Thursday, July 05, 2007

Off-Hollywood Musical Review, Vol. 1

A funny thing happened in between nailing two-by-fours and slamming PBR. I started watching musicals.

I don’t know how this happened to me, really. At some point in college I know I watched a couple as a way to get in with girls. And I remember Sasha always raving about singing cowboy movies, which was my main inspiration to begin a Netflix binge. Old-school musicals are one of those cultural masses to which serious literature and stupid parodies both allude, and it seemed easier to brush up on them than to start reading all the great books. I’m sure “Ulysses” is fabulous, but you can’t get drunk and sing along to it.

Most importantly, I stopped considering my musical taste with dire seriousness. One day you’re turning up your nose at pop, then you’re buying “Purple Rain” on vinyl, and at that point musicals are really the next logical step.

So here is the first batch of short reviews. A line was drawn and some missed the cut – “Amadeus” because it doesn’t quite fit in for me, Disney’s “Robin Hood” because the song numbers, despite being great performances by the immortal Roger Miller, are too few and far between. And “The Wizard of Oz” because you don’t need me to talk about “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Paint Your Wagon”

There are ostentatious musicals. There are silly musicals. And then there is the special category – musicals that don’t really make any sense.

This film began my Netflix spree, and it was a special kind of preparation. “Paint Your Wagon” is two hours and forty minutes of utter nonsense. They live in No Name City, which gets its own song number by the firebrand preacher. In short, a mining town of all men find a woman and drunk Lee Marvin wins the auction to marry her. There’s thievery, wife-swapping, and most importantly, Clint Eastwood singing in a cooing tenor. The numbers are listless, but one an initial viewing you’re so enamored with the very idea of Clint singing that you don’t notice. Lee Marvin is tone deaf, but sings a terrific lonely cowboy song, “I was born under a wandering star.”

Bizarre and strangely fascinating. Three stars out of five.

“The Sound of Music”

Another root of the situation came with me buying this special edition DVD for my sister’s birthday in August. I remember being made to watch it as a child, and accidentally taping a football game over it. At least I remember it as an accident.

The songs in this film are just great, which you probably already know. What makes it Rogers and Hammerstein’s best is that unlike most musicals, even theirs, “The Sound of Music” would stand up even with sounds of music – it possesses a rare compelling and whole plotline. Granted, writing a film called “The Sound of Music” without any sounds of music wouldn’t make a lot of sense, but my point stands in theory. They could have just called it “Draperies for Duds” or “Hinterland This!”

Plus, Christopher Plummer apparently grew to hate Julie Andrews during filming, which I find hilarious.

Five Stars.

“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”

Number two on the singing western trilogy. And accurately nicknamed, “The Rape of the Sabine Women, set to music.”

“Seven Brides” opens with Howard Keel, owner of one of history’s most thorough baritones, as Adam Pontipee, strolling through town dressed as Daniel Boone and searching for a wife. This film came from 1954, a time when a film could be deliciously and unapologetically misogynist. As though they were worried the day would fade and never come again, the filmmakers took complete advantage of this opportunity.

Say what you want about Adam’s bravado – coming down out of the Oregon mountains intent on getting hitched the same day. But at least he’s a practical man, set on finding a strong-backed gal who can help out with the chores, unlike the spoiled daddy’s girls of the modern day.

Millie is such a nice addition to team Pontipee that Adam’s six brothers decide they’d like to be married. So in the movie’s sole triumph of womankind, she teaches them (in song) how to clean up and go courtin’. What follows is seven minutes of unrivaled cinematic genius – the barn dance sequence, which took months to rehearse. There’s dancing, fighting, dance-fighting, log rolling, fight-dancing, and the boys win their gals. But woman could sap all the testosterone out of a real man, and they end up fighting their rival gents instead of raising the barn, drawing the ire of their would-be fathers-in-law.

So it’s a cold winter up in the mountains, but Adam convinces them to go to town and take the girls by force. How does he sell this terrible idea? With a rousing song, naturally. “Sobbin’ Women” is the movie’s peak, featuring a reference to Plutarch and a usage of the word “tetched,” which I’m not sure is a real word. Most of these movies come from the same period, when style dictated the man have a stirring baritone and the leading lady a whispy soprano. So all the female numbers are languid and slow, as opposed to the rousing, strong male songs. I don’t mean to sound like playing favorites here, but it’s the truth. Just watch the movie.

And there’s a happy ending -- by the time snow thaws and their men come, the women want to marry our heroes. Which just goes to show you, kidnapping women and carrying them to your remote hideout will have no negative consequences whatsoever.

A big five stars.


I was apprehensive to rent this. I lived for seven-plus years in the namesake state, which I would not exactly call the best time of my life. I can still recall banquets when they’d play the title song and old men everywhere would stand up and clap along. To their credit, they could keep the beat fairly well for a crowd, certainly better then the mass at Husker football games. But to this day it still cracks me up that a state full of so many homophobes has a show tune as its favorite song.

