Singing a New Tune: The Rebirth of the Modern Film Musical from Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond
John Kenneth Muir
Book Review by Bob Gutowski
I looked forward to Mr. Muir's book with some expectation, having just recently (and quite coincidentally) read his engaging and well-done The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi. However, this new book, a survey of film musicals made since 1990, is a disappointing example of how to write oneself into a corner. But I'll explain what I mean by that a bit later.
Muir's assertion, as is clear from his title, is that the musical film is undergoing some sort of major renaissance. As someone who is both thrilled and troubled by the conventions of the musical film (for example, dubbing does ensure a flawless vocal, but the actor has to be as concerned with matching the playback as with his acting), I looked forward to see how Muir would prove his point.
He begins the book with scads of quotes, which proves a bit annoying after a few pages. In the very first line of his introduction, entitled "Not Your Father's Razzle Dazzle," he tells us:
Film scholars and historians ... have frequently pronounced the movie musical a dead art form, all "laid out to rest" with "hands across its chest," to paraphrase lyrics from Fred Zinnemann's Oklahoma, (1955).
And then, a paragraph later, Muir cutely states, concerning the genre, "No longer does it remain 'precisely,' to quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, America's 'cup of tea.'" The last time I looked, it was Oscar Hammerstein had who written all of those phrases. This reminded me of a high school student's late-night, last-minute, quote-crammed research paper, with the forced jollity of one of those Xeroxed holiday letters.
Muir then announces that, as a warm-up, we're going to be given a sort of Dummies Guide to Film Musical History through the 1980s. He will be assisted by "several expert[s] ... including Sir Alan Parker, Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell, ... Todd Graff, ... and Joss Whedon." Note, for the time being, that these helpers have all been involved in the creation of some recent film musicals (or backstagers, like Todd Graff's Camp, which I personally would not classify as a musical, though this is open to debate - after all, what is 42nd Street?). Oh, and if you were wondering why Joss Whedon, the writer behind TV's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" is part of this company, it's not only, as Muir tells us, that "he happens to be an unrepentant aficionado of classic movie musicals," but that Whedon wrote a rather well-regarded episode of "Buffy" in which the characters broke into original songs, all by Whedon himself.
Now the reader has to trudge through the error-laden series of chapters on the history of film musicals from the beginning to the '90s. As if swatting flies, you keep batting away sloppy little errors, which suggests Muir either watched these films on fast-forward or had someone tell him about them over pizza, or that his fact-checker threw up his or her hands and took poison. To correct a few of these clinkers from Muir or his "experts:" in Gigi, Gaston's uncle is named Honoré, not Henri; in Meet Me in St. Louis, the family does not spend the entire four seasons worrying about their move to New York; the song "Hopelessly Devoted to You" is not from the stage version of Grease; and in Cabaret, it is only Max and Brian (and not Sally) who visit the beer-garden, and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is sung there, but not by a choir. And, personally, I have extreme difficulty restraining myself when, in Muir's discussion of Mame, he asks " ... how can anyone seriously find fault with Lucille Ball?" If Mr. Muir would consider inviting me out for pizza, I would be glad to explain at length, with diagrams.
Muir then takes us to the '90s, where, he posits, the musical "fizzled," with films such as Newsies, Swing Kids and the debacle of I'll Do Anything, which was shorn of all but one song after some disastrous previews. But, then came Evita! Muir uses this financially successful, if artistically wobbly, spectacle as the first step on what he sees as the road to recovery. Of course, Muir interviews the director Sir Alan Parker, making this at least the second time he's shown up in the book. His comments are insightful and, in fact, all the wonderful interviews Muir conducted with, among others, Todd Graff, Todd Haynes, Joss Whedon, and Irwin Winkler point to just what the book should've been: a series of conversations with the creators of modern film musicals. Unfortunately, by the time Muir gets around to examining their films, he has rendered himself incapable of objectivity, so Evita emerges as a nearly unquestioned triumph, and the moribund De-Lovely becomes the must-see tuner of this or any year - and this, alas, is famously not the case.
The steadily growing re-acceptance of the film musical Muir describes just hasn't happened; the genre instead seems to be returning in fits and starts. There are indies with moments of brilliance, which Muir notes, such as the stunning sequence in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in which star and director John Cameron Mitchell kicks open the front of the trailer in which he's singing, creating an instant stage, but the truth is that many of the films in the book (Camp, Velvet Goldmine) are indies of one sort or another, even if expensive ones like Phantom. Major studios have not jumped on the bandwagon in a big way - an event like Chicago is the exception, not the rule - and animated musicals seem a safer bet.
I wish Mr. Muir’s thesis were correct, with each season promising a full slate of musical projects (on the bright side, we’ve got major studio productions of Rent and The Producers on the horizon, with Dreamgirls aborning), but we still live in a world where it takes Sweeney Todd nearly thirty years to reach the screen – and with that, “I’m out.”
Past Rialto Columns
Search What's New on the Rialto