14 February, 2017

Musical Notes

There’s a moment in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy that defines its genre.  It’s at the end, after George M. Cohan’s meeting with President Roosevelt but before he’s outside in the street parading with the troops … to his own song.  And remember what’s brought him here:  it’s Opening Night of his New Show, back on the stage after years away, and he was summoned to The White House to meet The President.  Cohan’s nervous because in his New Show he plays The President but when he gets to The White House and sits with the man he ends up telling his life story.  Turns out it couldn’t be better because Roosevelt’s brought him there to award him The Congressional Medal Of Honor (Cohan was the first Entertainer to receive the award).  He thanks The President with what’s already become the picture’s heart-tug -- “My father thanks you …” -- and then he’s on his way out.  And that would be a great ending, a beautiful ending.  Even if we cut outside and he stepped in line with those troops on parade (with the great exchange with the soldier:  “Seems to me I do!”) we’d have an appropriately rousing cap to the heart-tug. 

But that’s not the moment. 

It’s him coming down the stairs. 

He’s just come out of meeting Roosevelt on opening night of his new show and he’s told his life story and he’s been given the award.  And that’s when it happens.  While he’s coming down the stairs, he does a little dance.  It’s simple and elegant (not to mention while he’s coming down the stairs) and it ends as it began, without missing a step.  George M. Cohan just came out of being summoned to The President of The United States, and he tap dances his way out the door.

That’s a moment.

I hadn’t thought I’d be writing about this until my wife Diana got me La La Land on vinyl for Valentine’s Day.  I’d been humming along to the Soundtrack -- on Spotify -- pretty regularly since we saw the film in December so she knew I’d love it:  the vinyl (it’s blue!).  But it was also icing on a cake I hadn’t quite realized was baking;  that I’d have to write about it, you see.  Because Damian Chazelle’s love letter to Jazz and Hollywood and Dreamers and Love -- wrapped up as an original modern Musical -- is impossible to ignore, fan or not.  And I was reminded of another article on the picture (as it’s on Stage And Cinema which hosted Jason Rohrer’s and my series on Billy Wilder) that … well, I also had to write about (and more on that in a bit).  So here we are, dear readers:  

The Musical.

And, mostly, The Movie Musical.  That is, not Broadway per se:  the indisputable powerhouse of 1964 (Hello Dolly! and Fiddler On The Roof at the same time) or the current Hamilton!  Nor Television per se:  the indisputable powerhouse of 2009’s Glee (which sold 13 million albums and won three Golden Globes and four Emmys, including Best Series).  Of course, no matter what we’re talking about, I can’t do so without talking about how we got here.  So, the current belle of the ball?  Yeah, La La Land was birthed in 1927.

By The Jazz Singer.

No, that movie wasn’t the first full-length Talkie (that was 1928’s Lights Of New York), nor was it the first full-length Musical (that was 1929’s The Broadway Musical;  which, by the by, won the second-ever Best Picture Oscar).  But The Jazz Singer?  No, you can’t help but start there.  Why?

Because it was Al Jolson. 

To say we applaud The Musical for the advent of Sound in Movies is a little bit of a stretch except to say Al Jolson -- the singer named The World’s Greatest Entertainer -- was such a big star that Warner Bros was willing to bank The Sound Gamble on him.  That The Jazz Singer was such a success was three-fold:  the Sound worked, it was Al Jolson, and he was singing.  It was such a success that Warner Bros immediately followed it with another Jolson:  The Singing Fool.  It was only partially a talkie as well but that didn’t matter;  most of that talking was singing.  It too was such a success that -- Jolson or not -- Audiences wanted -- and therefore Studios made -- more Musicals.  Why?  You’ve all heard how Actors were terrified of being heard (yes, Singin’ In The Rain spoofs it wonderfully) so the easy answer is singers could, you know, sing.  Studios could fill a lot of that new sound space with song;  easier to play, easier to sell … and, yes, easier to sync.

The thirties saw the studios outdoing one another;  and however The Great Depression bound audiences, they found time and money for Musicals.  Trick was, however fast the studios churned, audiences were insatiable;  for more and bigger and better.  Enter Busby Berkeley, a Broadway Choreographer plucked by Warner Bros to reinvent the wheel.  And reinvent he did ... with pure spectacle.  Look at his sequences in 42nd Street and Footlight Parade before fully Directing -- launching Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney -- with Babes In Arms and Babes On Broadway (both of which hold up well) and he did an unused Scarecrow number in The Wizard Of Oz (which you can now see on that Blu Ray).  New to Mr. Berkeley?  He didn’t just do Musicals.  Check out his great departure, the John Garfield Noir They Made Me A Criminal. 

