Like ignoramuses in the music world who say, "I like all kinds of music except country and hip-hop," the musical is generally a genre that is scoffed at, ignored or simply shrugged at. "Because it’s not manly," Wright told The Playlist in an interview recently. "You wouldn’t get Stallone talking about musicals with 'The Expendables.' I’m perfectly secure in my sexuality so I can talk about musicals. I'm fine." But seriously, we both agree that there's an incredibly technical artistry in musicals that seems to go under-appreciated in some circles; certain male film-goers will marvel over the technical mastery of say, a Scorsese whip-pan or a Michael Mann-composed and highly choreographed sequence, but will fail, for some reason, to acknowledge the same (or higher degree of) skill needed to pull off highly complicated musical sequences. But just let us remind you, directors in the know fully realize the musical is the ultimate Holy Grail accomplishment of filmmaking and there's a reason why directors like Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh and John Madden (just to name a few) want to climb that Mount Everest. Anyhow, from here we leave it to Mr. Wright:
I find it funny that musicals are considered a guilty pleasure by some film fans and dismissed outright by others. There’s definitely a feeling that contemporary audiences will not accept the form onscreen anymore, as evidenced by some fairly idiotic people leaving "Sweeney Todd" in disgust when Johnny Depp dared to sing out.
It seems a shame that so many film fans write off the genre as Broadway camp as there are so many musicals stretching back over 80 years that define cinema in its purest form. The level of artistry in the genre is staggering and really you just have to get over any stigma of being labeled a "show tunes fan" and dive into some of the greatest movies ever made.
In making "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" I delved as much into the world of musicals as I did classic martial arts films. Hopefully the film is as much a tribute to Bob Fosse as it is the Shaw Brothers.
I’d had the idea that the only way to pull off the level of reality of the fights in the screen adaptation was to play them like production numbers. So in ‘Scott Pilgrim’ when the emotion is too strong, people break into a fight instead of breaking into song. Sometimes they do both in fact. I even wrap back around to the contemporary audience complaint by cutting to a baffled Stacey Pilgrim saying ”What?” when someone breaks that fourth wall by singing.
So put it in mind that I consider Gene Kelly to be the Jackie Chan of his day and enjoy a very personal list of some of my favorite musicals
"Phantom Of The Paradise" (1974)
Brian De Palma’s '70s rock opera is something of an anomaly on the director's resume. True, it features some hallmarks of his other work such as impressively long tracking shots and split screen sequences (in fact it does both at the same time), but what marks this out is the sheer sense of fun, as well as the invention. It’s a gloriously energetic rock biz satire that pops off the screen with amazing color, verve and incredible futuristic outfits that are now heroically dated. Best of all, Paul Williams' score is just brilliant, spanning between genres such as doo wop ("Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye") and glam ("Someone Super Like You"). The end title track "The Hell Of It," sung by Williams, is magnificent; a mix of Queen pomp and music hall menace. Paul Williams himself plays the villainous Phil Spector clone, Swan, in the film. You will see many traces of this evil producer in the character of Gideon Graves in "Scott Pilgrim Vs The World." Williams attended the L.A. premiere last week and sent me an e-mail the next day that read ‘Swan loved it’. I can retire happy now.
"The Red Shoes" (1948)
It’s no wonder that this is Martin Scorsese’s favorite movie. It’s pretty much a one stop film school as Michael Powell uses every photographic technique (yes, even the whip pan) to bring this tragic tale to the screen. Watching it today, the directorial skills that Powell employed in this 1948 production are just staggering. The 15-minute centerpiece ballet sequence is a masterclass of in-camera effects, extraordinary matte paintings and more crucially, pure cinematic emotion. You cannot fail to be impressed by this timeless classic. If you are, please move along. I don’t want to speak to you anymore, x.
