By Spencer. This is a website that celebrates both movies and music, so you know an article like this was inevitable. In revisiting our ongoing Movies That Don’t Suck series, it seems like the perfect time to look at the movie musical—the bane of the true music fan’s existence. Maybe our generation has such trouble accepting the musical because we were the first to be raised with movies that actually aspired toward realism—and there’s nothing realistic about spontaneously breaking out into song. But for the first half-century of filmmaking, the musical was Hollywood’s go-to crowdpleaser. And you don’t have to look beyond Bollywood to see that, even today, other cultures don’t share the modern American disdain for this genre.
It’s true that, since the early 2000s, movie musicals have enjoyed a renaissance in Hollywood with Chicago winning Best Picture in 2003 and popular Broadway hits like Les Miserables, The Phantom Of The Opera, The Producers, and Into The Woods making the transition to the big screen. Even so, a huge swath of the moviegoing population remains skeptical. So for the novice looking to open their mind, the question is, where to begin?
Let’s start by setting aside some of the obvious choices—The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, Grease. Make no mistake, these are great films in their own right, but it’s the perceived hokiness of films like these that have engendered skepticism about musicals in the first place. So those aren’t the choices that are going to change minds. Instead, let’s look at some more unconventional picks that just might challenge your expectations.
Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933): The very first sound film, The Jazz Singer, was a musical. So it should come as no surprise that the genre quickly took off in the early years of the talkie era. Gold Diggers Of Broadway came out in 1929, when sound was still in its infancy, and it was such a success that by 1933, Hollywood already wanted a remake. By the naming convention for sequels of the time, Gold Diggers Of 1933 was the result, and it challenges every bit of conventional wisdom about making musicals. Opening with “We’re In The Money” during the height of the Great Depression takes balls, and doing it with a bunch of girls in gold coin bikinis (including a young Ginger Rogers) takes—well, it takes something. As does the entire story, which involves a group of chorus girls struggling to produce a stage musical while at the same time conning a couple of rich old men who look down on their profession. It’s an early masterwork of feminism that was decades ahead of its time. And it’s dripping with sex and innuendo, coming out two years before the Hays Code put a stop to that kind of thing. Even today, you’ll be surprised at the things they get away with; one famous number, “Pettin’ In The Park,” shows a chorus of girls in barely silhouetted full nudity, and by the end has their boyfriends using can openers to pry off their metal garments. Seriously.
But the real treat here, and the reason for serious film fans to watch, is the lavish art direction and choreography by Busby Berkeley. Influenced heavily by German Expressionism, nobody used the contrasts of black-and-white better, and his work on this one (as well as the more widely known 42nd Street and Footlight Parade) is as eye-pleasing as anything you’ll see on film. “The Shadow Waltz” features a troupe of dancing girls playing neon-lit violins in the dark, and it will blow you away that this was even possible in those days.
Even more challenging was the decision to end on a somber note with “Remember My Forgotten Man,” an ode to the injustice of homeless World War I veterans. Remember, this was the height of the Great Depression, when audiences may have been expecting an escape. Instead, Gold Diggers Of 1933 offered them a nod of acknowledgment.
Swing Time (1936): If you’re doing a list like this, you’ve obviously got to include a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film. But which one? Many will say Top Hat, but honestly, the ridiculous plot might test your patience. So go with Swing Time instead, which is the perfect example of how this odd couple work so well together. He’s a gambler and a dancer; she’s a dance instructor who just can’t seem to shake him. As with all Astaire/Rogers movies, the plot is a comedy of errors, and the musical numbers are superb—particularly the debut of “The Way You Look Tonight” (sung here by Astaire on the piano) and “Never Gonna Dance,” a bittersweet ballroom scene that has been hailed as the most impressive dancing these two have ever put on film. Katharine Hepburn once said of Astaire and Rogers, “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” That dynamic is distilled to its perfect essence in Swing Time.