Released a full ten years before “The Sound of Music,” this one’s an illustration of Rogers and Hammerstein’s movie development. That is, “Oklahoma” has some stellar performances, but music and dance aside, there isn’t much “there” there. Guy and girl introduced at outset. Oafish villain enters. Villain eventually defeated. Guy and girl get to be in love. Which just goes to show you, if you’re against too kids you just seem right for each other, you ain’t welcome around these parts.

You’d be surprised how long it takes to move through this paper-thin plot, though. There are your requisite songs, many of which are stellar. Will Parker’s “Kansas City” features a chorus of cowboys singing, “Yes, Sir,” kind of like the dudes yelling in the background of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” And they do ragtime. What really throws you off is the very extended dream-ballet sequence in the middle of the film, in which people who are clearly doubles play the leads in a interpretive dance of the “plot.” I don’t know how to explain this. One minute it’s a cowboy musical, then they’re doing bizarre and pointless ballet, and then it’s back to the movie. Maybe they knew they wouldn’t have to have intermission this way, because all the men at least would get up and go to the bathroom.

Five Stars on my Netflix account, three and three-quarters on the all-musical review.

“The Little Mermaid”

Boasting only 5 major song numbers to “Oklahoma’s” 12, this one is dangerously close to falling out of consideration. Let us remember, though, that as a children’s movie, “The Little Mermaid” runs 82 minutes, about half the time. And there’s no filler, just five great songs – “Part of That World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Kiss the Girl” and “Les Pousainnes,” with the first one’s theme repeated at key moments. trivia says that they almost cut “Part of That World” because children in the test audiences got bored, but there’s just more proof that kids don’t really know what they want.

What amuses me about “The Little Mermaid” is that it broke a decade-long economic drought for Disney, so they replicated it as closely as possible for the next one, “Beauty and the Beast.” Being the CCR of animation, Disney has never had any problem sticking with a bit that works. These two are especially close, though. For example:

Ð Both leads are gorgeous but misunderstood teenage girls
Ð Assortment of non-human companions
Ð Somebody must kiss somebody before a certain time in order to reverse an evil witch’s curse
Ð Neither one has a mother present. Apparently Disney felt that mother-daughter relationships just were neither compelling nor relevant in the late 80s/ early 90s
Ð French, French and more French – the chef in “Little Mermaid,” pretty much everything in “Beauty and the Beast.”

There are more, certainly. To some extent, your hands are tied when you modernize two consecutive old folktales. But just like the Goo Goo Dolls, Green Day and so many others, they knew a good thing when they found it.

I’m glad to hear down the grapevine that Disney is thinking of returning to this kind of animation again – there have been some keepers with Pixar in the last few years, but the glut of high-tech animation made them forget some of the things that saved their asses – that is, beautiful song numbers. Where’s the heart, man?

Four stars.

“On the Town”

Last one. And by its synopsis, the one that sounded the most promising. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and some other guy nobody ever heard of star as three sailors determined to make the most of their 24-hour shore leave in NYC, hopefully concluding with impregnating some Manhattan mamas and sailing away in the morning.

It has its faults. For one, Frank is supposed to be this innocent lad who genuinely wants to see the sights, so much so that he recoils from the hot, aggressive taxi-driving woman. Yeah, right. I know this was 1949, but the only way Frank’s putting up a fight is if the girl just isn’t hot enough. Mostly, “On the Town” is like the Traveling Wilburys’ second record – given the star power involved, it falls well short.

The main plot element is that Gene Kelly and his girl just can’t get it together. He sees her picture on the subway and spends some part of the beginning trying to find her, which is how the other two fellas’ gals come into the story. He finds her, he evil dance instructor forbids her to stay out with him past 11:30, and Gene ends up having to be with the hot cab driver’s ugly roommate. We’ve lost something here, really – everyone watching the film knows that it’s a drag for him to be stuck with the ugly duckling, but rather that resort to modern crudeness and cast her aside, Gene takes in gentlemanly stride until he can finally get rid of her. Where’s the class these days, I ask you?

You have to forgive “On the Town,” though, and realize that it’s a piece of its own very different time. It’s silly and the gaudy song-and-dance numbers are rather loosely tied together, but the U.S. had just won the war. And people didn’t have constantly accessible electronic media, so when they wanted entertainment, they wanted Entertainment. The skill is absolutely admirable, and its presentation striking to the modern eye. Our films cut to different angles every second; when they don’t, like the long single shot during the opening credits of “A History of Violence,” it’s artsy. The filmmakers for this one staged Gene Kelly’s long dance numbers as much like theater as they could – the camera stays front and center. It sways and zooms, but never cuts away. You find yourself unused to such deliberate presentation, and then you realize that since there are no cuts, Gene and his leading lady had to get the entire sequence down perfect, beginning to end.

He’d good.

So while not everything it could be, “On the Town” neither makes you wish for those two hours of your life back. I’m giving them another chance, too, and renting Frank and Gene in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” sometime soon. That’s in volume two of the musical review, along with “Carousel,” “Calamity Jane,” “An American in Paris,” and a host of other.

Two and three-quarter stars.

1 comment:

Chris said...

The more I think about Oklahoma, the more I realize in retrospect that I think I hate it. The rousing musical numbers aside, it's basically a scapegoat comedy.

I'm just too serious for musicals. Note that that is a different sentiment than believing that you're "above" them.