Friday, October 24, 2014

Musical Films Where Characters Don't Just Break Into Song


Black Snake Moan, Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci
Samuel Jackson plays Lazarus who feels very low because his wife left him for his best friend. Lazarus puts that into the blues numbers he performs later in this film and they are just wonderful. Of course, he fits the biblical image of being dead and needing resurrection quite well too. That resurrection gets into motion when he happens upon Rae one day. She is played by Christina Ricci and her character has been beaten and left on a back road following a wild party.  

This all takes place in a small Tennessee town near Nashville. These characters have no money and the shacks, farms, stores, streets, and blues clubs are filled with people in the same predicament. 

Lazarus takes Rae home and tries to care for her. Rae is a victim of sexual abuse and a bad mother. She throws herself at men and Lazarus is just one more. But he does not take her up on it. Lazarus and Rae instead start to forge a relationship in which they can move on to other people. At one point Lazarus has to chain her up because she is totally out of control and about to go out and do something stupid again.

This is all done to terrific Blues music throughout the film including Jackson's two terrific performances. Even if you hated the film, the Blues music in it is so outstanding that you could just close your eyes and be in auditory heaven.  

All That Jazz, Bob Fosse, Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange 

Bob Fosse beat everyone else to the punch by doing a scathing autobiography less than ten years before his own death. His musical numbers spring organically from his creative self as he tries to get a show off the ground and come to terms with his own death as he will not adjust his life to fit in with his having just recovered from a heart attack. Roy Scheider does a brilliant job playing him.

Jessica Lange is at her most beautiful as the Angel of Death with whom he converses regularly. The problem is that Joe, like the real world Bob Fosse, is a workaholic despite having a heart condition. He is staging a new work for Broadway plus he is recutting his movie Lenny. He even pill pops with speed and smokes like a fiend. Nevertheless, his work is brilliant and the choreography here is out of this world. Fosse began his career as a dancer, not a director, and here is able to pull out all of the stops with the dancing he creates for this film. 

He also has a problem with womanizing and here revisits his marriage with Gwen Verdon, with whom he had his only child, and his many girlfriends. Fosse survived making this film but kept up all the same habits. He dropped dead of a heart attack while walking down the street in 1987 at age 50. He deservedly won every award in show business including the Oscar for his direction of Cabaret.

True Stories, David Byrne, John Goodman

David Byrne's first and last musical about a crazy little town in Texas and the nutty characters who live there, who each in turn perform their musical numbers. Also a love story for John Goodman and Swoozie Kurtz. This is one of John Goodman's earliest roles and he plays Louis with utmost sincerity in his search for love. He was my favorite character in this film.

This was supposed to be Byrne's conversion from rock star to movie director. However, the movie flopped. The public was not ready for something this quirky. Each character has something very eccentric about him or her and Byrne revels in that eccentricity. Then he usually has the character perform musically as well. He captures America in the mid 1980s as it is lived in a rather small town in the great open sky country of Texas. Byrne gives an intro to "The History of Texas" at the start of the film and it is one of the best parts. He mentions that God had to create special people who liked land which looked like this land and this is just one of his quirky yet apt observances. 

The "Parade of Specialness" he stages is indeed special as he puts Shriners in those little cars along with the 'lawnmower brigade. I think Byrne saw this kind of thing disappearing for good and he may have been right as I don't know where someone goes to see this kind of parade nowadays. 

Byrne even puts on the most oddball fashion show that has ever been put to film with one outfit, for example, made out of astroturf. He plunks this bizarre fashion show into a shopping mall which makes it even more bizarre rather than less so. Dinner with Spalding Grey as the patriarch Mr. Culver is a classic and reminds me of the dinner table back in the 1950s as we experienced it. Grey is nicely formal, "pass this to our guest". Grey as this strict and formal patriarchal type oddly works.

He also has a voodoo ceremony with a man in full outfit performing before the voodoo altar. This has one of the best musical numbers.

I loved this film. It is an absurdist look at life and ordinary people with odd quirks living those lives. It never gets old for me. This also exists as a Talking Heads album.  Curiously Byrne has his own band record the album to go with the movie instead of releasing the soundtrack with the characters doing the numbers.

Byrne went back to his musical career after the movie failed. But the Talking Heads did not last long after this. Byrne continued to reinvent himself musically every few years and is still doing so today. The other Talking Heads disappeared.

Pennies From Heaven, Steve Martin

Steve Martin's Depression Era musical of a traveling salesman with marital problems. Wonderful musical numbers emerge from the grim trappings of the Depression. If you are expecting to see Steve Martin the wild and crazy guy appearing here, let me assure you that he is nowhere in sight. 

Not only is this a song and dance musical but Martin plays a serious character. His specific problem is that he is a married man who falls for a teacher played by Bernadette Peters, who is known for her singing talent. One marvelous number occurs when her first grade classroom erupts into song while being whisked into sequined tuxedos. They tap dance atop their tiny desks.  Martin performs musically as well. He tap dances through a fabulously produced Busby Berkeley number.

Peters was Martin's girlfriend and costar for many years. When they broke up, she went to Broadway to star in musicals and he continued on in movies, writing, directing and starring in them. Most of his work was comedies but there were a few times he took huge risks with work that no one identified with his name. This was one of those.

Most people do not know that Christopher Walken trained as a song and dance man. He expected to end up in musicals for his entire professional life. No one today even realizes that he can sing and dance. In the above image, that is Walken in the upper right sliding across a bar in a dance. It may be his only song and dance routine on film. Vernel Bagneris also performs, singing Pennies From Heaven, and Martin has the sky rain gold coins outside a seedy diner for the number.

The brilliance of this film is that it juxtaposes The Great Depression with the happy-go-lucky songs from that era. Those songs helped people get through it until we entered WWII wherein a new style of music emerged. 

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