Frank J. Avella's
August 2007 Film Column
(Opposite photo: John Travolta
Healthy State of the Movie Musical
At a time when Broadway producers
have focused on the cinema for most of it’s
‘new’ shows with mixed results (the
mediocre Legally Blonde and the sensational
Xanadu), the film musical itself continues
to experience a renaissance and the newly released,
Hairspray, has given it another great dose
Except for a few
unconventional entries in the 1990’s (The
Commitments, Velvet Goldmine) as well
as a few valiant flops (For the Boys, Evita)
and one genius reworking (Dancer in the Dark),
the movie musical seemed pretty comatose.
Catherine Zeta Jones in
Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor
in Moulin Rouge
But the new millennium brought
hope. The film musical owes its astonishing comeback
to two blockbusters: Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling
Moulin Rouge in 2001 and Rob Marshall’s
mesmerizing reworking of Chicago in 2002,
which copped the Best Picture Academy Award. Both
films proved that we could have smart contemporary
musicals without all the trappings of the typical
Hollywood musical of the past. I remember just how
nervous Miramax was marketing Chicago.
The original trailer featured no musical numbers
whatsoever for fear of labeling the film an actual
‘musical’ and scaring off patrons!
(How far we’ve come in just
a few years, the Hairspray trailer makes
no bones about the fact that it’s all about
What exactly happened to the musical
and why is it that audiences seem to be embracing
the genre once again?
Since the first ‘official’
sound picture (The Jazz Singer in 1927),
musicals dominated the art form. MGM, in particular,
mastered the film musical spectacular with stars
such as Judy Garland and Gene Kelly singing and
dancing their way to box office gold and into the
hearts of all audiences. Many argue that the genre
hit its peak in 1952 with the much heralded gem:
Singin’ in the Rain.
In the 1960’s four musicals
won the Best Picture Oscar: West Side Story;
My Fair Lady; The Sound of Music
and Oliver. But by decade’s end,
the overproduced Hollywood musical (Hello, Dolly!;
Paint Your Wagon; the underrated Camelot
and Finian’s Rainbow--directed by
a very young Francis Ford Coppola!) were no longer
attracting audiences and began losing money by the
The 1970’s saw some sparks
(the brilliant Cabaret, perhaps the best
musical of the modern era; the amazing Hair)
among the many misses (Lost Horizon, Mame,
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band;
The Wiz) Guilty pleasures such as Jesus
Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof,
Funny Lady and A Star is Born
still delight connoisseurs but aren’t usually
taken very seriously.
Genre bending films such as Robert
Altman’s masterpiece Nashville could
not really fit into the musical category. Same for
Mark Rydell’s The Rose and John Badham’s
Saturday Night Fever, among others.
The one bright spot, near decade’s
end, was the blockbuster Grease starring
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Hope had returned,
albeit for a VERY brief spell. (Fame, in
1980, was another worthy effort)
Ironically enough, it was Newton-John,
along with Gene Kelly who would destroy any rays
of light for the genre in a mess called Xanadu
in 1980. (Irony on top of irony, the stage adaptation
is, today, provided Broadway with a much needed
boost of excitement!)
Other than animated Disney musicals,
the 1980’s saw the likes of the Village People
in the campy but crappy Can’t Stop the
Music and horrific adaptation of A Chorus
Line (the powers-that-be should be shot for
this travesty!) A few decent musicals did come out
of that decade: Victor/Victoria and Yentl
were two of the very few that featured original
songs. Grease 2 did as well, but no one
is humming “Reproduction” today. The
Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Little
Shop of Horrors had their fans as well. But,
for the most part, no one was allowed to burst into
song onscreen without being laughed at.
we’ve had our share of the craptacular. Who
thought that the hack director Joel Schumacher wouldn’t
ruin the already bombastic Phantom of the Opera?
And whose bright idea was it to have stage director
Susan Stroman re-adapt The Producers for
the screen? She proved one can have great material
and, without a good visual eye, destroy it onscreen.
Chris Columbus’ film version
of Rent has it’s admirers and detractors.
I think it’s worthwhile, if not spectacular.
Last year, Dreamgirls
proved that a musical could bring in a healthy box
office and good notices. It was an admirable effort.
Not great. Helmer Bill Condon is certainly gifted
but he was working with an original book that was
cliché’-filled and had some clunker
songs. Still it proved Jennifer Hudson was a force
to be reckoned with.
A few months ago, the indie gem,
Once, snuck into theatres. Redefining the
genre, John Carney proved a simple story and two
terrific actors could provide all the magic needed
for an audience. Also hitting theatres like a meteor
was La Vie En Rose. Specifically of note
was Marion Cotillard’s magnificent and towering
performance that will certainly be remembered at
Oscar time. Again, not your typical musical (more
Coal MIner’s Daughter and Lady
Sings the Blues-esque biopic), La Vie
is a stunner and there aren’t enough positive
adjectives in any thesaurus to describe the woman
who embodies Edith Piaf!
