A new millennium for the movie musical

CRITICAL EYE

September 23, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Not so long ago left for dead, the movie musical is showing renewed signs of life this year, even if filmmakers are still trying to figure out what form that life will take.

Hairspray, the film version of the Broadway play based on sleaze auteur John Waters' ode to integration and other weighty matters on Baltimore's early-'60s dance floors (whew!), was one of the summer's surprise hits. With a total box-office take so far of $116.4 million, it's the fourth-highest-grossing movie musical ever, behind only The Sound of Music, Grease and Chicago. And Hairspray is nothing if not traditional - a high-gloss, unrepentantly exuberant celebration of song and dance. Score one for the traditionalists.

But 2007 also saw the release of writer-director John Carney's Once, a decidedly nontraditional musical centering on two Dublin, Ireland, street performers warily circling each other's emotions. With songs recorded live, and with the sparse music frequently

no more than star Glen Hansard and his guitar, the delicately crafted romance has been one of the year's best-reviewed films - and with a return of $8.4 million on a budget reportedly under $200,000, its box-office performance didn't disappoint, either.

Then there's something completely different: Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, which uses 33 Beatles songs to tell the story of a young couple falling in love against a backdrop of '60s-era protests and pandemonium, is scheduled to open Friday in Baltimore.

Some early reviews have been withering - "You've never seen anything like Across the Universe," wrote Christopher Kelly in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "and not in a million years would you want to." But the film, complete with giant puppets, jarring psychedelia and re-imagined musical standards ("I Want to Hold Your Hand," sung as a wistful lesbian lament), opened strong its first week in limited release earlier this month, pulling in just under $30,000 a screen.

Put those three films together, and the result is great news for lovers of the motion-picture musical. A genre that was once thought to be too hidebound for more modern tastes turns out to be plenty elastic. At the same time, there seems to be plenty of life in the old ways yet, as the smiling faces walking out of every Hairspray screening prove.

"I knew people were either going to get wrapped up and let themselves go, or they were going to have that resistance thing," says Taymor, who brought Disney's animated The Lion King to Broadway in 1997. "You have to risk. Even in commercial worlds, you have to take a risk. In Lion King, did they take a risk when they hired me? I don't think so, but they might have thought so. It certainly paid off. We're in our 10th year, with 11 productions around the world."

The glory days

It wasn't so long ago that committing any musical to celluloid had become a risk hardly worth taking. True, the genre had a glorious and profitable history, harking back to the 1940s and 1950s, when Arthur Freed's production unit at MGM was churning out films such as Meet Me in St. Louis, On the Town and Singin' in the Rain. Two of his movies, 1951's An American in Paris and 1958's Gigi, even won Best Picture Oscars.

Musicals were everywhere; audiences couldn't get enough of them. Film versions of such Broadway productions as Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents' West Side Story all were massive popular and critical hits. Robert Wise's 1965 adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music was even the all-time box-office champion for seven years, until The Godfather came along.

When rock and roll, with its determination to play against convention, emerged as the dominant musical form in the 1960s, musicals were slow to adapt. By the early '70s, the genre seemed passe, even quaint. When filmmakers did try to shake things up - Ken Russell's Tommy (1975), Milos Forman's Hair (1979) - the result often seemed stilted, forced. Successes, like Randal Kleiser's Grease, which rode John Travolta's star power to gross more than $150 million in 1978, were more the exception than the rule. More typical were such films as John Huston's Annie (1982), Richard Attenborough's A Chorus Line (1985) and Alan Parker's Evita! (1996), films that caused nary a ripple either at the box office or in the collective cinematic psyche.

Out of the doldrums

Things started to change with such films as Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Rob Marshall's Chicago (2002), as directors who had been raised on musicals in the 1950s and early 1960s began putting their stamp on the genre, taking the musical and injecting it with considerable doses of MTV-style razzmatazz: quick cuts, lots of close-ups, outlandish lighting and surreal sets.

Hairspray, directed by Adam Shankman, applies some of the new-school energy to storytelling techniques that have been a staple of movie musicals since forever.

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