I have an entire category on this blog devoted to musicals. Including this post, I've only written about 20 musicals ... 20 in more than 18 years. It's been more than 10 months since the last one (Swing Time). It makes me wonder why I have a musical category (I think someone requested it).
It's not that I don't like musicals. I placed three of them in my Facebook Fave Fifty list some years ago, with a few others that could be called musicals if we're speaking broadly. But the most recent of those three musicals was 1972. And I haven't watched more than a handful of 21st-century musicals. I watch concert movies, but I'm not sure those count. In my wannabe hippie days in the early 70s, I watched lots of 30s musicals ... was a bit obsessed by them, to be honest. But nowadays? Nope.
But I did watch a musical on November 6, 2001. Liked it a lot. Have watched it since, even going to a theater for an audience-participation midnight showing. You might not call it a musical, but I do. It was an episode from Season 6 of Buffy called "Once More with Feeling".
If you have Hulu, you can watch the episode there. In the meantime, here's the soundtrack, courtesy of Spotify:
Generally considered one of the two best Fred and Ginger movies (along with my favorite, Top Hat). An Oscar winner for "The Way You Look Tonight", which is perfectly sung by Astaire, but which is a bit spoiled by the fact that Rogers has her head covered in shampoo during the scene. The score, by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, also includes "Pick Yourself Up", "A Fine Romance", and "Never Gonna Dance". The plot is the usual Fred and Ginger trifle ... the plot is never the point of their movies.
The dance highlight is "Never Gonna Dance" (many of these clips are of poor quality, especially unfortunate since Criterion has recently released a restored version):
The most famous dance in the movie is "Bojangles of Harlem", a tour de force as a dance and as a production, that is problematic because Astaire wears blackface. This time, it's hard to get a clip that shows the entire number, so here's an excerpt:
Finally, here is probably the best dance number in the film, "Waltz in Swing Time":
Bonus, because I can never resist posting it again: the greatest scene in Fred and Ginger history, one that never fails to bring tears to my eyes:
That'll teach me. I thought I'd watch a movie with Valerie Harper, in memorial so to speak. I don't think I'd ever seen one, so the choice was open. I should have just watched a rerun on Rhoda.
I thought I knew what I was in for. I've seen more than one of these 50s rock and roll movies, most of which feature Alan Freed in some way. Just in 1956, Freed was in Rock Rock Rock!, Don't Knock the Rock, and Rock Around the Clock. They're never any good, but they do offer a chance to see some of the early rockers lip syncing their hits. This was just one of the areas where Rock Rock Rock! failed me.
Which rock and rollers turned up in Rock Rock Rock!? Chuck Berry ... can't go wrong there. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The Moonglows. The Flamingos. The Johnny Burnette Trio. LaVern Baker. Berry did "You Can't Catch Me", a nice choice, although his guitar isn't plugged in. How about the rest? The Moonglows are best known for "Sincerely". They did two songs in this movie ... neither was "Sincerely". The Flamingos are remembered for their immortal cover of "I Only Have Eyes for You". I can't really blame the movie for missing that one, since it wouldn't be released for another couple of years. Instead, they did an obscure non-hit. The Johnny Burnette Trio had a single in 1956 of "The Train Kept a-Rollin'" backed with "Honey Hush". Neither turned up in this movie. LaVern Baker is perhaps best known for "Jim Dandy". Here, she sang that record's B-Side. Lymon and the Teenagers' biggest hit was "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". They got two numbers in Rock Rock Rock! ... neither was that hit, although in fairness, they did do "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent". Those are the biggest stars in the movie, and only two of them gave us one of their hits. Not to mention the other acts who show up in Rock Rock Rock! "Alan Freed's band" did two songs ... Teddy Randazzo got four (he played the male lead ... Randazzo went on to write several classics, like "Goin' Out of My Head", but we got none of his famous songs in this movie, probably because he hadn't written them yet). Finally, there was Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers with two songs, an annoying little squirt named Ivy Schulman backed by The Bowties on one song, and "Cirino" with the same Bowties for another song.
But wait, there's more! The female lead was Tuesday Weld, who got two songs herself ... her songs were dubbed by Connie Francis.
What a mess.
As for Weld, I am a big fan. But this was not her finest hour. She was 13 when the film was released ... depending on how long it took to make it, she might have been 12 during filming. She got to share a kiss with Randazzo, who was 21. She later appeared in some fine movies. David Thomson once wondered if Weld would be more highly regarded if she just used her real first name, Susan. I bring this up so you won't think I'm trashing her. But she is pretty bad in Rock Rock Rock!
