Today sees the DVD release of Les Miserables which is a film I unapologetically totally dig. It unexpectedly had everything I was looking for in a film – career defining performances from Jackman and Hathaway of genuine depth which seems quite the rarity in modern Hollywood. A genuine epic quality which has seemed absent in cinema for quite some time – and by epic I don’t just mean sweeping vistas and large crowds, I mean a story which takes place over many years and generations of characters. This would all be great were it not enhanced for me by the highly enjoyable naffness of Russell Crowe. I’ve never really understood the Russell Crowe thing, he seems to owe his career to a string of leading roles in Ridley Scott films. Not dissimilar to Di Caprio’s dominance of later-era Scorsese, I remain confused as to why a director would donate such a large portion of their output to promoting the career of quite a dull talent. I assume blackmail. Anyway, what I love in Les Mis is how director Tom Hooper gives Crowe all the space he needs to be truly, enjoyably, abysmal. He is seen, predominantly, striding stroppily around high walls. When he sings, it’s the voice of a mortally wounded David Essex protesting with a traffic warden over having parked his jag in a disabled space. There’s a great comic turn from Sacha Baron Cohen too. It, of course, has its problems. A lot of the camerawork is inexplicaply ropey but this is mainly due to presumably experimental framing on the part of the director. The hand-held camerawork throughout is a doggedly adhered-to choice which usually doesn’t suit the film but I can forgive Hooper all of this stuff because he’s trying to do something different. It’s better to try and fail than just hammer out another shitty Hollywood formulaic crapfest. So fair play to the man. Of course, the best thing about the film is the music. I like music. I like musicals. I think that proclaiming to dislike musicals is as pat as dismissing vegetarians and pop music. When I hear ‘people just suddenly burst into song – that NEVER HAPPENS!’ I want to scream back ‘THAT’S WHY IT’S AWESOME!’ What a great conceit for bringing the internal monologue out. Anyway, as they say, ‘fuck the haters’ – here are some great film musicals you might have missed.
Xanadu is one of those films which kind of defines a genre all of its own that nobody was ever really going to embrace. So, of the roller-skating-disco-musical-nods-to-classic-Hollywood-musicals, this is certainly the most… only… example. It’s a strange confection. Nominally the story of a man who paints billboard versions of album covers who meets Glen Miller’s clarinetist and opens a roller-disco-jazz-joint with the help of a heavenly muse. it doesn’t make a lot of sense, yet it’s notable for a bunch of anomalies that kind of set it apart from how awful it should be. To begin with, the film is endearingly tongue-in-cheek. It knows just how kitschy it is and tempers the glitter with a wry humour and some genuine pathos. I think there’s an intelligence behind it – I know there is – as the director Robert Greenwald went on to become one of the better social documentary makers of recent years. His film Wal-Mart The High Price of Low Cost is perhaps the best filmed polemic on capitalism you’re ever likely to see. The pathos comes entirely from Gene Kelly in his last screen performance and holy shit is he having fun. He has embraced the new generation and surveys the disco era with a warm and grandfatherly pride which, it must be said, doesn’t stop him from strapping on a pair of skates and leading the dance. Fantastically, the role he plays is – although not explicitly stated – a continuation of the character he played in Cover Girl back in 1944, this is a disco sequel to a film 26 years its predecessor. Olivia Newton-John, although billed as the star of the film seems oddly unnecessary, she’s an awkward actress, always was, but she brings it all to the singing and the musical numbers are great. Oddest of all is the lead character played by Michael Beck who, just two years earlier was the sullen, deadly Swan in The Warriors. It’s really weird to see him singing and dancing like a big camp wally but it all adds to it somehow. I think what I like best about this film is the visual effects. There’s a quality to those late-seventies/very-early-eighties effects films, when they were pushing the limits of optical printing, Superman-era stuff, which is so endearing. Seeing characters exuding a neon glow and heaven as a landscape of smoke and glowing lines, kind of Tron-like but fuzzy due to the restraints of the technology always places me firmly back in a childlike joy.
