DAY 3: Greatest Movie Musicals Numbers 5-2
Director: Randal Kleiser
Starring: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing
Released in the late 1970’s, set in the 50’s and featuring songs still regularly played at wedding’s, karaoke bar’s and the like today, Grease is a strange amalgamation of being both timeless and yet very distinctly of its set era. The film’s story follows the blossoming romance of leads Danny and Sandy as they face the reality of their ‘summer lovin’ being introduced to the judgements, prejudices and social conditioning of teenage school life. There isn’t anything particular profound or original about its plot, and some of the characters are painted in broad strokes bordering on caricature, but Grease remains one of the most beloved and enduring musicals of all time. In dipping in and out of a plethora of different issues that teens of any generation are forced to deal with and endure it helps itself to an infinitely renewable target audience, and it’s continuing success and demand both on home video and in theatrical revivals show no signs of abating. Perhaps more than the majority of entries on this list, Grease is atypical, harmless, breezy musical perfection, and proudly boasts the most requested soundtrack in the history of the genre.
Encore!: “Summer Nights”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “You’re The One That I Want” and “We Go Together”
Steals the Show: As with David Tomlinson in Mary Poppins, Stockard Channing takes us on the biggest journey with the initially bitchy and snide Rizzo, antithesis of Newton-John’s Sandy, in particular when touching upon shades of neurosis, isolation, jealousy and pride in her perfectly written and executed ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’. In a fairly two-dimensional sweep of characters, both Rizzo and Channing’s performance stand head and shoulders above the rest.
4: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
Director: Trey Parker
Starring: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman (voices)
Without a doubt, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut demonstrates the smartest and most multi-functional use of its songs and musical sequences than any of the other movie musicals on this countdown. Practically every song operates on a surprising number of levels - throwing in both character and plot progression, pop culture intertextuality, satire and that quintessential South Park self-referentialism. Pushing aside even the phallic connotations of the movies title, this is a blisteringly funny and razor sharp musical which presents a topical story of censorship whilst at the same time flipping the bird to those viewing. The films main storyline, for instance, regards an overtly crude childish animated film being released that corrupts the youths of America who flock to see it despite the age rating and subsequently leads to all-out war between the United States and Canada, a savvy critique of the films own existence and inevitable audience and backlash. Sometimes Parker and Stone are too clever for their own good, and the meta nature of their work goes right over peoples heads because of how obvious and blatant it is, leaving only toilet humour and foul language on show, and yet at the same time they admittedly sometimes default to the plain ridiculous just for humours sake, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the sublimely post-modern Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Crucially, it succeeds remarkably well as a musical, with a brilliant array of songs in its Oscar-nominated soundtrack, penned by the ever-reliable Marc Shaiman (and director Trey Parker). The films third act ‘La Resistance’, encompassing practically the entire cast in a pre-finale medley, is a moment of pure musical genius and is easily as well-constructed and accomplished as anything you’ll find on Broadway or the West End. It is unsurprising that after this, Parker and Stone went on to produce a Tony-winning Broadway smash, The Book of Mormon, because it seems to them, making great musicals comes easy, mmmmkay?
Encore!: “Blame Canada”, “Up There”, “I Can Change” and “La Resistance (Medley)”
Steals the Show: Mary Kay Bergman elevates the character of Sheila Broflovski from overbearing, overprotective mother to full on warmongerer and a shrewd parody of the hypocritical and blame-fostering parents who allowed their children to watch the show, nowhere more evident than in her barnstormingly brilliant and brilliant satirical ‘Blame Canada’, which, amongst praying for ‘no more Celine Dion’ ends with the perfectly encapsulating ‘We must blame them and cause a fuss, before somebody thinks of blaming us!’
3: Moulin Rouge!
