Sunday, December 18, 2016


Again, I saw a network news feature that made me wish I'd been asked to contribute a soundbite or two.  The reviews for LA LA LAND, a new movie musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, have been like love letters from movie critics.  Many critics predict that it will be announced as an Oscar nominee or Best Picture next month.  Because of the big buzz for this movie, CBS THIS MORNING had a Saturday feature on movie musicals.  The totally cool Anthony Mason voiced over a video package on the history of movie musicals.  The package asked if LA LA LAND could revive that genre.  I love musicals.  I fell in love with them in grade school the first time I saw a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie on local TV.
I'm also of the generation that eagerly awaited one particular evening on CBS every year -- the evening it had the special broadcast presentation of MGM's 1939 musical fantasy classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ starring Judy Garland.
I have notes to add to the Anthony Mason piece.  Some notes come from my VH1/CBS Late Night years.  On VH1, I was a veejay and talk show host who had the great opportunity to interview some stars of classic Hollywood musicals.  As for CBS Late Night, I was a monthly regular on THE PAT SAJAK SHOW. 

By the time MTV and VH1 music videos became daily fare on cable TV, big screen movie musicals were no longer in production as frequently as they were in the 1930s through the 1950s.  Society had changed.  Hollywood had changed.  Most of the original big screen musicals were now animated.  For a new generation, music videos were the new musicals that told a story.  Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Thriller" for example.   But there was a huge difference:  The purpose of music videos is to promote and market an artist and sell the song.  The music video sells the performer's product.  The purpose of the musical number in a good movie is to reveal character, express emotion and advance the story when mere spoken word is not enough.  Think of Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" in THE WIZARD OF OZ and her memorable introduction of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" during a poignant family scene in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.

Look at how Garland's dynamic "The Man That Got Away" blues number in A STAR IS BORN shows us that an unknown singer with a band does not realize how great a singer she truly is.  She's got star quality, a quality that will get her discovered and take her to spectacular Hollywood heights.
Think of Fred Astaire singing "Cheek to Cheek" in TOP HAT as he and Ginger Rogers dance into cinema history.
Look at how he's a clever professional dancer who keeps a Manhattan dance instructor from losing her job while he starts to win her heart with the "Pick Yourself Up" number in SWING TIME.
Another thing to keep in mind is that all those songs I just mentioned were written specifically for those performers to introduce in original screen musicals.  In their heyday, tunes that are now part of the Great American Songbook were introduced in movie musicals by such stars as Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Alice Faye and Doris Day.

The MTV and VH1 generation saw music videos that borrowed from classic movie musicals and their stars to market new music and its artists.  The early Whitney Huston music videos borrowed visually from a Fred Astaire number in THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY and an Audrey Hepburn number in FUNNY FACE which co-starred Fred Astaire.  Astaire's famous ceiling dance in ROYAL WEDDING was copied in a Lionel Richie video.  Paula Abdul borrowed from Gene Kelly MGM musicals.  Madonna kicked off her music video career imitating Marilyn Monroe's jazzy "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from 1953's GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in her 1980s "Material Girl" video.

Musicals can make money.  MARY POPPINS, an original movie musical, was a huge hit for Disney and helped a nation smile again the year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Before STAR WARS came along, THE SOUND OF MUSIC was a box office blockbuster for 20th Century Fox.  The studio would put that one back in the vaults and re-release it years later to make even more money.

Musicals can win Hollywood gold.  Yul Brynner won the Best Actor Oscar for THE KING AND I.  Rita Moreno won Best Supporting Actress for WEST SIDE STORY.  George Chakiris was Best Supporting Actor for the same film.  Julie Andrews was Best Actress for MARY POPPINS.  Barbra Streisand won Best Actress for FUNNY GIRL, Liza Minnelli won Best Actress for CABARET.   Joel Grey won Best Supporting Actor for the same film, Catherine Zeta-Jones won Best Supporting Actress for CHICAGO.  Jennifer Hudson was Best Supporting Actress for DREAMGIRLS.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) and GIGI (1958) were directed by Vincente Minnelli.  Both won Oscars for Best Picture and both were turned into Broadway musicals in recent years.

WEST SIDE STORY (1961), MY FAIR LADY (1964), THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and CHICAGO (2002) won Oscars in the Best Picture category.

Those were all musicals that originated on Broadway.

A few modern musicals did not get quite the attention I feel they deserved.  I saw HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH on stage.  The movie version rocked.  It really opened up the stage vehicle.  And if you wanted edgy, this was the tale of a German boy who has a sex change in order to go to America with a black G.I. and become a rock star.  He winds up with a band in a Kansas trailer park.
This 2001 movie musical is fresh, funny and fierce.  John Cameron Mitchell repeats his stage performance as Hedwig and he directed the film.

ONCE got the Oscar for Best Song of 2007.  A master director like Vincente Minnelli would have loved the innovative way musical numbers were seamlessly introduced in this simple, touching love story.  The original musical numbers came about so naturally.  A young woman listens to music on  her portable device as she walks down the street and sings along.  A couple of musicians who will fall in love sit in a music store, play instruments and sing.  You almost didn't realize you were seeing a musical number because the song flowed from such a ordinary moment involving music.
Director Julie Taymor gave us ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, a 2007 musical that used songs from the John Lennon & Paul McCartney catalogue to tell a love story set in the turbulent 1960s.  Evan Rachel Wood singing "If I Fell" gave my heart wings.  Bono and the late Joe Cocker were in the cast too.
Seth MacFarlane is a major fan of classic movie musicals.  On his animated TV series, FAMILY GUY, he recreated the celebrated Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse number from the 1940s MGM musical, ANCHORS AWEIGH.  But he substituted little Stewie from FAMILY GUY for the mouse.

One of the best movie musical numbers I've seen in years is -- are you ready? -- in a Seth MacFarlane comedy sequel about a trash-talking teddy bear and his human best friend.  The dancing bear number in the first minutes of TED 2 is so good that I stopped the DVD, rewound and replayed that number for a half-hour.  Fred Astaire would've enthusiastically applauded it.  The number is "Steppin' Out With My Baby," an Irving Berlin tune that Astaire danced to in MGM's hit musical, EASTER PARADE co-starring Judy Garland. Ted dances to the extended music track from the EASTER PARADE soundtrack on CD.  I know because...I own a copy.

Just like Astaire's numbers, the bear is shown in full frame for long shots as he dances.  The number does not have the hyper, cut-every-three-seconds editing that became the hallmark of MTV music videos.  Rent 2015's TED 2 and you'll see what I mean.  Oh, man, how I love that number!  The bear and that terrific chorus set that dance floor on fire!

From what I saw in the LA LA LAND trailer, the director seems to have been inspired visually by Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO.  (Heck even Hitch directed a musical.)
And, I'm sure, MGM musicals gave him even more visual inspiration.  Look at this MGM movie number.  Marge & Gower Champion dance to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" in 1952's LOVELY TO LOOK AT.  This was a remake of ROBERTA, a 1930s musical in which this same song was danced to by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Now look at this trailer from LA LA LAND.  Pay attention to the visuals.
To see the Anthony Mason package on the rise, fall and return of the movie musical from the Saturday show, click onto CBS THIS MORNING after you go to  I'll see you at the movies.

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