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.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Favorite Musicals, Part 2

Yeah, you know why we're here. On with the list!

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

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.

Chicago (2002)

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.

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