Musicals hit their peak in the forties when -- similar to our being wearied by The Great Depression -- audiences fought their way to theatres to escape World War II.  The forties were a new golden age for Musicals in that -- instead of “the cut-away spectacle” (viz Mr. Berkeley) -- The Movies patterned after Broadway where Story and Character used Song & Dance as an integral part of the narrative.  Now, if Berkeley must be mentioned, so must this gentleman:

Arthur Freed.

He’d been on the MGM lot for a number of years as a songwriter and had done the scores for The Broadway Melody, Hollywood Revue and Going Hollywood among others.  Within ten years he’d head The Freed Unit, given practically free reign to produce Movies.  Musicals.  Sure, he too had a hand in The Wizard Of Oz and Babes In Arms and Babes On Broadway and Girl Crazy.  But let’s jump to his big ones (and when I’ve just listed those four titles I hope these mean something) --

Meet Me In St. Louis
Ziegfeld Follies
                   Easter Parade
On The Town
Annie Get Your Gun
Royal Wedding

Well, now let’s jump to his big ones (and when I’ve just listed those six titles I hope these mean something) --

An American In Paris
Singin’ In The Rain
The Band Wagon
It’s Always Fair Weather

It’s impossible not to appreciate his contribution to the genre.
By the sixties, Television cut into all Theatrical popularity but significantly Musicals;  mostly because of the expense it took to produce a Musical at the level audiences were accustomed.  Aside from Elvis Presley -- who by his cinematic premiere in ‘56’s Love Me Tender had reached a popularity close to Al Jolson -- the studios were reluctant to invest in Originals and the trend of Broadway adapting Movies began to reverse as Hollywood once again looked to The Street for source material.  This resulted in more than a mere recycling and in a number of instances good movies:  White Christmas and Garland’s A Star Is Born (both in ’54) through My Fair Lady and West Side Story and, of course, The Sound Of Music (in ’65).  (Oliver! in ’68 was the last Musical for thirty-four years to win Best Picture, but I don’t think it holds up too well.  Still, ’68 was the year Barbara Streisand won her first Academy Award for reprising Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and I dare someone to say “Don’t Rain On My Parade” isn’t a great number.)  

We cite ‘72’s Cabaret as great -- and Bob Fosse rightly won for his work there -- but the seventies reversed the turn Warner Bros made in the thirties.  Spurned by Vietnam, audiences looked to darker stories such as The Godfather (which beat Cabaret for Best Picture) and Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate and Easy Rider and it wasn’t until ‘77’s Star Wars -- not a Musical, of course -- that there was a light in that tunnel.  The eighties didn’t fair much better for Singin’ & Dancin’ until Jeffrey Katzenberg was given the reins at Disney and wonderfully turned that tide with some true greats;  and Animated.  Look at his run in seven years:

 The Little Mermaid (1989)
 Beauty And The Beast
 The Nightmare Before Christmas
 The Lion King
 The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996)

Interestingly, this is about the time Broadway rebounds with her best run since the mid-sixties: 

A Chorus Line (1975)
Les Misérables
The Phantom Of The Opera
Chicago (whose film won Best Picture in 2002)
The Lion King
Mamma Mia!
Wicked (2003)

How big were those hits?  Five are still running.

There would be movie versions of some -- Chicago, Phantom, Les Miz and Mamma Mia! come to mind -- but, to be fair, they aren’t very good.  And then you have the bizarre hat trick of The Producers which started as a Movie (and won Mel Brooks an Oscar his first time out) then became a Hit (and Tony-winning) Show which then became a Movie of that Show (which, fairly, you may have forgotten).

The one Movie Musical in recent years that truly stood out was 2001’s Baz Luhrmann smash Moulin Rouge!  A kind-of original in that it was an Original Screenplay with two Original Songs, its genius -- and success -- lay in peppering Hit Pop Songs as Musical Numbers;  including one of the best medleys ever filmed as Christian and Satine climb the elephant.  A lot of people called it a crutch, a gimmick -- Elton John and Madonna in Bohemian Paris -- but it’s exactly what a Musical should be;  what The Jazz Singer did almost 75 years before.  It gave the audience something brand new … that they could hum along to.

                   So.  This year’s smash:  La La Land.