It’s been recently announced
that Rob Marshall will tackle the musical once again
with Nine. This is quite exciting, although
let’s hope it’s more Italian than many
of the stage incarnations, since it’s based
on a Fellini film!!! In addition, Meryl Streep is
starring in the Abba musical Mamma Mia!
Who cares that it’s an abysmally bad show,
Meryl will hopefully turn it into gold.
And right around the calendar-corner
is Tim Burton’s version of the great Sondheim
classic Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp
and Helena Bonham Carter (why Meryl isn’t
playing Mrs. Lovett is beyond me, but Carter is
Mrs. Burton, so I’m guessing that had something
to do with her casting). Sondheim has blessed this
adaptation and considering the last time there was
a film of one of his works (and the ONLY adaptation
of his work as composer/lyricist) it was the ill-fated
A Little Night Music in 1973, perhaps we
should trust in him and see what Burton brings us
in December. I am cautiously optimistic.
John Travolta and Nikki
Blonsky in Hairspray
A director can make or tank a
musical. But sometimes pedigree does not mean as
much as we think. Consider the director (and choreographer)
of the critically acclaimed dandy, Hairspray,
which is currently wowing audiences.
Prior to Hairspray, Adam
Shankman’s most noteworthy credits were: Cheaper
by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier and Bringing
Down the House! Not exactly the type of flix
that would instill trust in someone about to direct
an adaptation of a stage musical, originally based
on a film. (Incidentally, The Producers
was the first film-comedy to be adapted as a stage
musical and then readapted as a comedy-musical film,
Hairspray is the second and the one that
Hairspray may be sanitized-squeaky
clean, it may be over exuberant, it may even be
a bit silly...but it’s delightfully entertaining
and it’s both a throwback to the best Hollywood
musicals of the past while it invests just enough
of a modern day sensibility a la High School
Musical, to appeal to all audiences.
Key to the film’s success
is casting and Shankman chose wisely. Queen Latifah
shines as Motormouth Maybelle. A cardboard character
in the stage production, Latifah gives her much-needed
sass. And her eleven o’clock number, “Come
So Far” is goose-bumper!
The always charming Christopher
Walken is hilarious as Tracey’s supportive
dad, Wilbur. We saw him dance in Pennies from
Heaven, here he sings too! And is quite poignant
in his own oddball way.
The newbies are all terrific,
from the boy hotties: Zac Efron; Elijah Kelley and,
yes, James Marsden to the girl hotties:Amanda Bynes;
Brittany Snow and the delectable Nikki Blonsky!
What a find Blonsky is! She has us in love with
her in the very first song, “Good Morning,
Michelle Pfeiffer in
Michelle Pfeiffer nearly steals
the film as the nasty, racist Velma Von Tussle.
She’s a ball of evil/sexy and should have
had another number or two. The star of Grease
2 has come a long way (and needs to work more!)
Now, onto the star of Grease...
The leap of faith Shankman took
was casting former musical titan, John Travolta
as Edna Turnblad and then allowing him the brave
choice of portraying this hefty mama as a woman--completely
without camp. In the original John Waters film,
Divine gave us a great drag interpretation. Onstage,
Harvey Fierstein, brought some femininity but mostly
more camp to the part. Travolta’s Edna is
all woman. And it’s off-putting at first.
The initial awkwardness has a
lot to do with the makeup and bodysuit as well has
his (dead-on) Baltimore accent. Yet, SHE gets under
your skin and by the time we get “Welcome
to the 60’s,” the musical moment where
Edna finally leaves the house, she has emerged as
a full-bodied gal!
We become privy to
a woman who is very self conscious (instead of a
camp performance that is self-conscious), a woman
who is aware that she is large and aware that the
world around her tends to be cruel to those who
are “different.” We aren’t even
told why Edna let herself get so overweight, but
we feel her shame. And by the rousing “You
Can’t Stop the Beat,” we applaud her
for celebrating who she is and not giving a damn
what others say--if only for a brief, wonderful
moment! Inner beauty triumphs over the superficial!
Christopher Walken and John
Travolta in Hairspray
I have to admit, up front, that
I have never really liked John Travolta that much.
Sure he was good in Saturday Night Fever
and Grease, but not much since. I wasn’t
even that impressed with him in Pulp Fiction.
So, I was extremely apprehensive about him in Hairspray.
But having seen it twice now, I feel his performance
is absolutely amazing. His Edna is real. As real
as she can be under all that latex. The song “Timeless”
with Walken, is magical. And Travolta proves he
can still cut quite the rug as he Tina-Turners his
way through the final dance number. It’s truly
a great performance and I would not be surprised
if he is remembered around Oscar time.
Hairspray is not perfect.
There are quite a few moments that fall flat and
others that could have used fresher staging. But
why nitpick when there is so much that does work!
I think the reason audiences are
embracing musicals again in because filmmakers are
giving them work that deserves to be embraced. It’s
that simple. To paraphrase the famous Field
of Dreams quote: “If you build it well,
they will come...in droves.” Let’s hope
they keep building them well!
Click here for a Hairspray
review and an interview with the hot young cast
and the creative team of Hairspray.