Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Musicals Ever

I admit that I am not as up on my movie musicals as I probably should be. For a very long time, I didn’t like musicals at all, and tended to avoid them at all costs. In the past few years, I have softened, and started to enjoy them more and more, but as you can see from my list of my 10 favorite movie musicals ever, I still do tend to have a darker side to my musical love. So while musical lovers will probably reject many of my choices, these are my 10 favorite musicals – consequences be damned.

10. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Hansel (Mitchell) is living in East Berlin and is miserable, until he falls in love with an American army officer and the two decide to get married. The problem of course is that Hansel and the army guy are both men, so Hansel gets his mother, Hedwig’s, passport and goes to a doctor to get a sex change. The doctor botches the operation, leaving him with a useless inch of floppy flesh between his legs. Hedwig makes it America anyway, but his husband leaves him, and he starts his own band that he calls Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He befriends a Christian teenager (Michael Pitt), and once again falls in love, but is once again jilted, as Pitt leaves and becomes a huge star, having stolen Hedwig’s songs. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a completely different kind of movie musical. It is original and daring all the way through, with memorable rock songs, and a great lead performance by Mitchell. A one of a kind movie.

9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)
Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant stage play comes to film under the guidance of Burton, who takes the play and makes it his own. No one is going to mistake either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter – who have the lead roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett – as great singers, but the completely inhabit their characters. Depp’s Todd is more crazy than I have seen in previous versions, and Bonham Carter actually makes Mrs. Lovett much more sympathetic than I thought possible. Ably supported by Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener and especially young Ed Sanders in the key role of Toby, Burton’s film is a near perfect fusion of his own unique vision with Sondheim’s. I do wish that he had not cut quite so much out – Anthony and Johanna need to be seen as crazed as Sweeney in their love and The Ballad of Sweeney Todd is the best song in the musical – but overall, this is one of the few musicals I like to watch again and again.

8. Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrman, 2001)
Without this film, it is doubtful that musicals would have come back the way they have in the last decade. But Luhrman’s film deserves a spot on this list not because it revived a dead genre, but because it did so with so much originality and creativity. The movie is basically a mixture of pop songs, used in new and different ways – everyone from Nirvana to Madonna gets their songs used. The story is a classic musical melodrama about a prostitute dying and the writer who loves her. Luhrman’s flash editing and rapid pacing has never looked better on screen, and the costume design and art direction are top notch. Personally, I have never been able to get into the movie on DVD, but in the theater, this was a magical experience.

7. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952)
For some, the ultimate musical. And I do I love it a lot, and have seen it many times. Gene Kelly has never been better than he was here, and his iconic dance number to the title song is one of the most joyous moments in movie history. I love Debbie Reynolds as the innocent ingénue with a killer voice, and Donald O’Connor proves that he is just as good as Kelly. Jean Hagen almost steals the movie as the silent movie star with the most annoying voice on the planet. There is so much to love about this movie. If it only ranks seventh on my list it’s for one simple reason. Every time I watch the movie the huge Broadway number in the middle of the movie grinds everything to a complete halt, as it goes on WAY too long and has nothing to do with the story. Yet, this is still pure movie magic.

6. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minelli, 1953)
For some, it is impossible to imagine Fred Astaire without Ginger Rogers (don’t worry, they’re coming up later), but if nothing else, then The Band Wagon proves that Astaire was great no matter what. Astaire plays an aging star of the stage and screen, who career is on a down slope. He signs up for his comeback role on Broadway, a supposedly light comedy, that the director then turns into a dark, pretentious version of the Faust legend, and hires a young, beautiful ballerina (Cyd Charisse) to be in the show. The movie is, like all of the MGM musicals, a meaningless piffle in terms of story, but under the direction of Vincente Minelli, the film absolutely soars with wonderful music and dance numbers. Astaire is at his charming best, and Charisse has never looked more beautiful. A wonderful film that never gets old.