                   Love it or hate it -- love or hate the genre -- it's an unarguable commercial and critical success.  Now, one of the things I mentioned at the beginning of this was that other article.  Why?  Because of how grossly inaccurate it was and my feeling I needed to address.  Of course, I don’t believe in firing shots across any bow without justification so, as quickly as I can:

               Mr. Corti wrote, “The zig-zagging camerawork is reminiscent of Robert Elswit’s in Boogie Nights.”  Robert Elswit was the (very talented) Cinematographer on Boogie Nights but Director Paul Thomas Anderson asked for the shot while Steadicam Operator Andy Shuttleworth made it happen.  Sticking with the technical for a moment, Corti wrote, “‘Another Day In The Sun,’ a single-take wonder of 100 performers that impresses thanks to Linus Sandgren’s swift cinematography and Mandy Moore’s choreography.”  Here again the Cinematography and Choreography are extraordinary but to suggest the shot was a genuine oner isn't just spotlighting a naïve eye but takes away from Sandgren and Moore designing how much to do where and when as well as Chazelle conducting and Editor Tom Cross orchestrating.  Praise the end result, even incorrectly, at least praise the whole team.

Corti wrote, “[Sebastian] fastidiously memorizes facts about Charlie Parker and learns songs off an old vinyl LP by ear [but] can’t remember the night when his girlfriend’s passion project production opens.”  Sebastian didn’t forget, he was busy at work – he chose not to give up what he had to do at work – and rushed to her afterward.  This wasn’t bad memory but intentionally part of his character’s -- their relationship's -- flaw.   

Corti wrote, “What’s amusing about old movie musicals is how the lead performers are triple threats (equally great at acting, singing, and dancing) but they struggle to make it either as an entertainer or a love interest. Here is a film where the leads don’t sing great [sic] or even dance basic choreography adequately, but their characters’ prospects look more and more attainable as the film plays on.  This is a tremendous obstacle because it undercuts the story about how tough it is to make it in Hollywood.”  Now, I wouldn’t have nitpicked his mentioning Mr. Elswit and Boogie Nights had that early faux pas not spawned an accumulation.  But by this point I’d realized Corti knew little of Story and Technique and even less of Movie Musicals;  that he likely only screened a few to prep his article.  So let’s just use examples from the films it seems he’s seen.  In Singin’ In The Rain, Debbie Reynolds couldn’t dance, could barely sing (Gene Kelly got her around the floor and Betty Noyes dubbed her vocals).  Catherine Deneuve in either of Jacques Demy’s famous, wonderful Musicals?  Moves as necessary and is dubbed as well.  (Though I’m sure Mr. Corti knows almost everyone was dubbed back then.  And I’m not attacking the ladies as we could as-easily discuss Oscar Levant or Georges Guétary or Van Johnson but let’s keep moving.)  La La Land is a movie where the leads sing and dance themselves, better than adequately, and whose plot prospects of course look more attainable as we go.  That -- very much a part of how tough it is to make it in Hollywood (and very much Chazelle’s point) -- is the demon in the dream.

Corti ends with, “Chazelle’s ambivalently nostalgic and arbitrarily cynical La La Land has an exciting start, but it falls hard quickly and doesn’t recover.”  Ambivalently nostalgic?  Chazelle’s homaging multiple classics is hardly indecisive.  And arbitrary cynicism?  Chazelle’s outset was to make a classic musical set in real life “where things don’t always work out.”  Continuing to quote Chazelle, “[both Whiplash and this film are] about the struggle of being an artist and reconciling your dreams with the need to be human.  La La Land is just much less angry about it.”  But you can find all this with easy Google searches.  Or, you know, watch the movie.  Because Chazelle gives us the wonderful end fantasy of “how things should be,” underlining his inherent optimism.  Indeed, we should all fall as hard and quickly.    

At press, La La Land has grossed $300 million worldwide (on a $30 million cost).  It was nominated for seven Golden Globes and won all seven.  It was nominated for eleven BAFTAs and won five (including Best Film).  Emma Stone brought home The SAG, Chazelle The DGA and Producers Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz & Marc Platt The PGA.  It has fourteen Oscar Nominations -- tying All About Eve and Titanic -- and is, on the 26th of this month, expected to win Best Picture.  If it doesn’t, we’ll see the biggest upset since The Super Bowl.  Which is the biggest upset since The Presidential Race.  Which is …

Money and Awards have never defined Art, so let’s move passed those to the simple fact that La La Land is a good movie.  It is a good story.  It is told well, both in front of and behind the camera.  It is intelligent, well crafted, thought-provoking and emotionally stirring.  It is a respectful and passionate homage to its genre’s past, and at the same time a strong step forward in keeping the genre relevant, and therefore alive. 

