The DVD Report #34


Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good movie on DVD!

With the opening of Tim Burton’s film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd this past weekend, it’s time for my third and final dissertation on the evolution of the movie musical.

I left off in 1978 with the dismal screen adaptation of another Sondheim classic, A Little Night Music, which was pretty much the death knell of the traditional Broadway-to-Hollywood musical that soared so majestically for more than two decades with such sublime entertainments as The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver! and Cabaret.

If A Little Night Music was an artistic and commercial failure, Grease which was also released in 1978, was at least a commercial success. Artistically it catered to the undemanding, easily entertained masses. Never mind that the dancers’ feet were cut off for most of the musical numbers, it was the chance to see a more contemporary musical with John Travolta fresh from his Oscar-nominated performance in Saturday Night Fever starring opposite 1970s pop star Olivia Newton-John.

A better example of contemporary music on screen was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, a documentary of the last concert given by The Band. There had been concert films before, but with the notable exception of 1970’s Woodstock and one or two others, they usually played small theatres for a week or two if they got distribution at all. This one, because it had a hot-name director helming it, was given major distribution and played to packed houses. Co-produced by Scorsese and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, the film also contained performances by such artists as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Muddy Waters.

The best musical of 1978 was The Buddy Holly Story, about the short life of the legendary rock ‘n’ roll singer from Lubbock, Texas, who was killed in a plane crash in 1959 at the age of 22. Gary Busey won a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his electrifying portrayal of Holly. Charlie Martin Smith and Don Stroud were outstanding as members of his band.

Musical comedy was all but dead now. The emphasis for the next three decades would be on musical drama and fantasy.

Critics were split over which film was the best musical of 1979. Most favored Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, which won four Oscars and another five nominations. The feat is incredible for a film that is mostly about the hallucinations of a womanizing, drug abusing dancer while he is undergoing open heart surgery. Oscar-nominated Roy Scheider is obviously playing Fosse, which made the film seem immediate for many, but it’s a rough going all the way.

The film that should have gotten greater recognition was Milos Forman’s Hair. Unfortunately the Flower Power Broadway musical of the late 1960s was considered passé by audiences who ignored it. It was their misfortune. While the film retains most of the original score, the story was almost completely re-written. The central characters are now an uptight Army enlistee and a free-spirited hippie, played by John Savage and Treat Williams, who end up switching places when the enlistee is ordered to Viet Nam. The real star of the film, though, is Twyla Tharp whose amazing choreography continuously dazzles with even the horses stepping to the beat.

The third major musical of 1979 was The Rose, a thinly-disguised fictional account of the life and death of Janis Joplin with Bette Midler singing her heart out in an Oscar-nominated performance.

Released early in 1980, the popularity of Coal Miner’s Daughter proved strong enough for Sissy Spacek to win every major award for her portrayal of country legend, Loretta Lynn. Nominated for a total of seven Oscars, Spacek’s win was its only one. The film, which holds up considerably well today, also features fine performances by Tommy Lee Jones as Lynn’s husband, Levon Helm of The Band as her coal miner dad and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline. Legend has it that Spacek had some of D’Angelo’s best scenes cut for fear D’Angelo would steal the film from her.

Another immensely popular 1980 musical was Fame, set in New York’s famed High School of the Performing Arts. Nominated for six Oscars, it won two, for best score and best song, the exuberant title tune put across by diminutive Irene Cara and the cast. The film spawned an even more successful TV series that ran for five years beginning in 1982.

Ray Sharkey won a Golden Globe as Best Actor – Musical or Comedy for The Idolmaker and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy. A thinly-disguised fictional account of the 1950s rise of pop idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian, newcomers Paul Land and Peter Gallagher played the singers. Sharkey was their manager.

The rest of 1980’s musical output included the long forgotten Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson as a washed up country singer, One Trick Pony with Paul Simon as a rock star in decline, the third film version of The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier hamming it up as Diamond’s disapproving father, and an utter piece of drivel called Xanadu. The latter, whose plot defies description, was so bad it put an immediate end to the career of the legendary Gene Kelly while doing no good for any of his co-stars including Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck.

1981’s modestly successful Pennies From Heaven with Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken, set in depression era Chicago, was noticed enough to garner three Oscar nominations and win Peters a Golden Globe.

Dolly Parton sashayed and Burt Reynolds smirked his way through the 1982 film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a delight on Broadway but nothing special on screen with much of the music and all the heartfelt acting of Carlin Glynn and Henderson Forsythe missing.

John Huston’s dreadful direction of Annie proved he had no business going anywhere near a musical. Though Albert Finney could do no wrong as Daddy Warbucks, Carol Burnett threw the whole thing off kilter by making her portrayal of Miss Hannigan look like just another one of her TV parodies. Annie and the rest of the orphans were not especially appealing either. The show was done to perfection for TV in 1989 with a superb cast headed by Kathy Bates as Hannigan.