Any golden period Busby Berkeley film or set-piece could fill a musicals top ten. Berkeley is one of those precious few directors whose name alone conjures specific, indelible images. His work is so groundbreaking and yet so endlessly imitated that he’s often taken for granted. Berkeley broke out of Broadway, but his signature choreography is one that could not be seen on a theater stage; namely his world famous aerial shots of dancers, using troupes of ladies to create geometric shapes. His dazzling creations, shot from almost every angle he could conceive with '30s cameras actually would seem to have more in common with his wartime role as a drill instructor. This is not merely dance, this is mathematical art with human form. Any of his most famous films could stake the top of this list; "42nd Street" or "Gold Diggers Of 1933" among many others. My pick though would be "Dames." It begins, like many of the films that he worked on, with screwball backstage farce for two-thirds of the running time, before climaxing in a surreal and beautiful mini opera -- as bold a piece of art as Luis Bunuel or Salvador Dali. The "I Only Have Eyes For You" sequence is a staggering tribute to the female form; as it dreams up a kaleidoscopic set of images mythologizing lead actress Ruby Keeler’s face. The set designs, transitions and sheer scope would be hard to stage in 2010, let alone 80 years ago. It's amazing to think that something from the earliest decades of cinema still has the power to astound. Busby Berkeley may well be the most imitated director of all time, but he still has not been topped.
"Bugsy Malone" (1976)
This film is as beloved in the U.K. as "A Christmas Story" is in North America. It’s a perennial holiday movie and performed in schools around the country. Having grown up with Alan Parker’s musical, it never really struck me what an odd concoction it was. An all kid cast playing mobsters in '30s Chicago? Firing tommy guns that splatter their victims with lethal gunge? Children lip-synching songs with the smoky vocals of adults? It all seemed perfectly natural to me as a youngster on its many television airings, but now, it is even more quirkily charming, a completely bananas high concept idea carried off with such warmth and wit, it’s impossible to dislike. Plus the songs that Paul Williams (that genius again) cooked up for the soundtrack are fiendishly catchy, every single one of them. Play "So You Want To Be A Boxer?" or "You Give A Little Love" in an indie club as a going home song and see the patrons chanting them drunkenly down the street.
Two footnotes; not only did I make a tribute music video to this film with The Bluetones "After Hours" but I sang "Bad Guys" very badly in a school production at the age of 13.
"Sweet Charity" (1969)
Bob Fosse is three for three with his screen musicals. "Cabaret" and "All That Jazz" are undisputed classics, but my favorite is his screen debut "Sweet Charity." It’s absolutely thrilling to watch a long time Broadway choreographer, but first time director explode onto the big screen with such panache. The choreography, photography and editing is bracingly experimental for the time; like Busby Berkeley before him, Fosse works hard to break out of the proscenium arch of his theater work. See the amazing compositions and body shapes of "Big Spender," the brilliant on location montage that is "I’m A Brass Band" and best of all the mod masterpiece that is the dance club stormer "Rich Man’s Frug."
"Singing In The Rain" (1952)
It might be more cool to name check "An American In Paris" or more willfully obtuse to sing the praises of "The Pirate" but, while an obvious pick, there is no real denying that "Singin’ In The Rain" is one of the greatest entertainments of all time. In looking back to silent movies and cherry picking the unsung standards of previous decades; Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen fashioned an unbeatable crowd pleaser. No one looks happier to be onscreen than Gene Kelly; his beaming grin is infectious, his love for showbiz palpable. It’s also worth noting that Kelly is that rare musical star who never ever once looks remotely feminine in any single routine. He’s a man’s man in a world of show tunes.
Extra Random credit: You want to see an eclectic career with a left-field turn? "Singin' In The Rain" director Stanley Donen not only helmed classics like "Charade" and "Arabesque," but he also lensed the absurdly weird and under-seen 1980 sci-fi film, "Saturn 3," starring Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel. With a killer rapist robot on the loose and Keitel dubbed completely after a dispute about his Brooklyn accent, it truly must be witnessed first hand. It's also worth noting that Martin Amis had such a wild, weird ride making the film that it spawned a vicious response in his novel "Money." Here's a clip set to Aphex Twin.
