Yes, they can be cloying, unrealistic and just plain tacky, but if they are handled with some inventiveness and originality, musicals can be transporting. No genre – other than sci-fi, perhaps – requires you to suspend your disbelief more than the musical. It’s a genre that has evolved since the first film to incorporate sound and, while it’s not as popular as it was in the 30s and 40s, a good one occasionally bursts onto the screen.
Incorporating a song score, a roving camera and a fairly serious plot to offset the frolics seem to be the most successful elements that make up the formula for modern audiences. And while I didn’t include any in my own list, it has to be noted that animated features provide fertile ground for many of today’s best musicals.
Although it’s a genre I generally approach with caution, here are five cinema musicals that I cherish:
Cabaret – Bob Fosse (1972)
This particular iteration of Christopher Isherwood’s stories is a moody, yet rapturous depiction of the “divine decadence” that was the pre-Nazi era Berlin. Only Bob Fosse, with his slovenly choreography and grandiose camera movements, could have captured the gaudy abandon of a society about to be undone by itself. Even though the original character of Sally Bowles was a very moderate talent, at best, in reality, we forgive Liza Minnelli for her blast-off to superstardom with one showstopper number after another. A great supporting cast and production values just add weight to the film that “almost” took down The Godfather at the Oscars.
Nashville – Robert Altman (1975)
Although one does not normally associate Altman with the musical, he did a few – this was by far his most successful. He incorporates stories dealing with artistic struggles and the noxious mixing of celebrity and politics, bookending his films with two very American situations – opening with a traffic jam and ending with an assassination attempt. Some call it a valentine to the American bicentennial, but frankly, it’s more of an audit set to toe-tapping country music performed (and written by, for the most part) by a huge repetoire of a cast.
Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) – Jacques Demy (1964)
Every word is sung in this bittersweet romance between a stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve and a garage mechanic (Nino Castelnuovo). Unlike the relationship depicted, the film was saved from oblivion by restoration in the 90s; otherwise we would have lost a gem and all its 60s candy counter colours. Michel Legrand sweeps us up and carries us away with his superb score, which approaches the operatic but stops just short of the fat lady with horns. Magical stuff.
Moulin Rouge – Baz Luhrmann (2001)
Given his love of colour, musical fusion and all-out frenetic energy, it’s easy to dismiss Baz of being one of Ken Russell’s minions. And while he doesn’t always hit his mark in some of his films, pulling out all the stops in this gooey dessert of vintage romance and pop song mash-ups somehow works. We all knew that Kidman would eventually register a star performance eventually – which is exactly what she did here, but who knew Ewan McGregor had pipes? Gloriously gaudy, steeped in high camp and unabashedly sentimental, Moulin Rouge can be migraine inducing for some but an ecstatic musical ride for others. I fall in with the latter crowd. Great fun.
All That Jazz – Bob Fosse (1979)
Yessir – two Fosse films in this category. The combination of imagination and artistry he brings to his fantasy regarding his own life excesses and (eventual) demise crosses boundaries where musicals simply do not venture. The musical numbers range from stage rehearsals to surgery hallucinations, each one displaying Fosse’s brilliance with both body and camera movement. Roy Scheider gives a career best performance in the title role and the onscreen re-emergence of post-King Kong Jessica Lange as the Angel of Death is something of a revelation.
So there you have it. As I very deliberately only included one adaptation from the musical stage and zero of the grand Hollywood – or Bollywood – extravaganzas, you should certainly have many to add to the list. What are they?