I’m a big fan of most classic movie genres, but one that I’ve often struggled with over the years is the musical.
I grew up despising them, especially the ubiquitous The Sound of Music. Nothing would send me scurrying out of the room, hands over my ears, faster than the opening refrain of “The hills are alive…” West Side Story? Forget about it. (Of course, it doesn’t help that I detest the Romeo & Juliet story in all its forms). It just always struck me as ridiculous to see - using but one old Hollywood example - a bunch of college football players suddenly break into a post-game song right in the middle of the locker room.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve matured a bit, to the point where I can watch most musicals without retching…in fact, I’ve grown to not only tolerate them, but even enjoy them to a certain extent. I certainly love the splashy colors and elaborate choreography of most 50s and 60s musicals, and even appreciate some of the songs (especially the lyrics, which are often clever and witty). I’ve even grown fond of my longtime cinematic bete noire, The Sound of Music. Watching it on Blu-Ray recently with my wife, I was surprised just how entertained I was. Of course, what I found entertaining was what I call the “regular movie” parts…in other words, the non-singing ones. I still found myself rolling my eyes when the music would rise and perennially cheery Julie Andrews would start to belt out another tune. “Oh God, here we go again…”
This is not to say I dislike all musicals. Some I’ve taken to right off the bat. Here are seven movie musicals which I’ll happily watch over and over again, with no eye-rolling whatsoever. For various reasons, they suit my taste and temperment. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying more musicals, in the hopes of one day expanding this list to an even dozen. Anything’s possible…
One type of musical that I don’t mind so much is the kind where the whole thing, all the dialogue, is sung. There’s no breaking out in song right smack dab in the middle of a comic or dramatic moment, interrupting the flow - the whole thing seems to exist in a alternate reality where no one speaks, they only sing, like the camera is some sort of direct line into their subconscious. For some reason, my logical brain – which can handily switch itself off and overlook huge lapses in scientific accuracy while viewing an old 50s sci-fi movie - buys into this scenario more easily. Tommy, Ken Russell’s psychedelic take on The Who’s famous “rock opera,” is one of these.
Tommy is full of dark, nasty material for a musical, but Russell’s imaginative staging and wacky visual sensibility, plus the sheer power and joy in much of Townsend and company’s music, keep things consistently watchable. It also helps to have some noteworthy guest performers, such as Elton John, Eric Clapton and especially Tina Turner (whose rendition of “Acid Queen” is a real barnstormer). All the main cast sing their own stuff as well, from the slow croak of Oliver Reed as Tommy’s stepfather to the magnetic Ann-Margret. Ann-Margret dominates the movie, and it’s not surprising that she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Tommy’s guilt-ridden mother. Seeing her writhe around on a hotel room floor, covered in dish soap, Heinz baked beans and chocolate sauce, is a sight to behold.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Speaking of the diminutive yet voluptuous powerhouse that is Ann-Marget…her presence alone lifts this Elvis Presley vehicle – ostensibly about racing but featuring very little of it – to a whole other level. You can tell Elvis is galvanized by her; for once, he actually has a co-star who can keep up with him in the “entertainer” department.
Ann-Marget just lets herself go crazy in the dance routines. She’s a real force to be reckoned with, her natural, earthy sensuality bursting free from the Ozzie and Harriet 60s background. She also sings well and makes an all-around memorable foil for Elvis, who had bags of natural charisma but wasn’t generally given much to do onscreen. Viva Las Vegas doesn’t really buck this trend, but on the whole remains colorful, lively fun, with lots of early Vegas flavor, even if the climactic race is severely curtailed. The film is well above-par for the cookie-cutter Elvis movie course, and it's an eye-popping visual treat to boot.
Watch Ann-Margret do her crazy sexy dance below:
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
This was the movie that changed my mind about musicals when I first saw it back in my teens. Knowing, playful, and featuring an actual story that hangs together coherently, rather than a flimsy excuse to move from one setpiece to another, Singin’ in the Rain is just a delight. While the sporadically-engaging An American in Paris gets bogged down in its interminable 17-minute final dance sequence, Singin’ in the Rain stays fast and funny until the end credits. It doesn’t hurt that the film revolves around the history of movie making, specifically the coming of sound to Hollywood. This behind-the-scenes aspect really heightens the interest for the viewer, and the film cleverly plays with the reality of the time, of the studios panicking over successful silent stars with underwhelming voices losing their appeal due to the new technology. Gene Kelly is always a welcome presence in any film, and Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and a talented cast keep things more grounded than the usual lighter-than-air musical confection.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Another musical where all dialogue is sung, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is buoyed by Michel Legrand’s beautiful, haunting music and wonderfully romantic direction by Jacques Demy. Something about it being in French, which is such a gorgeous sounding language anyway, also adds to the appeal. Demy sucessfully mixes an old-school Hollywood sensibility with a more frank, realistic European one, resulting in a film that creates a rare blend of youthful, emotional yearning and a mature practicality that comes from dealing with real-life consequences. Catherine Deneuve has never been more heartbreakingly lovely, and Nino Castelnuovo makes a believably sensitive yet manly object of her affections. This is a movie that, once you see it, you'll likely never forget, and the music is a crucial reason for this.
White Christmas (1954)
What can I say? I know the earlier Holiday Inn is more highly regarded by musical buffs, but to me, White Christmas is more pure fun, it’s in stunning Technicolor, and it’s got Danny Kaye, who works really well with the more stoic Bing Crosby. Coupled with some memorable songs, a nicely-realized post-WWII, New England resort setting, a solid supporting cast led by a very effective Dean Jagger (whose piercing blue eyes give Der Bingle’s a run for the money) and an overriding playful nature, this is one musical I can watch every holiday season and not feel like I’ve eaten a 10-pound bag of sugar.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Was there any kind of genre that director Howard Hawks couldn’t handle? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a gas, its two glam gal leads complementing each other perfectly, Marilyn’s deceptively sweet, doe-eyed va-va-voom bouncing off statuesque Jane Russell’s down-to-earth, vinegary common sense. The musical numbers, costumes, cynical romantic shenanigans...all are great fun, and even if there’s something slightly distasteful about the film’s cheerful acceptance of Lorelei Lee’s money-grubbing nature, I can’t help but find the film really entertaining. And Monroe and Russell have rarely been shown to better effect.
The Jungle Book (1967)
Disney has been one studio that has managed to make musical numbers palatable on a fairly regular basis, probably because they rarely forget to focus on the story and characters first. (I still remember being most impressed that they refrained from turning their adaptation of Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers into a typical song-and dance fest).
The Jungle Book is easily my favorite of these animated musicals, thanks mainly to its memorable animal characters, cannily cast with instantly recognizable big-name actors, comedians and singers, as well as its laid-back vibe and jazzy, catchy tunes. Who can forget songs like “Bare Necessities”? I’ll take this over Chicago any day of the week, thanks.
There are still many famous musicals I have yet to see all the way through, such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma and Hello, Dolly (somehow, I don't think Barbra Streisand * shudder* is going to convert me).
I know there are a lot of big-time musical fans out there. What are some of your favorites? Agree or (more likely) disagree with my picks? Let me know in the comments.
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