Friday Night Seitz
As the "Footloose" remake arrives, a look back at some of Hollywood's best song-and-dance moments.
All That Jazz (1979)
Directed by Bob Fosse
Bob Fosse’s 1979 musical autobiography is a lot of things — a premature, self-penned obituary that’s much harsher than most of us would have written; a gritty ’70s drama about the New York film and theater scene; an inside-showbiz satire that intercuts footage of Fosse’s self-destructive director-choreographer character, Joe Gideon, having open heart surgery with images of backers of his new show plotting to figuratively tear his heart out with legal trickery; a modern, “Cabaret”-style musical that justifies all its numbers either as in-the-moment live performances or deathbed fantasies; and a glitzy update of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2.” (Fosse even hired Fellini’s favorite cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno, to shoot the picture, and his color palette in the film’s dreamy final third feels very “Amacord.”) It’s also the most daringly edited (by Alan Heim) major studio release since “Bonnie and Clyde,” dancing between past, present, reality and fantasy in hard cuts, with the agility of a brilliant mind contemplating the life that shaped it.
Pink Floyd — The Wall (1983)
Directed by Alan Parker
Also known as “stoner heaven,” this musical fantasy leaps off Pink Floyd’s epic concept album “The Wall,” treating the album’s heavy-handed metaphorical songs as inspiration for MTV-style, hyper-produced tableaus. Bob Geldof stars as the protagonist and musical narrator, a rock star who’s having a mental breakdown and retreating into his neuroses and fantasies. Pink Floyd vocalist and bassist Roger Waters wrote the script, which is mainly a narrative clothesline along which Parker, the band and the film crew can string a series of staggeringly detailed set pieces. The film contains 15 minutes of animation by cartoonist-satirist Gerald Scarfe; these might be the best sequences in the film, because Scarfe’s drawing style perfectly matches the misanthropic grandeur of Pink Floyd’s music, and because it drives home the fact that nothing in the movie is meant to be taken as “real”; it’s all a projection of the hero’s decaying mind. Ken Russell’s 1975 film “Tommy” attempted something similar, but I always liked this one better, probably because the match of music, subject matter, filmmaker and tone feels more apt.
Purple Rain (1984)
Directed by Albert Magnoli
An extravagantly sensual, deeply goofy vanity project, “Purple Rain” was described as an “MTV movie” by a lot of critics when it first came out. That phrase was pejorative, but now it just seems like an accurate description. The film’s star, Prince, and his director, Albert Magnoli, embraced the then-new conventions of the music video with abandon, and the result is engaging, even though the “Musical Rebel Without a Cause”-style troubled-teen storyline seems bizarre when you watch then 26-year-old Prince tear-assing around town on a chopper while dressed like a sci-fi biker fop. “Purple Rain” is a concert film, too — in some ways a stealth documentary of Prince and his Minneapolis kingdom. It locates much of its action in a fantastical club in which Prince’s character, a suffering half-black, half-white musician-bandleader known as The Kid, acts out his private psychodramas on a stage that also showcases his chief rivals (Morris Day and The Time, who lighten up an otherwise pretty dour movie). Now that we’re almost 30 years removed from the release of “Purple Rain,” the clothes, makeup and then-trendy filmmaking styles that seemed “dated” in the ’90s now read as charming historical artifacts. The songs are superb, the onscreen performances are aces, the atmosphere is gloriously overripe, and the final shot is mind-blowingly silly. It’s irresistible.
The Commitments (1991)
Directed by Alan Parker
Alan Parker is an advertising-trained, super-slick director who loves playing around with the musical form; he made the pure musical “Bugsy Malone” and the rock fantasia “Pink Floyd — The Wall” (also cited in this slide show). Technically “The Commitments,” based on Roddy Doyle’s novel about the rise and fall of a Dublin bar band, isn’t a musical in any old-school sense; all the numbers are presented either as in-the-moment performances or as the backdrop for a time-compressing montage. But the ratio of music to dialogue skews so heavily in the former’s favor that it’s a wonder that Parker and his screenwriters didn’t just go all the way and make it an old fashioned, sung-through piece. The movie is refreshingly sensible about its subject matter; even though it reenacts the “rise and fall of a band” storyline familiar from so many rock docs and lavish Hollywood features, “The Commitments” never knocks itself out trying to make you believe that this ragtag bunch of working-class performers were ever going to be anything other than a pretty good bar band with a jones for 1960s soul. “Do you not get it, lads?” band manager Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) tells the talent. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud!”
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Directed by Henry Selick
It would have been possible to fill up this slide show with nothing but post-1980s animated musicals; there were a lot of them, and a shockingly high number were good to great, including “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” DreamWorks’ underrated “Prince of Egypt” and “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The latter was a splendid 1993 horror comedy for kids, directed by stop-motion animator Henry Selick, that started out as a poem written by Burton when he was a Disney animator in the ’80s; I like it a lot, but my heart will always belong to Selick’s sweet and beautiful follow-up, “James and the Giant Peach.” A surprisingly faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1961 young adult novella, the film starts out live action, then switches to stop motion once the titular hero eats a bite of a peach that has grown gigantic after being fertilized by magic green “crocodile tongues.” Most of the movie from that point forward consists of delightful miniature set pieces showcasing the interior of the peach, its insect residents, and the surrounding world; it’s dazzling, a diorama come to life. Randy Newman’s songs are warm, clever and sprightly, vastly superior to most of his output for Pixar; the hero’s big number, “My Name Is James,” became an instant lullaby for any parents who gave their son that name.