The Red Shoes (1948): You could debate whether The Red Shoes really counts as a musical—there’s no singing. But there’s plenty of dance in this story of a ballet prodigy torn between love and career. And it belongs on this list solely for the groundbreaking, 15-minute ballet suite that forms the centerpiece of the film. Beginning as a pure stage piece in front of a live audience and gradually folding in visual elements of fantasy to express the dance’s symbolism and story, it’s a masterpiece of directing. Indeed, Martin Scorsese has long touted The Red Shoes as one of his favorite films of all time. Bursting with Technicolor and offering none of the happy endings so characteristic of the genre, it’s easy to see why.
Singin’ In The Rain (1952): Okay, okay, so this isn’t exactly an unconventional pick. But you don’t make a list of greatest rock albums without including Sgt. Pepper, and you don’t discuss the greatest movie musicals without recognizing Singin’ In The Rain. It’s just too good to ignore. Gene Kelly’s previous film, An American In Paris, may have won the Oscar, but it’s this follow-up that truly made history. The story of a 1920s silent film star adjusting to the introduction of sound, this one has it all: comedy, chemistry, stunning visuals, insane dance numbers (Debbie Reynolds’s shoes filled with blood during the filming of “Good Morning,” and “Make ‘Em Laugh” reportedly put Donald O’Connor in the hospital), and of course, that iconic song number in the rain. But to me, the most impressive sequence is the epic “Broadway Melody” montage, which goes from swing to vaudeville to ballroom to ballet and just drowns you in yellows and greens and reds and pinks. Until I saw this number, I hated movie musicals. This is the one that changed my mind.
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964): Tell someone you want to stay in tonight and watch a musical where every last line of dialogue is sung—in French—and their eyes will start to glaze over. That’s their loss, because for those willing to set aside their preconceptions, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is devastating. Starring Catherine Deneuve (maybe the greatest unheralded art-house actress we’ve ever had), Cherbourg isn’t your warm and cuddly movie musical. It’s the story of two young lovers brought together then torn apart again by fate and bad decisions. The score features only one true “song,” a heartbreaking ballad called “I Will Wait For You,” while the rest of the music follows the operatic mode of singing ordinary dialogue. The vivid color palette turns a seaside French town into a fantasy land and makes this the most stunningly beautiful film on the list—and maybe the most poignant. (And yes, there are subtitles).
Cabaret (1972): If we learned anything from The Producers, it’s that you’d have to be crazy to make a musical about Nazis, right? Well, forget that, because Cabaret is a mile away from Springtime For Hitler. Taking place in 1930s Germany during the rise of the Nazis, it’s all about a closeted bisexual academic from England (Michael York) who falls in love with a free-spirited American cabaret dancer (Liza Minnelli). It’s heavy stuff, dealing with themes of sexuality and repression and loyalty and taboo against the backdrop of impending evil. The Nazis aren’t the centerpiece, but in an atypical love story, they are a constant reminder of just how much the future is stacked against this couple.
Moulin Rouge (2001): The modern movie musical owes its revival to Moulin Rouge, a musical that is about as unconventional as it gets. Directed by madman Baz Luhrmann, who had already defied the doubters with his modern take on Romeo And Juliet, this is what musicals look like in the age of mixtapes and internet mash-ups. The raucous opening number alone includes a ridiculous medley of “The Sound Of Music,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” and “Material Girl.” And the manic CGI visuals explode on the screen, blending with the schizophrenic soundtrack to create a sensory overload that might leave you exhausted. Moulin Rouge didn’t just revive the musical; it changed the way movies are made, period.
Once (2007): Ending on a more restrained note is Once, the surprise indie hit from Glen Hansard of the Irish band, The Frames, and Czech songwriter Marketa Irglova. Nobody breaks into a big song-and-dance number here; instead, the songs happen organically as a Dublin busker and a broken-hearted immigrant girl meet, record a demo, and fall for each other. The movie was such a success in part due to the chemistry between Hansard and Irglova, who fell in love and started a band in real life during the making of this movie. “Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and the movie has since sparked a hit Broadway version that is touring the U.S. right now. Steeped in realism and possessing a uniquely genuine character, it’s a simple, beautiful little film that challenges all preconceptions about what a musical must be.
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