5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
Jacques Demy’s tribute to the classic Hollywood musicals is actually better than pretty much all of them. Yet, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is not quite as light and frothy as the musicals of yesteryear. Genevieve (Catherine Denueve) sells umbrellas with her mother in Cherbourg. She is in love with an auto mechanic named Guy, but just as their love blossoms, he is drafted and has to go fight in the Algerian war, leaving Genevieve alone and pregnant. She feels abandoned, as he does not write often. Distraught, she marries a wealthy Parisian man and leaves town. When he returns, he is depressed that Genevieve is gone, and ends up marrying someone else. Fate brings them together five years later, although the reunion is bittersweet. Now that the movie has been restored to its rich, colorful originality, we can again marvel at Demy’s brilliant musical, which while taking the form of a classic Hollywood musical, infuses it with a little more realism to go along with all the melodrama.

4. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
If Demy infused The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with slightly more realism than normal for a musical, than Lars von Trier did him one better in Dancer in the Dark. In the movie, Bjork plays a single, immigrant mother living in America, and working in a factory to support herself and her son. She is slowly going blind, and knows that her son will also inherit this blindness, so she is saving up to get him an operation that will prevent it. She is almost painfully shy, and only truly comes to life in her fantasy world, where she is a star of the musical she loves so much. The dramatic scenes in the film are shot in Von Trier’s Dogme rules, but the musical numbers are lush and colorful – straight out of a classic Hollywood musical, except with Bjork’s memorable, strange songs providing the score. As Bjork goes singing to her demise at the end of the film, you realize that you have seen one of the most original musicals in cinema history.

3. Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936)
I could have just have easily picked the Astaire/Rogers pairing of Top Hat for this list, but I settled on Swing Time instead as the perfect musical to represent their brilliant collaboration. The story is of course meaningless. Astaire is a gambler and a dancer, who has to prove to his future father in law he has good intentions for his daughter by raising $25,000. So he and his partner jet off to New York, where he meets and immediately falls in love with Rogers, forgetting about the girl back home. The movie is all about the music and the dance numbers, and the film has a lot of them. The jaunty “Pick Yourself Up”, the romantic “The Way You Look Tonight”, the amusing “A Fine Romance”, the great “Bojangles of Harlem”, which is accompanied by Astaire brilliant tribute to African American tap dancing, marred only by the fact that he is wearing blackface during the number. But the two greatest dance numbers, perhaps in the history of film, occur to “Waltz in Springtime: and “Never Gonna Dance”. If dance movies today contained dances even half as good as these, then they would be masterworks. Swing Time is, for me, the ultimate Astaire/Rogers movie.

2. All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)
Bob Fosse is an undeniable legend in musicals, but out of his three musical films (the other two being Sweet Charity and Cabaret), this is far and away his best. It’s his very own version of Fellini’s 8 ½, which means Rob Marshall musical version of Nine out later this year will have a lot to live up to. In the film Roy Scheider delivers his finest performance as a thinly veiled version of Fosse himself. Overworked as his Hollywood movie about a standup comedian is over budget and over schedule (mirroring Fosse’s work on Lenny), and preparing for his new Broadway show, Scheider chain smokes, takes lot of prescription drugs and sleeps with all of his female dancers. The three most important women in his life – his girlfriend, his ex-wife and daughter – try to bring him back from the brink, but it is too late. He has already started to imagine himself with the Angel of Death. From his hospital bed, he starts to relive his life, and when he realizes that death is imminent, he “directs” himself through the five stages of death – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in a series of fantasy song and dance numbers, that get increasingly elaborate, right up to the show stopping finale that of course ends with his death. I think Fosse knew that he would never be able to top this film in terms of musicals, which is why his only other film after this was the dark, non-musical Star 80. This is quite simply a masterpiece.

1. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999)
The South Park movie mercilessly sends up not only Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast, but also Broadway musicals like Les Miserables. The film is full of the most memorable songs imaginable. The 19 great songs include Uncle Fucka, Blame Canada, What Would Brian Botaino Do?, It’s Easy M’Kay and Up There plus many others. There is not one of these songs that I could not sing by heart right now. They are brilliant parodies, but also great songs in their own right. The movie is also one of the funniest and most intelligent comedies of recent years, picking apart movie related controversy with glee. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is the greatest of movie musicals because it is more than a musical. It is a profane masterpiece, that weaves in memorable songs to a movie that is utterly, and completely, brilliant.

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