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The Ultimate Choice #15: Musicals

To celebrate the success of Hamilton on Disney+ over the past month, I figured now would be the best time to talk about musicals and to ask my fellow film fans what their favourite film musical of all time is. Here are the responses.

La La Land review: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone shine in a sun ...

La La Land
Chosen by Amy Smith

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love musicals. Whether it is theatre productions or film adaptations, there is nothing better than escaping reality and getting sucked into some wonderful songs. Whilst I adore the classic musicals, from The Wizard of Oz or Singin’ in the Rain, I would be lying to myself if I picked anything other than Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.

The structure of La La Land takes itself from many of the classic musicals of the past, from how the songs are written and performed to how jarring they can come across in a setting grounded in reality. The opening sequence sets the audience up for what they are about to experience, a warning perhaps to those who hate the musical formula. However, it is also the same aspect that breaks it away from the typical musical: the setting of Los Angeles. The world feels so grounded, and alongside that, the emotions attached to it. Unlike most musicals, where the songs are uplifting and empowering and are a way to separate the story from the tone, La La Land comes across completely different. The music has progression along with the story, changing from the major bursts of joy at the start with “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” to the softer and more minor tones in “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”.

It is that progression and balance that makes me feel completely connected to this story, even if the musical numbers at times are meant to feel disconnected and stylised. This is showcased perfectly in the epilogue, with a full-on musical extravaganza of what any other musical would have done with this story. The traditional happy ending, the honeymoon phase if you will. Instead, it’s presented as a dream sequence and what feels like a harsh reality in a genre full of “happy endings” is what the audience ends with. It leaves me emotional on every single watch, and yet it remains such a comfort watch as well. There is a reason that year on year, La La Land remains my most watched.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) - IMDb

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Chosen by Jack Gregson: Twitter | Website

Many people look to 1999 as one of the great years for film. It’s easy to see why; films such as The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, and Magnolia were changing the face of cinema. But too often one film is overlooked. That film is the movie musical masterpiece South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. This is my personal favourite film of all time and an easy choice when asked to write about movie musicals. A toe-tapping, stupidly funny, and surprisingly good looking animated film that well deserved its sole Academy Award nomination (and for my money should have won). It’s the classic tale of four boys sneaking into an R-rated movie and when their mothers find out, they go to extreme lengths to blame anyone but themselves for their children’s behaviour. There is also a war between America and Canada, a homoerotic relationship between Sadam Hussein and Satan, and a whole host of songs that keep the whole thing ticking along.
I first saw this movie when I was 9 years old. Being a huge fan of the show it was based on, I could not wait to see what big screen hijinx Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny would get up to, but I don’t think I could have ever expected this. It was really my introduction to a musical comedy of this scale. It would have been very easy for Trey Parker and Matt Stone to write a series of half-arsed musical numbers that elicit some chuckles, instead you can feel they poured their heart and soul into some of these numbers. Each song is delivered with as much professionalism that you’d expect to find in Broadway show, numbers like La Resistance and I’m Super would definitely elicit a standing ovation from me if I saw them performed live. Still, the best song for me has to be What Would Brian Boitano Do?, a rousing ditty where three of our leads (Kenny is absent due to being dead and in Hell) inspire themselves with tales of their hero, ice skater Brian Boitano. It’s no real surprise that Parker and Stone would adapt their show into a musical format, the two are big Broadway nerds (evidenced by their first film Cannibal: The Musical, and their later success with The Book of Mormon), and they made a smart move by partnering up with Marc Shaiman (of Hairspray fame) to work on the lyrics. The other smart move was structuring the musical numbers in a way to poke fun at the popular Disney movies at the time, and bettering them at their own game. You’ve got an introduction song (Mountain Town), villain song (Blame Canada), ‘I want…’ song (Up There), and even the wacky sidekick song. I think why I really love this movie comes down to its anarchic sensibilities. Nobody expected South Park’s film debut to be a musical one, but that’s what made it such a classic and fitting with the show’s sensibilities; when it comes to South Park, expect the unexpected. Since the film came out 21 years ago it’s legacy has endured; there was the aforementioned Oscar nom (Blame Canada losing to Tarzan is still something I’m angry about… if they weren’t going to give it to South Park, they could have at least given it to Toy Story 2), Stephen Sondheim referred to it as one of the best musicals of the past 15 years and talk of a sequel still persists to this day. For me, it’s an all-time classic with a sharp script, big laughs, and some of the best musical numbers that would make Walt Disney spin in his grave.

Amazon.com: Watch Once | Prime Video

Once
Chosen by Shaun Panda Nicolson: Twitter | Podcast

Well, first off, how am I meant to pick just one musical? Well, actually this came really easy because, as it turns out, I have recently watched the greatest musical ever and that is John Carney’s 2007 epic musical drama Once. I know it’s not a pure, uncut Hollywood musical but it’s by far the greatest musical film I’ve ever seen. The film follows the story of an Irish busker (played by real-life musician Glen Hansard) and a young Czech flower seller (Marketa Irglova) who make the most beautiful connection through the music they make together. I know what you’re thinking “but why this film when Sing Street exists?” Well, it’s simple, the realism of it all. No film in the history of cinema has ever made me sit wide-mouthed at the accuracy which this film depicts the bond people can have over music and the mental connections real musicians have that enable them to almost read each other’s thoughts to create something beautiful. The film is shot in a documentary style and the acting is so authentic and I think that’s purely down to the hiring of first-time actors Hansard and Irglova. Cillian Murphy was originally approached by Carney to play Guy but pulled out and I’m so glad he did. I love Cillian Murphy but Glen Hansard’s heartbreaking vocals on songs such as “Falling Slowly” and “Say It To Me Now” are unmatched. He’s the only person who could perform those songs with the raw emotion that only a seasoned musician could achieve. The most effective scene has to be when we first hear the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly” in the music shop near the beginning of the film. Guy is showing Girl a new song he has written and she slowly works out the piano part and vocally harmonises. I’ve never seen this musical connection so accurately portrayed on screen before. My heart felt warm and my skin tingled all over and I thank my lucky stars I got to witness such a glorious cinematic masterpiece in my lifetime.