And Valerie Harper, the reason I watched this? It was her first movie. She's basically an extra, playing a teenager at a dance, on screen for maybe 3 seconds.
The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice, although I was really just making good on a plan we hatched with a friend back when Blinded by the Light was first announced, that we would go see it ASAP.
On seeing the film, Springsteen reportedly said, "I don't want you to change a thing. It's perfect." Which reminded me of an anecdote Pauline Kael told about the 1940s musical Night and Day, a biopic about Cole Porter.
"William Bowers, one of the three scenarists, said later that he was so ashamed of this picture that about a year after it came out he called Cole Porter, whose biography it purported to be, and told him how sorry he was, and Porter said, "Love it. Just loved it. Oh, I thought it was marvelous." Bowers says that he told Oscar Hammerstein how puzzled he was by this, and Hammerstein said, "How many of his songs did you have in it?" Bowers answered "Twenty-seven," and Hammerstein said, "Well of course he loved it. They only turned out to be twenty-seven of the greatest songs of all time. You don't think he heard that stuff that went on between his songs, do you?"
It's hard to imagine a subject for a film that would be more appealing to me than the story of a person transformed by a love of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, I had read enough advance reviews to know that Blinded by the Light would probably be kinda sappy, which isn't my favorite thing, but c'mon, it's Bruce! It has lots of his songs! He liked the movie!
And there was even an added attraction I had somehow missed: among the cast is Hayley Atwell!
It started out OK, although it takes awhile to get to Bruce. We learn about the hardships of growing up Pakistani in the England of Maggie Thatcher. We learn about how Luton appears to Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenage resident (it sucks). We learn about the struggles of Javed and his hard-nosed father. It's a good setup for the scene where Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Most people tell him he can't relate to Bruce, a white American who sings about girls and cars. But the setup makes it all obvious ... it's not just that Bruce is universal, it's that he speaks to Javed in ways that are quite on target.
It's when Javed's life is changed by Bruce that the film goes downhill. Granted, this is a good example of Your Mileage May Vary, because most of what I didn't like about the movie related to the style of the film. It's almost as if Chadha and writer Sarfraz Manzoor took this Made for Steven concept and used every trick in the Steven Hates This book.
I like that Bruce's songs inspire Javed, and the movie does a good job of showing that. But for some reason, it didn't occur to me that at times, Blinded by the Light would turn into the kind of musical I hate. It's one thing for Bruce's music to play while Kalra's face shows us the connection, and I even liked the way the lyrics sometimes turned up on the screen. But I really didn't need characters inserting Bruce lyrics into their conversations. It was enough to hear the music and see the actors working with the concept. It was over the top when those characters said things like "tramps like us, baby we were born to run".
Some of the joy Bruce brings to Javed is contagious, and effectively presented. But I didn't need to see "Born to Run" turned into a song-and-dance for Javed and his friends.
So figure it's just me and my taste preferences, and go see Blinded by the Light for yourself, because you'll probably think it's harmless fun. I'd watch a movie with nothing but Bruce Springsteen singing songs. But the last thing I want to see is a musical with other people singing his songs.
I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).
There are different versions of the story, but Fred Astaire was often asked who his favorite partner was, and some think he confessed it was Rita Hayworth. They only made two films together, but yes, she was well-matched with him. I'm not an expert on dance, but for me, his partners fall into two basic categories. There were the women who were actresses who danced, with Ginger Rogers being the ultimate example. And there were dancers who ... well, the less said about Cyd Charisse's acting, the better. Eleanor Powell perhaps comes closest to crossing the lines ... she wasn't a great actress, and her name as a dancer was based largely on her excellence at tap dancing, but it's hard to say she was "limited" to tap when she was so good it is rumored Astaire was intimidated by her.
Fred and Ginger movies are a genre of their own, and their on-screen relationship overwhelms all of Astaire's other partners. (Their off-screen relationship was perhaps not so great.) There's no use trying to pick which partner was better than Ginger ... their movies stand alone, in my house, at least.
But the Not Gingers were not all the same, and Rita Hayworth stands out in that field. While she is remembered now as a pin-up queen who led an unhappy life and starred in Gilda, she was always a dancer. Astaire has said that you could show her a new dance in the morning, and by afternoon she had it down. And while Fred and Ginger made it work, Fred and Rita seem to really like each other in their movies together.
The movie version of Hair occupies an odd place in both movie history and U.S. cultural history as a whole. When the stage play came out (1967 Off Broadway, 1968 Broadway), it was well-received by critics and garnered two Tony nominations (it lost to 1776). It ran for 1,750 performances on Broadway, and 1,997 performances in London. The original Broadway cast album sold 3 million copies and won a Grammy. Various companies toured ... it arrived in San Francisco in 1969, and some of my friends went to see it.
