As you might have noticed if you follow me on Letterboxd, frequent the Filmspotting forum, or know me in real life, I spent much of the past month watching musicals. They were a big blind spot for me and I used the month to fill in some holes and add some depth to my understanding of the genre. Of course, I’m whatever the opposite of a genre-snob is, so I counted movies like That Thing You Do and Almost Famous alongside the more traditionally defined movies like Meet Me in St. Louis and Swing Time. Here’s the list of all the movies I watched and a quote from my full review, which can be found by clicking on the title of the movie. They’re listed in order of increasing quality.
A modicum of restraint might have gone a long way towards making this an enjoyable experience. Instead, everything is blown to its biggest possible proportion and then beyond that.
Other things to like include most of the actors involved (even the perpetually bored Liv Tyler shows some vivaciousness and tenacity here) and the kind of shambolic plot progression, which hits all the notes you expect in a rise to fame kind of story but never feels entirely perfunctory thanks to Hanks’s twists on old tricks (see the band members run around a playground map of the US during a travel montage as a prime example).
Garland is charming as ever, and the rest of the cast feels nicely lived in, rather than the, um, theatrical way that a lot of these musical actors can end up being. But the songs again didn’t get my toes tapping nor did they have me humming later.
9. Funny Face
Thoroughly enjoyable is about as high praise as I can give it, not that that’s a bad thing at all. Astaire and Hepburn have a tangible chemistry so strong that even the age difference isn’t that big a deal.
The music is… ok. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an undisputed classic for a reason, it’s a perfect combination of whimsy and nostalgia for a place she’s never been. “If I Only Had A Brain” is a delightfully play on what it means to be smart, but all of the other versions (Heart and Courage) don’t match up.
7. Swing Time
Give me as much Astaire and Rogers singing and dancing as you possibly can, and ditch almost everything else. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those more normal elements of the film, I mostly did. It’s more that those song and dance numbers are so freaking good that I could probably watch an entire movie of them.
What makes this film stand out from those other two movies are the sheer power of Bjork’s half-horrible and half-amazing performance and the truly fantastic musical numbers. I’m not a fan of Bjork’s music but what she does here is really great, taking the emotional and thematic happenings and melting them into a musical melange which features a lot of percussion and diagetic sound becoming the rhythm and melody of the numbers.
I’ll admit that I don’t really love this style of music, and the end credit song which acts as a kiss-off to the villainous Swan, played delightfully by Paul Williams, is probably the best of the bunch, but at least I didn’t hate most of them.
Things almost always follow the same sad-happy-sad-happy wave, and the technical showmanship is often the best element. So yes, the huge dance number and fight scene at the middle of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the 1954 version of 2014 Godzilla (yes, I understand that the original Godzilla also came out in 1954). And that’s kind of awesome.
Gideon is played by Roy Scheider, whom I’ve only really seen in Jaws. Here he’s pretty much the opposite of Brody. In fact, though I probably wouldn’t have picked him to star in a musical, he gives the best male performance I’ve seen in this month-long marathon.
And now, “Tiny Dancer” will be about letting go of all the junk that we throw into our lives, all the pettiness with which we treat each other, and just embracing being alive, in our times and in our places and with the people around us. As the band and hangers-on join in with Elton John one by one the audience, too, follows suit and gets carried away in the moment. It’s a wonder.
The opening scene has Julie Andrews as Maria enjoying a sunny afternoon on the top of a mountain in the Austrian Alps. She sings the title song and basically just radiates joy. Throughout the course of the film, Andrews brought to mind light words. Radiant, incandescent, brilliant, luminous.
Alright, that’s the large picture. Let’s get a little more focused. Top 5 music scenes!
10. Tommy – “Pinball Wizard”
Despite my problems with the movie on the whole, this scene is a classic. Elton John makes most things better and I love the idea of competitive pinball played in a concert hall. Throw in the shoes and you’ve got a great scene in an otherwise terrible movie.
9. Meet Me in St. Louis – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
It’s sadder and slower than the more popular versions of the song, but this is the only song that really stood out to me from Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland is a treasure and plays the melancholy here perfectly.
8. All That Jazz – “You Better Change Your Ways”
This hails from the much weirder second half of the film as Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon wrestles with his mortality. It features the three women in his life pleading with him to change his bad habits and is directed by his more lively subconscious or something. I love the almost unnatural choreography here. If you’re going to do a dream scene you better make it appropriately strange!
7. Funny Face – I Feel Like Expressing Myself
This scene also features nutty dancing, but here it’s the ever wonderful Audrey Hepburn rebelling against the fashion world embodied by Fred Astaire by going silly and modern. It is goofy and impressive at the same time.
6. The Sound of Music – “The Lonely Goatherd”
Speaking of goofy, “The Lonely Goatherd” is a wonderfully absurd little interlude which has the most minor of plot importance but showcases just how much music can mean to a family. It is also another example of the ever-present awesomeness that is Julie Andrews.
5. All That Jazz – “On Broadway”
Whoever uploaded this video to Youtube called it Pure Cinema and I can’t really disagree. It’s impressive that Fosse is able to use his sense of timing and motion to not only capture dance on stage but to make it a uniquely cinematic expression of those ideas through his use of framing and editing. Remarkable, and lots of fun.
4. Swing Time – First Dance
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. That should be enough to get you watching. What happened to the multifaceted star? Is Hugh Jackman the closest thing we have? That’s kinda sad.
3. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers – Barn Raising Dance
An amazing mix of dancing and gymnastics that uses the widescreen presentation perfectly and looks like the most fun anybody will ever have. I mean, those shirts. Seriously.
2. Almost Famous – “Tiny Dancer”
I went on at length about this song in my review. It’s one of those scenes that you’ll never forget.
1. The Sound of Music – “The Sound of Music”
It works astoundingly well as an introduction to the character of Maria, the landscape that plays such a large part in making the story feel real, and the theme of the power of music to lift, enhance, and propel us to our greatest heights.