Fosse In Film: Cabaret (1972) – Scalarama X

Cabaret
Chosen by Russell Bailey: Twitter | Podcast

When it came time to consider my favourite musical, there were a few films I considered. I’ve always had a soft spot for the likes Moulin Rouge! and La La Land, cinematic works that were critically praised and showered with awards on release but have since slipped into cultural incredulity. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a deeply moving affair but one I don’t often revisit, whilst Little Shop of Horrors is a delightful adaptation slightly diminished by the fact an utterly bonkers alternative ending exists that would have elevated it. I’ve adored The Producers and Sweeney Todd on stage but found them a tad lacking when transferred to the moving image. And Singin’ in the Rain is a perfect affair that brings me immense joy but is probably the best and not my favourite musical.
My pick is instead the one which I own both the soundtrack and DVD of and I’ve seen numerous times on stage. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is a simply stunning musical that I have often returned to. The film was an immense cultural success upon its release (winning 8 Oscars including Director and Actress in a Leading Role) and its power has lingered, renewed by where we find ourselves. Its story of a Weimar-era romance on the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi party to power speaks particularly to a time that has found a resurgence in hate in our politics, fostered in seemingly liberal times. There is a heartbreaking quality to Cabaret nestled amongst a roster of fabulously performed songs. Liza Minnelli is exceptional in the lead amongst a cast whose performances exude a terrific energy.
My fondness for Cabaret is always reignited by its cultural relevance, particularly in American TV (Minnelli popping up for a recurring turn in Arrested Development, the musical playing a prominent part in the penultimate series of Schitt’s Creek). It makes me laugh, it breaks my heart, its songs makes my soul fly and it offers a potent warning that the very best works of cinema can. I hope I have motivated some of you to revisit this exceptional film.

Singin’ in the Rain
Chosen by Joan Amenn: Twitter | In Their Own League

So much has already been written about what a classic film Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is that it seems redundant to add in my two cents here. However, I would like to point out that if comedy is supposedly “hard,” musical comedy can be hazardous to your health. Just take the incredible gravity-defying performance of Donald O’Connor in “Make ‘em Laugh” which should be considered more an Olympic event than a song and dance number. The poor man put himself in the hospital pulling off what seems to be an effortless fun-loving romp. He wasn’t the only one who suffered through the film’s production, of course. All the sheer joy of movement in every dance step on-screen was earned by superhuman effort, and yet it is one of the happiest films ever made.
In my opinion, that dedication to entertaining an audience encapsulated in O’Connor’s pratfalls is why the film is so loved. For all of its satirical spoofing of movie-making, Singin’ in the Rain is deadly serious about the value of making movies. There is a reason why audiences flocked to movie theaters during the Depression and World War II. Films give people solace and a chance to laugh a little in difficult times. The title song performed by Gene Kelly is all about withstanding adversity and finding joy in life anyway. When he sings, “Come on with the rain, there’s a smile on my face,” there is a defiance in his voice that is matched by the athletic strength of his dance. He seems able to withstand a hurricane and the viewer wishes they had that vitality and optimism. Kelly himself knew he could never repeat the performance captured in that scene though he was asked more than once afterwards to try. There can never be another Singin’ in the Rain. It’s in a class by itself.

Rent movie review & film summary (2005) | Roger Ebert

Rent
Chosen by Brian Skutle: Twitter | Website

In rewatching Chris Columbus’s Rent, there was a moment that struck me I had never really processed before. It’s after Roger, Mark, Collins, and Angel get out of a Life Support meeting. Mark notices that cops are harassing a homeless woman. Mark turns his camera on the cops, getting them to leave, and the woman- a Black woman- tells Mark she doesn’t need his guilt to help her. I don’t know if it’s a part of the original Broadway musical, or something screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) added to his adaptation, but the moment, among many others, helps Rent, set in 1990 New York, feel as much about life in 2020 America, with white people inserting themselves into Black issues in sometimes misguided ways, as it is a time capsule of the time it was written about.
Even when the musical debuted on Broadway in 1996, it was relatively dated compared to how New York City was at the time it was set. Add a decade to that, and Columbus’s film feels as much a period piece as Hamilton, in a lot of ways. But Jonathan Larson’s adaptation of La Boheme into the New York City he knew in the late ’80s/early ‘90s remains energetic and emotional, as we are taken into the lives of eight friends, many of whom are romantic partners with one another throughout the story, and a year that will change their lives forever. We all have those moments, those people in our lives, where a shift happens, in our fortunes, in our mentality, and the eight people at the heart of Larson’s musical are having those moments throughout the film’s 135 minutes. 525,600 of them, in fact.
Columbus’s approach to this is not as flashy as we might have gotten out of Baz Luhrmann or Rob Marshall, two of the other directors considered for this film, or as authentic as Spike Lee, who was long attached to it. But he gets the emotions right, and the performances to make us feel them. The progression of Roger and Mimi’s relationship through song is affecting, and I will always go to tears hearing “Will I” or “Without You,” just as I’ll always find joy in “Santa Fe” and the first time we hear Collins and Angel sing, “I’ll Cover You.” This is a story of embracing life, even in the face of death, and Columbus’s film is one of the films that meant most to me in realizing that for myself.

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What would you choose as your favourite musical? Is it one that we haven’t listed here? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.

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