Thursday, January 07, 2010

Five Favorite Modern Musicals

Sorry I've been away for a couple of days. I have no excuse, other than a pile of work and a general post-holiday malaise that makes me boring even to myself, much less in a public forum.

But last night I was clicking through the channels (which I never do; the TV is tuned to one of three channels pretty much all the time) and came across a movie I hadn't seen in at least 10 years, which reminded me that sometimes all I need is a little music.

I like musicals. I have friends who don't, who object to them on principle. They can't get past the idea that real life never offers opportunities to break into song, much less organized dance numbers. I say they are not leading the right kind of lives, or bringing sufficient imagination to the everyday. I live in a world where anyone might break into song, at any time. (That is one of several reasons that it's probably best I live alone, but never mind.)

Anyway, modern musicals often acknowledge this implausibility, and therefore give their characters reasons to sing and dance. Some of the movies on this list do that, and some of them don't even pretend. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. Absolute Beginners, 1986. Directed by Julien Temple from a screenplay by Richard Burridge, Don McPherson and Christopher Wicking, developed by Michael Hamlin from the novel by Colin MacInnes, with additional dialogue by Terry Johnson. Don't think too much about this movie, which works best as spectacle; the paper-thin plot revolves around Colin (Eddie O'Connell, and whatever happened to him?) and Suzette, whose romance is destroyed by ambition, and race riots in London in the late 1950s. David Bowie, as an advertising executive, steals the show with a dazzling production number called "That's Motivation," and sings the title song, which is still in heavy rotation on my iTunes playlist.

2. Across the Universe, 2007. Directed by Julie Taymor from a screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, based on a story by Clement, La Frenais and Taymor. I don't know why this movie didn't get more attention, or why its stars — particularly Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson — aren't household names. It's a musical based on the music of the Beatles. Yes, the plot is silly; yes, it's a little long and a little self-indulgent, and we really didn't need that big production number with Eddie Izzard (though it looks and sounds great). But the art direction is spectacular, the music is wonderful, and the whole thing me me happy. Which is what musicals are for, dammit.

3. The Commitments, 1991. Directed by Alan Parker from a screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle, based on the novel by Roddy Doyle. This was the movie I watched last night, and it was even better than I remembered. The music is organic to the plot, since the movie is about the short life of a Dublin soul band. The music is great, and the movie has wonderful things to say about the life of an artist and about the nature of Irishness: "Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable," says Joey "the Lips" Fagin at the end of the movie. "This way it's poetry."

4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007. Directed by Tim Burton from a screenplay by John Logan, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, musical adaptation by Christopher Bond. Who knew Johnny Depp could sing? And Helena Bonham Carter can't, but within the world of this movie, that works. And the kid who plays Toby, Ed Sanders, is a revelation. I wasn't crazy about the actor who played Anthony (the young romantic hero), and — it pains me to say it — I was a little disappointed with Alan Rickman, but overall, I was amazed at how well this show made the transfer from stage to screen.

5. That Thing You Do, 1996. Directed and written by Tom Hanks. Another great movie about the short life of a band, this one a Beatles-style group called The Wonders. It's deceptively simple, but the performances are great, the art direction is gorgeous, and the music (by Adam Schlessinger of Fountains of Wayne and Tom Hanks himself, among others) is irresistible.


Anonymous said...

The entire "Absolute Beginners" soundtrack is good, featuring a lot of the bands of that time. That CD is still on my favourite play Pile.


Sue Lin said...

I love the audacity and music of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

AnswerGirl said...

Doh! I can't BELIEVE I left "Hedwig" off this list! I'd swap that out for "That Thing You Do," for sure.

Anonymous said...

What about "Hair" does that count as modern?


AnswerGirl said...

If "Absolute Beginners" is modern, I think we should count "Hair" as modern, too — it certainly falls outside the Golden Age of Movie Musicals frame. I love that movie, too, and had a massive crush on Treat Williams for many years.