SWEENEY TODD (2007)
It’s funny with Tim Burton, isn’t it? He’s spent so many years now cranking out black-and-white or psychadelic hued films based on existing properties with his wife and Johnny Depp that he’s ceased to become terribly interesting. Even the Goths seem to have looked away. When this one limped out in 2007, it was horribly mis-marketed with trailers and advertising which didn’t even hint at the fact it was a musical, confusing already indifferent audiences. Traditional musical audiences avoided it like the plague due to highly graphic throat-cutting scenes throughout and the audience who love a good throat-slash aren’t generally up for a bit of a sing-song. It’s a rather niche audience for this film and I happily count myself among them. All of Burton’s tired tropes seemed to coalesce into something really special here. It’s one of my favourite film renderings of historical London. Heavily stylised yet convincing, it’s a Dickensian dollhouse nightmare. Depp plays the character straight and silently troubled, occasionally lapsing into ghoulish but always rooted in story. It’s a tragedy rather than a horror piece and the beautiful Sondheim score and lyrics just elevate it to something else. It’s not always an easy watch, it is unrelentingly, sickeningly gory even by modern horror standards and since the death is the one part of the equation which is not stylised or campy it sets a strange tone but strange is very much the order of the day with this one. I genuinely think this is a film which will find critical reappraisal in the future. I don’t think anyone really knew what to make of it but in many ways it seems to me to be the zenith of what Burton has been doing for a long time.
THE TALL GUY (1989)
I know this one doesn’t technically count as a musical but I seem to have lost my Godspell DVD, so this is what you get. No, The Tall Guy is not a musical. It is Richard Curtis’s first cinematic outing and really the only one which isn’t a massive pile of fucking mawkish shit. Unlike the vile wretchedness of Love Actually, The Boat That Rocked and Four Weddings (I have a soft spot for Notting Hill, although I’m aware it’s guilty of many of the same crimes), The Tall Guy has some of that Blackadder bite to it. It’s the story of a comedian’s straight man who falls in love. It’s not complicated but it’s well-observed comedy. Jeff Goldblum takes a weird career sidestep to appear in a low-budget very British comedy and it pays off. The film has bags of charm and a nice cynical edge which never appeared again in Curtis’s cannon of work. So, why have I included it here? Well, because Goldblum’s character eventually quits his gig and lands the lead role in a West-End production of a musical based on the story of John Merrick, the Elephant Man. The third act shows us quite a lot of the production itself and I adore it. It brilliantly satirizes that era of Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh pillaging of history and literature to turn into profit (an era fondly remembered now that all the West End seems to pillage is succesful films of the 80s/90s). The musical is both heartfelt and ludicrous and so well staged that I’m sure I’m not the only one who silently wishes someone would actually stage the thing. Maybe I am the only one – nobody ever seem to have even heard of the film these days.
THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE (1983)
This is one of my big ‘WHY ISN’T THIS A MASSIVE CULT HIT???’ films. It has every single element it needs to be huge yet it remains incredibly obscure. A campy, tongue-in-cheek, wonderful musical about a disgraced superhero, shut down by a 1950s Mccarthy style government intervention, the 80s finds him a tramp drinking meths on the streets in Australia. When his great nemesis – a brilliant Christopher Lee enjoying every second of his singing and dancing extravaganza – returns, the current American president demands the locating and rehabilitation of Captain Invincible. Invincible is played by Alan Arkin who, only now after Argo is receiving the mainstream credit his genius deserves. it features songs by Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley – the team behind Rocky Horror and it’s genuinely great stuff. Clever lyrics, catchy tunes. How many superhero musicals are there out there? Surely this is a film which a huge audience would really enjoy. It’s well directed with great songs, fantastic performances and it’s a completely unique proposition. The plot becomes a little confusing and flimsy at times but it’s still an immensely likable proposition.
CHORUS LINE (1985)
In some ways Richard Attenborough’s unexpected follow-up to Gandhi is the purest film musical being, as it is, a very straight adaptation of an existing musical which barely uses the film medium to bring anything to it – most of the film taking place inside the theatre itself. I think I like it as a time capsule more than anything. It has that early-80s ‘anything is possible’ innocence about it whilst also showcasing the heartbreak and cruelty of the acting life. Never having seen the original production, it feels very much like the original script has been used as there is a lack of reality or grounding in any of the characters but there’s a convincing case to be made that musical actors of the generation genuinely were brainless overbearing caricatures of themselves. It all adds to the charm, though. What renders it particularly enjoyable is a an engagingly cunty performance from a pre-Gekko Michael Douglas as a dark and intolerant director who strips the film of its potentially fluffy edge and adds a frisson of psychological unpredictability.
I’ve always found the film musical an excitingly anomalous genre. It shouldn’t work, it often doesn’t, but when it does it can give an unexpected emotional depth and creative vision. I’ll always love them. Which ones have I missed here? Which should be seen?