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent
Moulin Rouge! works so perfectly as a musical because it takes a genuinely tender and effecting re-imagining of a classic narrative romance, the star-crossed lovers, and combines it ingeniously with a flurry of different musical stylings in the distinctive and postmodern manner that just screams Baz Luhrmann. This a musical extraganza which serves as a true opulent delight, a real assault on the senses and for all the mad kinetic energy, mtv-generation editing and a tone that can never settle on being farce or melodrama, it is all a whimsical delight spinning furiously around a supremely grounded and tried-and-tested love story which, thanks to two career-best turns by leads Ewan Mcgregor and Nicole Kidman, peels itself off the page delicately yet passionately. To put it bluntly, Moulin Rouge! really shouldn’t work - there is far too much going on, too much breaking of the fourth wall, and unimaginable renditions of pop classics from the 20th century (see in particular the hilariously original working of ‘Like A Virgin’) and yet despite the chaos (and a potentially audience-repelling bonkers opening sequence) it truly does - dipping in and out of the madness with moments of supreme tenderness and affection before barnstorming back to backflipping Jim Broadbents or elephant-climbing dwarfs all leading up to a devastatingly emotional and unconventionally bleak denouement. And whilst some of the musical selections are odd, they are anchored into the film with undeniable conviction, and cast and crew alike make everything work, and everything thoroughly memorable. Testimony of the imagination, boldness and impact of Moulin Rouge! is how it went on to create a renaissance for the movie musical, with many staler, far less innovative productions whirring into production in the proceeding years. This is the film that made Chicago look, sound and feel underwhelming when it was released a year later - no small feat indeed. Supremely original and outstandingly inventive, very few movie musicals of past or present can hold a candle to Moulin Rouge!
Encore!: “One Day I’ll Fly Away/Elephant Love Medley”, “Come What May”, “El Tango De Roxanne”, and “The Show Must Go On”
Steals the Show: Richard Roxburgh is initially hilariously contemptuous and sniveling as the films antagonist The Duke, yet as the film progresses his shadow looms larger, becoming a more desperate, manipulative and dangerous figure in the process.
2: Beauty and the Beast
Director: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Starring: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury (voices)
The prestige and achievement of Beauty and the Beast can never really be overstated - not only the industry acclaim and the likes of it being the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture (and to this day still the only one in a 5-title race and the only traditional hand drawn film to do so) but as a motion picture and movie musical it is practically flawless. It has a near-perfect balance of plot, score and song, and utilises all three elements incredibly harmoniously, with that quintessential dash of indefinable Disney quality and magic. For audiences of any age it finds that sweet spot in blending elements of drama, tension, occasional horror (yet never enough to deter the younger crowd) and of course the ultimate romantic tale of going beyond appearance and finding a kindred soul in the most unlikely place and person imaginable. Luckily these messages are self-evident and not preached or overly dwelled upon, and with sublime animation and across-the-board pitch-perfect voice casting the result is a movie of real wit, warmth, humour and conviction. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaborated once more on what would be their final complete soundtrack and score, with Ashman sadly passing away not long after production was completed, and the finished product was a beautiful cap to Ashman’s legacy and a simply resplendent musical achievement. It is said of great musical soundtracks that you could remove the dialogue and visuals and just listen to the songs and still completely understand and follow the trajectory of the story being told, and Beauty and the Beast is one such perfect example. From the bravura of “Gaston” to the extravagance of “Be Our Guest” and of course the iconic titular ballad, it is the apotheosis of marrying the house of mouse’s beautifully animated fairytale re-imaginings with stellar, broadway-esque musical stylings. That the film around it is as equally impressive and effective resulted in their greatest animated achievement to date and one of the most quintessential movie musical experiences ever produced.
Encore!: “Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, “The Mob Song” and “Beauty and the Beast”
Steals the Show: Jerry Orbach is exquisitely charismatic and endearing as maitre d’-turned-candleabra Lumiere, though in truth this is one of Disney’s most excellent and enchanting (if you’ll forgive the puns) casts in their sizeable back-catalogue.
NEXT BLOG: Greatest Movie Musical Number 1!!!