just stick with Game of Thrones for now. There might not be any scenes where Tyrion does a soft-shoe while wenching and dissing his prettier siblings (although that would be interesting to see), but there's intriguing and well developed characters, a gripping plot line, and incredible production values, and that's what matters the most. Oh, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.
So, apparently Whitney Houston finished a movie before her sudden and tragically premature death in February? It's true! Called Dreamgirls: The Next Generation Sparkle, it's about three singing sisters pursuing the dream of showbusiness cliche movies. Houston plays the girls' mother, a singing star past her prime who...um, is there anything I can say right now that won't draw the "too soon" card? Didn't think so. Watch the trailer.
And speaking of showbusiness cliche movies, Rock of Ages released its second trailer this week and...I still don't know what to make of it. On the one hand, Adam Shankman's Hairspray was one of the better musical movies in recent history, and it looks like this one shares the same energy and affectionate parody for the zeitgeist of a specific era. On the other hand, it's a jukebox musical. On the other hand, it has the wonderful Catherine Zeta-Jones in her first film musical since Chicago. On the other hand, it's also got the massively irritating Alec Baldwin. On the other hand, Baldwin probably won't be selling credit cards in this movie so maybe he'll be tolerable. On the other hand, it's also got the also massively irritating Tom Cruise. On the other hand, I'll stop doing my Tevye impersonation and let you watch the trailer.
So, have you ever seen one of those cheesy badly acted cruise ship shows and thought, "You know what this needs? Dancing Vikings and some 1950s-esque teenagers who are there for no discernible reason!" Thanks to Disney Cruise's new show Wishes (by way of Tangled), your prayers have been answered.
And finally, because some things are just too cool to snark at, here's the latest video from Doctor Horrible co-creator Jed Whedon and all-around geek goddess Felicia Day. "It gets better" never sounded so kickass.
The world's most famous shipwreck celebrates its centennial this month, so here's another disaster: the 2001 Italian animated mockbuster "Titanic: The Legend Goes On." WARNING: May contain rapping dogs.