"West Side Story" (1961)
Much like "Singin’ In The Rain" this is another indisputable milestone, that serves as a gateway into the world of musicals for many. Hell, this film even serves as an introduction to Shakespeare in classrooms around the world. Certainly it was the first musical I ever saw, being made required viewing by my parents at an early age. More than just a damn great film, more than just a great screen version of "Romeo & Juliet," Robert Wise’s film version of Leonard Bernstein’s tenement symphony is a great hymn to New York City. The rumbles of the Sharks and Jets have a finger clicking pulse that echo around a vibrant and dangerous metropolis. The dance face-offs that open the film are hugely memorable and still striking today. The fact that this is John Woo’s favorite film of all time is not surprising, this is the first action ballet of the silver screen.
"Top Hat" (1935)
Fred Astaire was in a class of his very own in the musical world, the epitome of the screen gentleman as well as being an incredible dancer. Astaire had a knack for making his perfectionism look effortless, by being a charming romantic lead, farceur and singer before you ever get to his amazing footwork. This high society comedy is very much of its time, being pure romanticism for a 1930s depression era audience. Now, as a sparkling artifact of a bygone era, it’s a film to simply get lost in, not least for being the most famous of Astaire pairings with Ginger Rogers (she of the blood red shoes). You will know all of the songs in this film, because every sequence is a classic. Aside from the classic Fred & Ginger routines, my favorite number is "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" where Astaire performs a machine gun paced tap routine, climaxing with him literally gunning down his tuxedo clad backing dancers. Fred Astaire. Not to be fucked with.
Yeah? What of it? I am secure enough in my manhood to enjoy both the neck snapping thrills of something like "Rambo" (2008) as well as admit to clapping like an 11-year-old girl and singing along with every line at a recent revival screening of Randall Kleiser’s behemoth of a crowd-pleaser. The bubblegum tunes are enormous, Travolta beams megawatts of charisma from the screen and the high school comedy of errors is relatable to every jock, square, slut or geek who lays eyes on it. Of special note for me is the fake cliffhanger of a holiday romance that opens the film. “Is this the end Danny?,” “No, Sandy, it’s just the beginning.” Cue credits. Also worth noting that for all the effort put into the final makeover, the squeaky clean Sandy is way hotter. There I said it.
"The Blues Brothers" (1980)
Okay, so let’s end on a musical that even red blooded homophobes can agree on. John Landis’ R&B powered odyssey is a pretty unique mix of action and comedy, before you even touch on the OST. For a film that features the hipster comedy superstars of its day and some of the most insane and dangerous looking car chases in cinema, it’s a testament to the glorious soundtrack that it is most remembered first and foremost for its music. Landis, Belushi and Aykroyd fashioned this film as an all star tribute to the soul superstars of their youth and it's no exaggeration to say that the film propelled Ray Charles, James Brown, BB King, Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway back into the limelight and with, arguably, a bigger mainstream audience that they’d ever previously had. I for one was turned onto a whole world of classic music by this film as a youngster. All in all, pretty good going for an “SNL spin off.”
"Top Secret!" (1984)
It’s not strictly a musical, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t watched the following big musical numbers until the VHS wore out; "Skeet Surfing," "Shaking The Rug," "How Silly Can You Get?," "Spend This Night With Me." That’s before we even get to Val Kilmer’s department store version of "Are You Lonesome Tonight." Okay, I guess it is a musical.
"South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut" (1999)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone may be descending on Broadway shortly, but they nailed the musical a decade ago. Clearly, making a great pastiche requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the form and this outs Parker and Stone as closet show tunes fans. They, along with Marc Shamain, knock out R-rated showstoppers every ten minutes, from the barnstorming "Uncle Fucker" right up to the rousing end of act two medley that is "La Resistance." Clearly this is the last great movie musical.
"Duck Soup" (1933)
Again, not really a musical, but the finest and craziest effort of those Broadway gods The Marx Brothers does feature the hysterical musical set piece, "We’re Going To War." This scene alone is enough to make it on my list.