The best musical of 1982, by far, was Victor/Victoria, based on an obscure 1933 German film. It was a throwback, in a good way, to the screwball comedies of that era. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Preston) and Best Supporting Actress (Lesley Ann Warren). It won only one, for the Henry Mancini-Leslie Bricusse score. Andrews as a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman while falling in love with James Garner, and Preston as a drag queen who could pass for Marie Dressler, are a constant delight. Andrews reprised the role in a Broadway version some thirteen years later.

Though essentially a drama, 1983’s Tender Mercies was nevertheless about the world of country music centering on the relationship between a has-been country singer and his estranged daughter, still struggling to make it in the business. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it won for Best Actor (Robert Duvall) and Best Original Screenplay (Horton Foote).

A genuine, foot-stomping, old-time musical with a difference was 1984’s Footloose. The difference was that the music was for the most part pre-recorded and played on the radio for the cast to dance to. Two of its songs, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” and the title tune were nominated for Oscars. Kevin Bacon starred as the new kid in town and Lori Singer and Chris Penn made nice impressions as his friends. On the downside, John Lithgow’s portrayal of a hellfire and brimstone minister was a casebook study in overacting.

Richard Gere, Gregory Hines and Diane Lane starred in 1984’s deadly dull The Cotton Club about the lively Harlem Institution, one of many duds directed by Francis Ford Coppola after his last critically-praised film, 1979’s Apocalypse Now.

Richard Attenborough, who made his directorial debut with 1969’s great anti-war musical, Oh! What a Lovely War, returned to the genre to prove he had completely lost his touch. His 1985 film of the landmark Broadway musical, A Chorus Line, just lies there when it should soar. Even so, it must have impressed the Academy’s sound department, as they gave it two Oscar nominations. It was also nominated for Best Original Song, for the forgettable “Surprise, Surprise”.

After the phenomenal success of Coal Miner’s Daughter, it was inevitable that someone would want to make the Patsy Cline story into a film. They did, but whereas great pains were taken to make Coal Miner’s Daughter accurate, 1985’s Sweet Dreams was a haphazardly put together mess. The story, which largely takes place in the 1950s, uses Patsy’s music from the early 1960s. The portrayals of Patsy, her family and her friends were widely criticized at the time for being totally out of touch with reality. Despite all that, Jessica Lange managed to receive an Oscar nomination as Patsy, though for my money Beverly D’Angelo was closer to the real Patsy in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Proving to be an unexpected delight, 1987’s Dirty Dancing came out of nowhere in August of that year and has remained popular ever since. It propelled Patrick Swayze to major stardom, which sadly didn’t last very long but gave him plenty of mileage while it did. His leading lady, Jennifer Grey, Oscar winner Joel Grey’s daughter, wasn’t as lucky. It was her only major film role. A pre-Law & Order Jerry Orbach had one of his few major film roles as Jennifer’s dad in this charming borsht belt musical. It won a Best Song Oscar for the infectious “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”.

Following in the footsteps of The Buddy Holly Story almost a decade later, 1987’s La Bamba followed the life of Richie Valens, another young singer killed in the same plane crash that took Holly’s life. It made stars of Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales as his brother.

Disney stepped into the void created by the absence of live film musicals with the Broadway-style music of its animated 1989 release, The Little Mermaid. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, this delightful film with music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, was nominated for Oscars for its score and two of its songs, “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea”, winning for the latter. It was the first of many such films from Disney over the next decade and spawned a TV series and an upcoming live Broadway version.

If The Little Mermaid set the stage,Disney’s 1981 entry, Beauty and the Beast, commanded it. A perfect blend of story, animation and music, the oft-told tale was perfectly voiced by Paige O’Hara as Belle, Robby Benson as the Beast, Richard White as Gaston, Jerry Orbach as Lumière, David Ogden Stiers as Cosgsworth, Rex Everhart as Muariced, and the one-and-only Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, who gets to sing the glorious title song. Beauty and the Beast became the first, and thus far, only animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It was nominated for a total of six, winning two for Alan Menken’s score, and his and Howard Ashman’s title song. It became a long-running Broadway show three years later.

Following the success of Beauty and the Beast Disney gave us Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules and Mulan before returning to non-musical animation in recent years.

Tina Turner’s turbulent life was the basis for 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It? Though the title is taken from her triumphant 1984 comeback hit, the film is largely centered on her earlier life, particularly her relationship with abusive husband Ike. Both Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburne as Ike received Oscar nominations for their amazing performances.

Australia gave usthe 1994 surprise hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about two drag queens and a pre-op transsexual on the road in a gaudily-painted van in Australia’s outback country. The actors, Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, lip sync marvelously to one pop song hit after another. The film won an Oscar for costume design. Stamp was nominated for a BAFTA and both Stamp and Weaving were nominated for Australian Film Institute awards.

The long-awaited film version of Broadway’s Evita arrived in 1996 with Madonna in the title role, Antonio Banderas as Che and Jonathan Pryce as Juan Peron. The film was nominated for five Oscars including its gorgeous cinematography and art direction. It won for best song, the newly written “You Must Love Me”. The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera may be a matter of taste, but there’s no denying that pop idol Madonna gives her best screen performance as the First Lady of Argentina.

I still can’t get over the outrageous enthusiasm of some over 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, a lame, anachronistic updating of La Bohme. Utilizing music that hadn’t yet been written, sung by tone-deaf Nicole Kidman and others, the film is a mess from beginning to end. Yet it charmed enough Oscar voters to earn eight nominations including those for Kidman, self-indulgent director Baz Luhrmann and the film itself. It won for art direction and costume design, both of which were co-awarded to Catherine Martin, Mrs. Luhrmann. How sweet!

The 2002 film version of the 1975 Broadway musical Chicago had been long in the planning stage. The successful 1997 Broadway revival helped bring it to fruition. With a screenplay by Bill Condon who had won an Oscar for writing 1998’s Gods and Monsters and direction by Rob Marshall, who had done wonders with the 1989 TV version of Annie, the film was one delightful surprise from beginning to end. Marshall even got a welcome animated performance from the usually stiff Richard Gere. The film was nominated for 13 Oscars and won 6 including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Renee Zellweger, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah had to content themselves with nominations.

In the wake of Chicagowe were led to expect a renaissance of the musical, but many of the promised films never materialized. Of those that did, most were pretty bad with2004’s The Phantom of the Opera, De-Lovely and Beyond the Sea being especially painful to sit through.

The Phantom of the Opera, based on the long-running London and Broadway success, was all show and no substance. De-Lovely was a stylized biography of legendary composer Cole Porter with Kevin Kline that made us yearn for Cary Grant in the earlier, flawed, but easy-to-digest, Night and Day. Beyond the Sea was beyond redemption with a too-old Kevin Spacey pretending to be his real life idol, singer Bobby Darin. Only the year’s fourth major musical, Ray, a biography of singer Ray Charles, proved worthwhile. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his dead-on impersonation and the film itself was nominated for a total of six, also winning for Best Sound Mixing.

The following year, the dreary Rent and the silly musical remake of The Producers proved as uninviting as the prior year’s Broadway-to-Hollywood transfer of The Phantom of the Opera, while another singer’s biography, Walk the Line, about the life of Johnny Cash, proved to be the only musical worth remembering. The film was nominated for five Oscars including Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix as Cash. Only Reese Witherspoon as Cash’s second wife, June Carter, won.

Bill Condon was given his choice of musicals to direct after his successful penning of the Chicago script. Throughout 2006 his dream project, Dreamgirls, was heralded as the one to beat at the Oscars. Unfortunately by the time the film premiered at Christmastime, the thin story and less-than-exhilarating score failed to live up to the hype. Although the film did receive eight Oscar nominations it was left out of the Best Picture and Director races. It did win two Oscars, one for that old standby, Sound Mixing, and one for Jennifer Hudson’s triumphant debut performance as Effie, the one who gets to sing the musical’s most powerful numbers, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing”.

This year’s big musical release prior to Sweeney Todd was Hairspray which I previously reviewed.

The unpretentious Once, released last week, is about a Dublin street musician and a Czech immigrant piano player who team up to write a few songs. It’s a sweet little movie that some people are wildly-enthusiastic about. I’m still trying to figure out why.

2007’s major DVD release calendar ends with David Cronenberg’s decidedly non-musical Eastern Promises.

Cronenberg has been making films for more than forty years. Though the bulk of his work has been in the horror genre, he made a critically acclaimed move in the direction of gangster films with 2005’s The History of Violence. Though not quite as compelling, his latest filmfollows in that vein. History‘s Viggo Mortensen is once again his protagonist and he’s terrific as a member of the Russian mob in London who is not exactly what he seems. Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl lend strong support and Sinead Cusack, whose husband Jeremy Irons memorably played evil twin doctors in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,has a featured role as Watts’ mother. It’s a highly enjoyable film, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Cronenberg may have switched genres, but Eastern Promises is as bloody and gruesome in parts as any of his previous work.

See you in 2008.

Peter J. Patrick (December 25, 2007)

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(December 16)

  1. The Bourne Ultimatum
              $15.4 M ($15.4 M)
  2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
              $12.2 M ($12.2 M)
  3. Superbad
              $11.6 M ($25.5 M)
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
              $7.88 M ($17.4 M)
  5. Live Free or Die Hard
              $6.34 M ($37.4 M)
  6. The Nanny Diaries
              $5.87 M ($13.0 M)
  7. Waitress
              $4.60 M ($17.0 M)
  8. Shrek the Third
              $4.50 M ($37.7 M)
  9. Hairspray
              $4.13 M ($25.9 M)
  10. Rescue Dawn
              $3.28 M ($19.4 M)

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(December 9)

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
  2. Superbad
    3. Shrek the Third
  3. Ratatouille
  4. Hairspray
  5. Live Free or Die Hard
  6. Planet Earth: The Complete Series
    8. Transformers
  7. 24: Season Six
  8. Spider-Man 3

New Releases

(December 25)

Coming Soon

(January 1, 2008)

(January 2, 2008)

(January 8, 2008)

(January 15, 2008)

(January 22, 2008)

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