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Frank J. Avella's
August 2007 Film Column

(Opposite photo: John Travolta in Hairspray)

The Surprisingly 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 of adrenaline!

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 Chicago

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 musical numbers!)

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 bushelfull.

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.

Post-Moulin Rouge/Chicago, 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 works!)

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, Baltimore.”

Michelle Pfeiffer in Hairspray

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 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.


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