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999)
Directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone
There was no reason to think that “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” would be anything but an unnecessary and ill-advised attempt to cash in on the small-screen success of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s then-new Comedy Central series, yet the result was a kind of masterpiece: tightly written, imaginatively directed, scabrously funny, totally shameless and — amazingly enough — an unexpectedly terrific example of how to rethink the conventions of old-fashioned musicals for modern viewers. The film’s story — which fantasizes a U.S.-Canadian war that originates in an act of parental censorship — is satirical, but the musical numbers really aren’t. The most-quoted songs (co-written by composer Marc Shaiman) are probably “Uncle Fucka,” “Blame Canada” and Satan’s astounding Disney spoof “Up There,” all of which are fantastic. But I’m partial to the opening expository number, which quotes Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Sound of Music,” among other earlier hits. Parker and Stone are pranksters with cornball hearts. They aren’t mocking musicals here. There’s love in every frame.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier wrote and directed this movie and cowrote the lyrics to most of the songs performed by its lead actress, Björk. Her character — Czech immigrant, factory worker and single mom Selma Ježková — is obsessed with old Hollywood musicals; her son is slowly going blind from a degenerative eye disease, which she hopes to reverse with expensive surgery she’s been saving up to pay for. Wild and horrifying complications ensue, leading to three-hankie tragedy. The real star of this movie is von Trier’s audacious (and critically divisive) moviemaking. He’s made a modern musical in a quasi-documentary style, one that uses the existing sounds of Selma’s world (such as the bang-crash of factory machines or the clickety-clack of a passing train) as a rhythmic bedrock for musical fantasies that the heroine then inhabits, belting lyrics while strolling or running or dancing around actual locations rather than sets. The movie was shot on grainy, low-end videotape and then cropped to CinemaScope dimensions, which makes the imagery feel at once epic and grubbily mundane. The performances — by Björk and costars Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare and David Morse, among others — also embody the contradictions of the director’s style; although the situations are flagrantly melodramatic, the actors inhabit them with subtlety, and von Trier and his crew cover the action with multiple cameras as if it were a live news event. This is a one-of-a-kind, love-it-or-hate-it movie.
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Damn you, Baz Lurhmann, you win. The director of the charming and much more traditional musical “Strictly Ballroom” (1992) went a bit crazy with this epic fantasy set in a never-existed version of Paris’ Moulin Rouge, a place that might as well be Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe for all the attention it pays to the historical facts of its time. It stuffs plot elements from “La Traviata” and “La Boheme” into a blender along with any song the director ever fantasized about using in a film and presses the Frappe button; the hyperactive editing slashes the singing, dancing, slapstick and dialogue into jagged fragments, pulverizes it all into a glittery collage. But damned if I’m not still moved by it. Maybe it’s the sheer enormousness of the production and the borderline-experimental audacity of its conception. Or maybe it’s affecting because of Ewan McGregor’s brilliant, irony-free performance as the male romantic lead, a blocked writer who falls in love with Nicole Kidman’s troubled chanteuse. If he were a working actor in the 1930s, he would have starred in five musicals a year and had songs written for him by Cole Porter.
U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (2005)
Directed by Mark Dornford-May
I never tire of seeing variations on Bizet’s “Carmen” — like “Hamlet,” it seems infinitely adaptable — but this South African movie could be the most beguiling take on the story since “Carmen Jones,” a musical it often seems to be channeling. As I wrote in a New York Times review of the film, it “pushes against every expectation you would normally bring to a movie version of Bizet’s opera. It relocates the tale’s doomed romantic triangle to Khayelitsha, an industrial community near Cape Town; sets the action in and around a cigarette factory; and translates its libretto into Xhosa, a regional language distinguished by its abundance of pops and clicks … The director, Mark Dornford-May, and the conductor, Charles Hazlewood, deny audiences the grandness associated with musicals and operas. Although ‘U-Carmen’ starts with poetic close-ups of unidentified blood-red tatters flapping in the wind, the film largely eschews stylized sets and glossy photography, borrowing instead from kitchen sink dramas and documentaries.” A knockout.
Love Songs (Les Chansons d’amour) (2007)
Directed by Christophe Honoré
Broken into three chapters — the departure, the absence and the return — “Love Songs” is one of the great modern musicals, as well as a great modern romance and a portrait of 21st-century urban life. It’s an account of the lives and romances of single Parisians and their friends and relatives; from the tone and lyrical content, I wouldn’t be surprised if filmmaker Christophe Honoré and his music director Alex Beaupain had listened to the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” until they wore it out. The style owes a bit to Jacques Demy’s great 1964 musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” in that it finds the swooning romanticism in everyday settings and situations, but the style is less opulent, the settings plainer, and the action often staged and shot as if you were watching a more traditional ensemble drama rather than a film where people constantly break into song to express their inner state. Some scenes — like this one, for instance — have a touch of Mike Leigh about them. If I ran a repertory house, I’d put this on a double bill with “Dancer in the Dark,” another modern musical listed in this slide show, and “Romance and Cigarettes” (2005) and “Once” (2007) , which I almost cited here but then left off because this film does the same thing with more panache. The story and mood of the four films — which I guess you could describe as “kitchen-sink musicals” — are strikingly different; but their style — drab naturalism possessed by poetry — seems to be coming from a similar creative place.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.