TOP 5 Rock 'N' Roll Movies
My favorite band centric film of them all is a gray area; it’s part musical, part trip and part cry for help. The sole Monkees feature film is the sound of a fabricated band trying desperately to break out of the box. Co- written by Jack Nicholson over a stoned weekend in Ojai, it certainly seems to be about The Monkees feeling trapped by their TV contract; playing as a stream of consciousness where the PreFab Four detonate their squeaky clean image and attempt to literally escape the soundstage walls that surround them. It’s funny, wildly experimental and sometimes deeply depressing. But the tunes are consistently incredible; "Porpoise Song," "Can You Dig It," "Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?," "Daddy’s Song’" and my very favorite "Circle Sky." The latter set-piece with the Monkees clad in blinding white outfits is shot with beautifully trippy double exposures and climaxes with the quartet getting torn to shreds by adoring fans, revealing only plastic mannequins underneath. Not surprisingly it bombed, but perhaps that was the sole intention? It’s a Viking funeral for the band.
"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970)
Again, it’s not strictly a musical, but this 200 mph sixties music satire is still filled with amazing numbers throughout, mostly through the rise and fall of fictional girl rockers, The Carrie Nations (formerly The Kelly Affair). Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert conjure up an insane brew of sex and scandal that feels like mainlining a thousand trashy airport novels in one hit. Both astonishingly edited and endlessly quotable, it’s a genuine party classic of a film. Standout tracks include the unsung classic ballad that is "In The Long Run" as well as acid one hit wonders The Strawberry Alarm Clock with "Incense & Peppermints." Anyone watching "Scott Pilgrim Vs The World" will see the influence of the deranged svengali Ronnie "Z-man" Bardel on Jason Schwartzman’s performance. Whether this scores me any brownie points with Mr. Ebert when reviewing my film is unclear at time of press.
"Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979)
This B-movie fizzbomb updates the '50s seat-slashing phenomenon of "Rock Around The Clock" with the late '70s bubblegum punk of The Ramones. Choosing Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Marky as the centerpiece of this high school musical is an inspired choice, as they were essentially pure pop under the leather and pizza grease. The film stars the Tigger-like PJ Soles who bounces around the screen as Riff Randall, number one super fan of the Ramones; her energy levels power along this crazy-ass teen comedy detailing her epic quest for rock show tickets. This Roger Corman production is somehow both a punk-era riot and charmingly squeaky clean. No mean feat to pull off.
"A Hard Day's Night" (1964)
This is a defining document of both a band and an era. "A Hard Day's Night" is so completely joyous that’s it seems impossible to imagine that the same band could in just a few years produce The White Album and crumble in acrimony. Richard Lester captures their moptop lightning in a bottle in a series of blissful episodes that show them dealing with the onslaught of Beatlemania. The images that really stay with me are the aerial shots of the Fab Four in Thornbury Playing Fields. Most pop stardom films deal in some way with the prison of fame, but when "Can’t Buy You Love" kicks in over the Beatles goofing around in a public park, it’s just beautiful; the bright young things running free on a stolen afternoon.
"Wild Zero" (2000)
This film does for zombies what "Rock And Roll High School" did for the teen comedy; injects it with thrash. Much like the Ramones in the former, legendary Japanese noiseniks Guitar Wolf are a hilariously monosyllabic presence in this low budget zombie romp. The production values are not so great, but it barely matters when Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drums Wolf are rocking out with ‘Exploding Blood’ or slicing through UFOs with samurai sword guitars. Wish more bands today made genre movies with low budgets and fortnight long shoots. Really someone should have done a film with The Hives while the iron was hot. Rock and roll movies don’t have to be perfect, sometimes you just need a slim plot, some B grade thrills and a blast of deafening thrash every ten minutes. This is the "Hard Day’s Night" of the living dead. You’re welcome.
-- Edgar Wright (yes, written by the director himself, hats off)