You’re going to hear and/or read a lot of references, none of them wrong:  Chazelle loves and champions Jazz -- viz Whiplash as well -- and God bless him;  The Young Girls Of Rochefort for the Jazzy numbers (particularly comparing opening with “Another Day Of Sun” with “Maxence’s Song”);  An American In Paris for having a lead be talented in his art yet yearning for something more;  Singin’ In The Rain for centering on Hollywood (and parody-homaging with as much love);  both of the Babes and Star Is Born (any of them) and Funny Girl and, really, any of the wonderful tales of a young lady dreaming of stardom birthing Mia and her “Audition;”  The Band Wagon for the end fantasy;  and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the pathos in the end itself.  And that barely scratches the surface but it doesn’t matter because most of all La La Land is an original Musical that’s immediately hummable. 

Yes, hummable.  And if that isn’t a good definition of a successful Musical, it’s a perfectly fine start. 

My wife Diana and I went to Amélie at The Ahmanson here in L.A. last month because we’re both big fans of that picture.  Suckers for Musicals as well, it was an easy win-win;  or should have been.  Amélie The Musical wasn’t bad -- we enjoyed ourselves while sitting there -- but there wasn’t anything we took away from it.  I equated the evening to cotton candy.  Tasty and fun but right after?  (Keyser Söze gesture)  Gone. 

Well, there’s nothing gone from La La Land.  We the audience are submerged in its world and are thrilled to soak it in, clinging to it from dripping off us even as we skip out of the theatre.  Yes, skip.  Humming.  I’m telling you, that’s the thing.  As I write this, I’m humming along to my new (blue!) vinyl.  And I can go on and on about how well the picture’s crafted, at those homages to bits of genre past, at how we’re rooting through the reality of it all, and how two newcomers to Singin’ & Dancin’ pull off their tasks as naturally as they do (at how their being natural -- not professional -- helps the picture) but, really, it’s all about how that picture makes you feel.

 There is a moment, just prior to the now famous “A Lovely Night” number (it’s the movie’s one sheet), where Mia changes her shoes.  Because she anticipates dancing.  It’s a simple thing and doesn’t mean much -- isn’t supposed to -- except, for me, it sang two things. 

One, Chazelle specifically wrote the moment, even shot it, and however many months later when screening cuts decided to keep it.  It meant that much to him.  And it’s (at least to my mind) the only time we’ve seen it.  Boy and Girl meet-cute and have their first number, light and flirty, and it leaves them wanting more?  Seen that a bunch.  But have we ever seen one of them change shoes in the movie because they’re about to dance?  (My mind keeps tugging on a moment with Cyd Charise in The Band Wagon but I don’t think it’s the same.  And then I think of her in It's Always Fair Weather leaping six feet off the boxing ring in those six-inch heels so ...)  I do think Mia’s moment -- right there on the screen -- is a very telling thing about the kind of picture La La Land is:  a tip-of-the-hat to the backstage, the behind-the-scenes;  showcasing Hollywood by her Dreamers.

And, two, it goes back to how we opened here today:  George M. Cohan dancing down the White House stairs in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  In La La Land, Mia, our ingénue who may be frustrated by her life yet still has hope enough to dream, meets a guy who’s cute and more than that loves art and more than that is talented himself and makes her laugh and think and feel and maybe this one’s worth her time.  So she changes her shoes to dance with him.  It’s not the same level of moment as Dandy’s --

                 -- except they’re both the kind of moment we want from them.

I wish I could give proper credit but I came across a quote that went, “Musicals are how life should be.”  And that’s even better than “hummable.”  I just came out of meeting The President who gave me The Congressional Medal Of Honor?  You bet I’m going to tap dance down the stairs.  I’m young and a little bit lonely but even more hopeful and here’s someone I’m gonna dance with, that I really wanna dance with?  Hold on, I just gotta get my right shoes.

I think everyone expects La La Land to win Best Picture at The Oscars this year and that will make me happy.  (Nostalgia always makes me happy, as when both Midnight In Paris and The Artist received due recognition.)  But I’m already thrilled -- especially in times like these -- that a really good movie -- a Musical that’s as much original as nostalgic -- is doing so well.  That it's adored.  

And, yes, hummed. 

Because I think we all like to be reminded how life should be.

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