Monday, August 27, 2007

Spotlight: 5 Feel-Bad Musicals (now with video!)

Of all the genres of movies out there, none maintains such a direct connection to the emotions as the musical. Most musicals have used this power to evoke in audiences an ecstatic joy, but a chosen few have had a different goal in mind. Here are five of them- all are excellent, but none of them really leaves you floating on air.

West Side Story- coming at the tail end of the golden age of Hollywood musicals, this adaptation of Leonard Bernstein's Broadway smash combined the elaborate choreography of its predecessors with the blue-collar, inner-city milieu that had become more prevalent over the past decade. The story combines the ill-fated lovers of Romeo and Juliet with a touch of the social-problem picture, and although it's leavened with great music and powerhouse dancing, it's nonetheless a far cry from Gene Kelly hanging from a lamp post. If downbeat musicals can be classified a subgenre, this was the wellspring.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg- more than four decades later, Jacques Demy's masterpiece remains the ultimate musical weepie. The film cannily charms you early on with its candy colored storefronts, singing mechanics, and the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve, all of it set to a gorgeous stem-to-stern Michel Legrand song score. But around the time we really start to love the lovely but shallow lovers, life decides it has other plans for them, and promptly tears them apart. As each learns to live without the other, their characters become more substantial, but at the cost of their youthful innocence. Umbrellas is one of the rare musicals with a theme that's entirely pragmatic, dealing with the tragic inevitability of setting aside childish dreams and growing the hell up. Also, I believe that modern medicine has proven that anyone who doesn't get choked up by the time the film reaches its final scene (posted above) doesn't have a soul.

All That Jazz- of all filmmakers who tackled musicals during the 1970s, Bob Fosse was the most successful. His earlier film Cabaret was a strong contender for this list, lest we forget, for example, that Liza's final showstopping number is sung to a room full of Nazis. But this list is unimaginable without All That Jazz, in which Fosse adopts the template of 8 1/2 to display his own foibles and frailties. Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon is a real piece of work- a pill-popping, womanizing, authority-bucking, workaholic genius- and Fosse to his credit gives us one of the most lacerating cinematic portraits of an artist ever made, all the more startling because the artist is himself. More than that, Fosse paints show business as an industry that not only encourages but rewards people like this, forgiving them their sins and enabling their addictions until every little drop of life has been wrung out of them. The film's final scene says it all- Gideon's corpse being zipped up in a bodybag as "There's No Business Like Show Business" plays in the background.

(apologies for the poor video quality)

Pennies From Heaven- audiences in 1981 were caught completely unawares by this film, with the famously wild-and-crazy Steve Martin cast as a two-timing, down'n'out sheet music salesman whose only solace is in his own fantasy world, inspired by big-screen musicals. Herbert Ross' astounding production numbers hearken back to the heyday of Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire, celebrating their graceful hoofing and complex blocking while highlighting the lockstep form of good cheer that made them almost off-putting. But even more disturbing is the contrast between these scenes and the film's "real" world, in which Martin browbeats his puritanical wife, seduces, impregnates, and abandons small-town schoolteacher Bernadette Peters (which leads her into becoming a prostitute) and ends up being executed for a murder he didn't commit. The film was written by the great Dennis Potter, based on his BBC miniseries, and true to his style nearly all of the songs in the film are lip-synched to period recordings. The exception is in the climactic number, in which Martin, standing atop the gallows, speak-sings the title song to the audience, so deep has he fallen into his delusions. Of all the bitter pills on this list, Pennies From Heaven may be the toughest to swallow.

Dancer in the Dark- Lars Von Trier has never been known for his cheerful visions, and when he announced he was making a musical there were quite a few raised eyebrows. But rather than crafting a joyful romp, Von Trier went in the opposite direction, making perhaps the most emotionally draining film of his career. Much like Pennies From Heaven, Dancer's protagonist Selma (an raw performance by the inimitable Björk) escapes from her dreary existence through song, but unlike Ross' film, Von Trier barely makes any visual distinction between Selma's fantasies and her harsh reality. Selma is a martyr in the tradition of silent melodrama, sacrificing everything- her eyesight, her freedom, and finally her life- to save the son from the congenital eye disease that plagues her. Dancer in the Dark is a major film, and an important one, but even more than other films on the list, it's so oppressively melodramatic that I'm not sure I'd ever want to subject myself to it again. But no matter- it hits you so hard the first time around that you won't forget it.


Jason_alley2 said...

Well it's certainly possible that I don't have a soul, but I'd prefer to think it was just the wrong day for me to watch "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg". :)

I gotta see "Pennies From Heaven", it sounds awesome.

Paul C. said...

Yeah, Pennies is pretty great. I can only imagine how audiences felt back in '81, ready to see a Steve Martin comedy and getting a sober musical drama. But the dance scenes are as good as just about any from the era of the classic musical. In addition to the one I've posted, there's the famous one with Christopher Walken. And Martin himself has some moves too.

Andrew Bemis said...

I gave Pennies From Heaven a try one night when it was on TCM, though I'd only ever heard that it was a poorly reviewed bomb. All I could think while watching it was "Why didn't people love this?"

Funny timing, too, as I'm in the middle of watching The Singing Detective for the first time. Now there's the ultimate depressing musical (a different medium, I realize - is the Robert Downey Jr. version worth my time?).

Paul C. said...


That would be a no with a capital FUCK NO. Downey's a great actor, but Gambon's Marlow is an impossible act to follow. Honestly, one of the greatest performances I've ever seen.

Jason_alley2 said...

Yeah, the Downey version is shit. And I haven't even SEEN the original.