I didn't go with them. I was a purist hippie-wannabe, and didn't understand how hippies could be accurately represented in a Broadway play, which seemed like the antithesis of hippie. (For what it's worth, I probably still think that.) Like some old Get Offa My Lawn geezer, my 16-year-old self was cranky about the existence of Hair.
Now I've finally seen Hair. Aficionados will point out that the movie version isn't the same thing. As Wikipedia points out, "The film's plot and soundtrack both differed greatly from those of the original musical stage play", adding that the creators claimed "Any resemblance between the 1979 film and the original Biltmore version, other than some of the songs, the names of the characters, and a common title, eludes us". This is not the first time a stage play has been changed on its way to the screen; I just point this out to clarify that when I say I've seen Hair, I mean the movie.
The film Hair was released in 1979, long after the period Hair recreates. I may have been suspicious of the original, but clearly many people saw it as an accurate representation of the times, the music, the people. They were operating within the frame of the play ... there was no distance, it was a story about the present. Forman can't do this, because 1979 isn't 1968. He tries to recapture 60s by offering a version of a version. Hair wasn't the 60s, it was a play about the 60s (a Broadway musical, ferchrissake), and the movie isn't a version of the 60s, it's a version of a Broadway musical about the 60s. I can be forgiven for thinking the movie Hair has about as much to do with the 60s as Happy Days had with the 50s.
It will seem silly, but a few minutes into the movie, I thought to myself, "This is a musical!" Duh, to be sure, but that was just one more reason I wouldn't like it, and for some reason that hadn't occurred to me.
Can I be at all fair to this movie? Probably not. The best I can do is point out the things I liked. I've always been a fan of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", the 5th Dimension hit, although again, I knew less than I realized ... I thought the two songs belonged together, and was surprised to find that "Aquarius" was the opening song while "Let the Sunshine In" was the closer. In between were a lot of forgettable songs. The "famous" ones don't fare much better. Awhile ago, when talking to my six-year-old grandson about silly songs (he knew plenty, he's a kid, I wanted him to appreciate that we had silly ones, too), I gave as an example "Good Morning Starshine", a hit for Oliver that was truly stupid ("Glibby gloop gloopy, Nibby Nabby Noopy, La La La Lo Lo. Sabba Sibby Sabba, Nooby abba Nabba Le Le Lo Lo. Tooby ooby walla, nooby abba nabba, Early mornin' singin' song"). I didn't know if came from Hair ... I really was clueless about all this. Anyway, it's just as stupid "in context".
As for the performers, Treat Williams is defeated by a truly awful wig (ah, the irony). Ren Woods does a find job with "Aquarius". It was fun seeing performers who are still well-known ... Annie Golden from Orange Is the New Black, Richard Bright (Al Neri in the Godfather movies), Charlotte Rae from The Facts of Life. Not much, really, to get me through two hours.
I did find the finale (apparently one of the things changed completely from the original) at first stirring and then inspiring, but then, I'm not sure you can fuck up "Let the Sunshine In" ... I once saw the drag group Sluts-a-Go-Go sing it, incense burning, at the Mabuhay Gardens and it brought a tear to my eye:
Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015). I asked myself a couple of questions as I watched this movie. Would I have bothered to watch it if the subject was any actor other than Brando? (Probably not.) Would someone with no knowledge or interest in Brando find this movie worthwhile? (Definitely yes for actors, not sure for others.) It's an innovative documentary that makes use of hundreds of hours of audio tapes Brando made to allow the actor to, in effect, tell his own story. It's like an autobiography made after the fact. This is partly a trick ... Riley had the cooperation of the Brando estate, but Marlon Brando has nothing to do with the making of the film, so despite its autobiographical trappings, Riley is the one who pieces it all together. He is far more than a mere ghostwriter. It's not clear if Brando made these tapes for posterity, intended them to be public, but we have them now. He is very honest about his life, and comes pretty close to telling an unvarnished version of that life. (There are things that are left out, but what is included feels real, and he doesn't flinch from the implications of his actions.) Since Brando was the greatest screen actor of his generation, what he says about the acting process is fascinating. His comparison of the fighting style of Jersey Joe Walcott to the art of acting is a perfect description of Brando on the screen: "He'd be boxing and he'd follow some punches and boom! He'd have his fist into somebody's face. You'd think it was going to come out of the southwest and, there, it comes out of the northeast. He would never let you know where he was gonna hit you. Never let the audience know how it's going to come out. Get them on your time." So many of his finest moments as an actor came when the slightest gesture or facial expression surprised you into believing the character was real. To top the film off, Brando once had his head "digitized" ... "I made a lot of faces and smiled and, and, made a sad face. So they've got it all on digital. And actors are not going to be real. They're going to be inside a computer!" Riley occasionally syncs Brando's ramblings to a video of the digitized actor. It's creepy and marvelous at the same time.
Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland, 1933). Featuring Brando's second wife (not at the time, he was 9 years old at the time). I watched it, I liked it, but I'm mostly just cleaning house here ... this has been sitting around for a few days while I buried myself in the World Cup, and I don't have a lot to say now. The first movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they are the sidekicks in this one. They have good chemistry, and it's fun to see them outside of the fairly narrow framework of their starring movies. Ginger is more the wiseacre that she was early in her career, and it's fun to see. It's also one of the last of the pre-Code movies, so there's see-through outfits and lots of double-entendre dialogue. And there's the impossibly beautiful Dolores del Rio. The big dance number ("The Carioca") goes on forever, and only features a little of Fred and Ginger. There's a loony number on the wings of airplanes. Nothing is taken seriously. Lacks the emotional resonance of the "real" Fred and Ginger movies, but watchable.
Let me get one thing out of the way at the start. I have never seen Hair, on stage or on screen. My memory is vague on this, but I think a lot of my friends went to see it in San Francisco, where it first ran in 1969, continuing on for a couple of years. I didn't go with them. You'd think Hair was right up my alley, between my love of rock and roll and my status as a wannabe hippie. But I am not a big fan of stage musicals in general, I didn't think the music in Hair was anything like the rock I loved, and what kind of hippies are there going to be in a play, anyway?
I suppose one day I should see it.
Meanwhile, I did have one encounter with Hair, a tale I have told many times. Here, I'll pull a quote from the first year of this blog, in 2002, slightly edited:
In January of 1981, a friend and I played hooky from work on Reagan's first Inauguration Day to attend a Punk Inaugural Ball at the Mabuhay, headlined by a drag band called Sluts a-Go-Go. It's been more than 35 years, but one thing from that night still sticks with me, when the Sluts sang "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" while incense burned. There I was, in a punk club at the dawn of the Reagan Era, listening to men in drag sing a Broadway version of hippiedom, and I'm not much for irony, for that matter ... in any event, I felt one with the band and the crowd, I wasn't alienated from America in that moment, I was as close to Hippie Community as I'd ever been in the actual hippie days, and I started to cry at the ridiculous wonder of it all.
I've often wondered what was the primary force that brought me to tears. Was it simply that I was amongst "my" people? Was there something brilliant in the performance by the Sluts?
Whatever. To this day, I can get choked up by any and all versions of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", including the actual finale of Hair, which is "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)". I don't know why, any more than I know why I was so taken by the Sluts a-Go-Go version in 1981.
Here are a few of those versions. First, the original version, a medley from the musical at the Tony Awards:
The Milos Forman film ... apparently this has a different ending than the stage musical:
A more recent version, on The View, for those of you who wondered what it would be like if Barbara Walters got swept up in hippiedom:
Musical with a nice pedigree, but it falls flat. In the 1930s, the play, with Ethel Merman, ran for more than a year. A movie came out in 1936 with Merman and Bing Crosby. Twenty years later, here comes the remake, and Bing Crosby is back. But the plot has nothing to do with the original. In fact, other than the title, the two movies have only one thing in common: several Cole Porter songs. Bing Crosby, Cole Porter, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor ... what could go wrong?
Well, this movie is dreary. Everyone seems to be going through the motions. You get Porter classics like “Anything Goes” and “I Get a Kick Out of You”, but not much else. Zizi Jeanmaire does a ballet number that stops the show, and I don’t mean in a good way. The plot, a farce about love, lacks sizzle, which makes sense when one of the couples of Bing (53 years old) and Zizi (32 years old).
Gaynor is the best thing about the movie, the only person with a pulse. I’m reminded of a Randy Newman article in Rolling Stone back in the early 70s.
Once he went to see Liza Minnelli rehearse a TV dance number, and after it was over she asked him how he liked it.
"You were a real Mitzi Gaynor out there," he replied, an assessment that apparently did not impress Liza. "But I always liked Mitzi Gaynor," Randy explained later with a shrug.
The great Glenn “DVD Savant” Erickson points out that the best film version of the song “Anything Goes” remains the opening scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:
Here is the whole movie, if for some reason you are dying to see it: