By John H. Foote
What is the most unlikely article for me to ever write?
Yes, a piece on American movie musicals, my least favourite genre.
For the last few weeks I have been quietly going through musicals watching and re-watching, narrowing them down to my 10 best. You will not find the musicals adapted from a Broadway through the fifties here, or Oscar winners My Fair Lady (1964) or The Sound of Music (1965). Admittedly, I like films that are presented with intense realism, sweeping us into the world of the narrative and further with musicals I think the songs should make a point in the narrative. I cringe watching those so-called classics where for no apparent reason characters burst into song, the lyrics often having nothing to do with the story.
So, I stepped way out of my comfort zone, as all film critics should and experienced musicals through film history. Some of the older ones were rough going, but Singin’ in the Rain (1952) was downright revolutionary, jaunty, an extraordinary work. Equally visionary was the film adaptation of West Side Story (1961) in which the language of dance and movement seemed to advance by years. Gang fights ere set to ballet and jazz, poetic and beautiful.
With the coming of sound, the musical was by far the most beloved of genres, as audiences flocked to escape the misery of the Great Depression. Astaire and Rogers turned dance into an emotional language of movement, Busby Berkley’s choreography was mesmerizing in its intricate design and movement, while singing became part of the musical art form. During the fifties the musical had its heyday as movie studios turned major Broadway hits into popular films. My problem with the films of that era, before and after, was the non-realistic aspect to them. I know, I know, it is escapism, but it rings false to me. On my list only Singin’ in the Rain (1952), as much an homage to film musicals as it was a musical, an original work, filled with breathtaking movement and song and dance, makes the list from the fifties. From the sixties, West Side Story (1961) makes the list, a gloriously filmed adaptation of romance, ala Romeo and Juliet, set among warring gangs in New York City. And yes, I include The Wizard of Oz (1939) which also crosses, perfectly into the fantasy genre, and remains among the greatest films ever made.
But everything else is from 1972 on.
Of course, the greatest musical ever made remains Bob Fosse’s darkly, astonishing, near sinister Cabaret (1972) set against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism in Berlin. The darkest musical ever made, it remains the finest.
So, for better, for worse, here are my top 10.
If I had an 11th spot it would go to Bradley Cooper’s superb A Star is Born (2018). Sorry. It was so close. And I chose deliberately not to include the new animated classics from Disney that are set up like Broadway shows. Shoot me.
10. LA LA LAND (2016)
The opening scene on the freeway is breathtaking, jaw dropping, liberating, leaving the viewers asking, “How did they do that?” But more, that stunning opening number restored our faith in musicals, leaving audiences giddy with the joy of dance and music on the screen. Damien Chazelle’s superb new musical is as much about the genre of musicals as it is a love story about two star crossed lovers in Hollywood who wander in and out of one another’s lives. That opening number drew startled, giddy applause from the very cynical press at a TIFF press screening in 2016, which never happens. Emma Stone won an Oscar for Best Actress as the wide-eyed actress dreaming of making it, while Ryan Gosling was nominated for Best Actor as a jazz musician doing what it takes to live. With original songs and score, it was refreshing and exciting to behold. Beautifully acted, directed, shot and designed, scored and cut it is a rarity, an original that pays homage to those before it. Wondrous.
9. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)
Pauline Kael called this “the most emotional musical” she had ever seen when she wrote her rave review for the film at the end of 1981. Though the film flopped, it has a strong cult following and its genius cannot be denied. To be clear, all the songs within the film are lip-synced by the actors, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper. The song and dance numbers are fantasy sequences unfolding in one of the characters imaginations. They are vivid and superb, bringing to life the inner world and dreams of these four characters living shabby lives during the Depression. Martin is Arthur, a hound dog sheet music salesman, whose wife, portrayed by a pinched Jessica Harper, is frigid. He finds no such issue with the timid school teacher though, filled with sexual abandon and portrayed by Bernadette Peters. Christopher Walker is brilliantly sleazy as a pimp who cuts loose with a tap number that seduces Peters into his world. Directed by journeyman studio director Herbert Ross, it is nothing short of miraculous.
8. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)
Brian De Palma directed this outrageous film early in his career, remaking and rethinking the classic Phantom of the Opera in a rock and roll setting. The original score is wonderful, full of dark music that perfectly compliments the story. Diminutive Paul Williams is Swan, a gifted music producer who owns and operates Death Records. He is opening a massive new venue named the Paradise, looking for an exceptional opening band and songs. He steals a rock opera from a hot-tempered Winslow Leach, and after Leach is horribly scarred in a record press, he goes after Swan. Between the two men is a woman, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) the voice of Leach’s work, his muse, the new star in Swan’s bed, and Leach is hellbent on killing Swan. He haunted the paradise in his black leather get up and biker helmet with the strange mask. The music is first rate from the opening number “Eddie” through to the mournful strains of the opera, haunting and powerful. Wildly entertaining, I have loved this since seeing it for the first time with my brother in 1974. He was right, it belongs on the list.
7. ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)
Academy Award Bob Fosse directed and co-wrote this bizarre film about his life in the seventies, directing a new Broadway play as he edits his next film, sleeps with anything on two legs, inhales cocaine, does a barrage of drugs, booze, and dances ever closer to death. Fosse had a massive heart attack in the seventies, which is said to have inspired this often-remarkable film. Using hallucinatory dance numbers, merging realism with the fantastic, the director crafts a film that is audacious and bold, truly fearless movie making. At its heart is Joe Gideon, obviously Fosse, a Director in the midst of directing a Broadway play while editing his new film at night. Portrayed by Roy Scheider in the most compelling performance of his career, Gideon/Fosse is an ambitious, driven workaholic who begins each day with a cigarette, speed, coffee, and the words “It’s showtime folks!” Joe sleeps with any dancer who will have him and considering what he can do for their career, that is everyone. His story is told via confession to the haunting and mysterious Angel of Death, beautifully portrayed by Jessica Lange. Fosse created another masterpiece with this film which unflinchingly recreates the behind the scenes world of Broadway, a man fighting to beat back Death, but finally embracing her, as he does all women and all things white.
6. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)
This was the first of the great jukebox musicals in which a story was built around the songs used in the film. In this exceptional, bold and daring film two star crossed lovers from different worlds meet and fall in love against the backdrop of the sixties using songs by The Beatles. Jude (Jim Sturgess) comes to America in search of his father and falls in with Max (Joe Anderson) a wealthy young man who quits school, enraging his father, and he and Jude move to New York City. There they become friends with a Joplin like singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Jo Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) based on Jimi Hendrix. Jude falls for Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and the Group witness revolution in New York, as young people protest the war in Vietnam. Never did I believe anyone else could sing the music of The Beatles except the Fab Four themselves, but the actors within this film are superb. The songs are recreated and re-imagined for the film, often beautifully, serving the story to perfection. Watching lonely lesbian Prudence (T.V. Caprio) sing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in such a slow, mournful way is breathtaking to experience, a pop song as love ballad filled with such longing. So is the entire film, directed with haunting power by Julie Taymor, capturing the restless sixties to perfection, and the essence of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and of course, The Beatles.
5. WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
Romeo and Juliet meets gang warfare meets New York City in this superb adaptation of the popular Broadway classic. The film is so good, so electrifying it seems to have made every stage adaptation to come after moot. That Steven Spielberg is currently doing a remake is both surprising and risky, because I am not sure he can improve on this brilliant film. Star crossed lovers from rival gangs, from diverse backgrounds clash but the beauty of the film is the fights among the gangs are choreographed with such brilliance, the ballet, jazz and modern dance moves become a language all its own. Directed by Robert Wise, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who hated each other film re-imagined the entire art of the musical. There is an astonishing energy in the movement of the actors and the camera which turns New York into a pulsating, living organism. Rita Moreno and George Chakaris won Oscars in supporting roles, each superb but Moreno unforgettable. So, after a single viewing is this film, leaving me questioning why we need a remake.
4. HAIR (1979)
When Milos Forman decided to bring this famous sixties play to the stage, everyone thought he was crazy. Having just won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1975), one of the greatest American films ever made, he could do pretty much whatever he wanted, and Hair was what he wanted. Forman found the right tone, changes were made to the script, and he boldly hired revolutionary choreographer Twyla Tharp who brought extraordinary energy and life to the brilliant dance sequences. From Oklahoma to Central Park and the Age of Aquarius, the film is a movie bursting with energy and sunshine, a stunning study of the counter cultural revolution, the hippie movement and the protests against the war in Vietnam. A group of friends teach Claude the meaning of friendship after they encounter him about to check into the army. Funny, deeply moving and finally heartbreaking the film is an emotional roller coaster. Forman captures the essence of the sixties, Tharp brings the freedom and energy of youth in rebellion to the film. Electrifying. Critics adored the film, but no one saw it initially, but it has been re-discovered on DVD and Blu Ray.
3. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
Imagine a close-up, a beautiful blonde, so photogenic it hurts. Perfect eyes, wonderful, delicate features, she is absolutely breathtaking, but then she opens her mouth and speaks. Her voice is akin to fingernails on chalkboard. Such it was with the coming of sound to movies, suddenly voices mattered, sending silent actors to the unemployment line. This wonderful musical comedy has a blast and gives the audience equal fun. One of the few original Hollywood musicals to emerge from the Golden Age of musicals, it seems inconceivable that this film was not no for Best Picture. Easily one of the very best of the decade, it deserved at least ten nominations. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds shine in the film, each doing some of the finest work of their careers. Kelly is a robust, powerful and confident dancer, thrilling to watch, especially during the title song number. O’Connor is dynamite, pure energy in the film while Reynolds is the perfect foil for them both. Superb on every level, it remains a classic in every sense of the word, and utterly timeless.
2. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
Merging the evolving art of the musical with fantasy director Victor Fleming created a movie masterpiece. Based on a famous children’s story by L. Frank Baum, Fleming opened the film in sepia tones, sweeping us to dusty, rural Kansas where young Dorothy longs to go over the rainbow. Cyclone grants her wish, and in a mesmerizing sequence she opens the door revealing the Technicolor Land of Oz. Down the yellow brick road she travels with new friends a Scarecrow seeking brains, a Tin Man looking for a heart and perhaps best of all a Cowardly Lion. They find themselves facing down pure evil, the Wicked Witch of the West, bringing her broomstick to the fraudulent old wizard. Of course, Dorothy gets back to Auntie Em and Kansas, her friends managing to get there too, in different forms. Beyond the breathtaking creation of the design of the film, has enough credit ever been given the actors? In a performance for the ages character actress Margaret Hamilton is terrifying as the Witch of the West, deserving of the Academy Award, sending children scampering from the room for eighty years now. Judy Garland was perfection as plucky Dorothy, while Ray Bolger was a rubber limbed wonder as Scarecrow, Jack Haley was a sweet natured Tin Man and Bert Lahr deserved the Oscar as the Lion. All end up with the knowledge what they want, they already have. I have seen this film more than thirty times and still weep in the same places. Brilliant and still one of the greatest films ever made.
1. CABARET (1972)
Bob Fosse’s lacerating musical set in 1931 Berlin explores the rise of Nazism as it tells the story of two transplanted young people, one American, one British, is the greatest, most powerful, seething with contained rage, the greatest musical ever made. Fosse took the stage musical and confined most of it to the dark seedy and decadent Kit Kat Club, a gathering place for the lost of Berlin, and Nazis begin showing up in greater numbers each night. Liza Minnelli is astounding as Sally, an American singer, promiscuous, hooked on applause, and who claims to be in love with Brian, a British school teacher portrayed by Michael York. Watching over the proceedings in the nightclub is MC, portrayed with leering charm by Joel Grey who created the role on stage. Metaphorically evil, the devil, Hitler, Nazism and us, Grey gives a towering performance that won him an Oscar though he never came remotely close again. The song and dance sequences in the club drip with raw sexuality, a Fosse trademark, which draws all eyes to the stage. Grey and Minnelli are electrifying singing with great urgency “Money, Money” an original song written for the film. But the best moment in the film, comes in an outdoor beer garden. Brian and their male lover have stopped in for a drink, Sally retires to the car. A beautiful young blonde boy, blue eyed, stands and begins to sing. His singing becomes more passionate, urgent even maniacal as the camera moves down his body to reveal a swastika on his arm. He is the future, a Nazi youth. It is one of the most terrifying sequences in modern film and elevated the musical out of mere escapism to art. Yes, Cabaret is the greatest musical ever made. Fosse won an Oscar for directing the film, one of eight the film won, though it lost Best Picture to The Godfather. An absolute stunner.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.