Monday, November 15, 2010


by Gina Sestak

The theme of the month is things for which we are thankful.

Everyone who's been reading my posts for the last few years knows I love movies, so it's a no-brainer that I'm thankful for cinema magic.  What you may not know is that my very favorite form of film is the musical, so I guess I'm thankful for those most of all.

Huh?  you may ask.  Aren't musicals kind of silly?  I mean, people breaking into song in public places, suddenly dancing in the street and wearing fancy costumes.  That's not realistic!

So who said movies have to be realistic?  The characters on film change size from tiny little ants seen from a high-set window to massive faces speaking at us from the screen.  They travel in a matter of seconds from LA to London or the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of North Africa.  One person can age 30 years in minutes, be born, grow up and die before we finish eating half that tub of popcorn.

Movies are not realistic.  They are works of art, and musical sequences add a subtext of emotion that may be difficult, if not impossible, to express solely through dialogue.

[Unfortunately, I had trouble importing youtube videos into this post, so you'll have to click on the links to view the musical interludes mentioned below.]

I first realized I loved musicals when I saw Oliver!, the song-and-dance version of Oliver Twist.  Watch how this scene captures the young orphan's wonder at the bustle of London life, while keeping Dickens' focus on the contrast between poverty and wealth.  Spectacular, isn't it?  Can you imagine replacing it with dialogue?
       Oliver:    It's nice to wake up in a clean room instead of with those other kids at Fagin's.
       Servant:  Just look out the window.  [Scene of people hawking wares in street.]
       Oliver:    Wow.  Having money really makes a difference, even though there are a few things money can't buy.
Doesn't have the same magic, does it?

My favorite film of all time is Reefer Madness - The Movie Musical.   No kidding.  This version of the 1930s anti-drug movie is a hilarious satire that questions both the dictates of a misinformed government and the power of manipulated peer pressure.  Not to mention featuring one of the most extreme reactions to a toke imaginable, when innocent high school student Jimmy is lured to the reefer den with the promise of a dance lesson.  Watch this.  [Warning - it's a bit risque, with near nudity and sexual content.  If you think you'd be offended, please ignore this link.]  If you really want to be offended, watch this one, too.  If you prefer something tame and literary, or would like to see what Jimmy was like before encountering the evil weed, try this.

Then there's Mamma Mia, the story of a woman who comes face to face with her past when old friends and lovers come to attend her daughter's wedding.  Here's a sample, full of infectious exuberance.  [Oops.  That's kind of risque, too, but only a little.  Blink when Christine Baranski takes the red flower out of the vase and you'll miss it.]  Who would have thought Julie Walters (Ron's mom in the Harry Potter films) could move like that?  Or Meryl Streep?

Lately, I've been getting into Bollywood films, one of the more extreme versions of the movie musical.  The incomprehensibility of the lyrics bothers a word-oriented English-speaker like myself, but the amazing dancing more than makes up for that.  Witness the following sequence from Dil Se, a serious movie in which a radio reporter (played by Shah Rukh Khan, the guy in the red jacket) falls in love with a mysterious woman who has a dangerous secret.  I originally saw this video playing on a screen in an Indian restaurant, and didn't realize it was from a film.  My first thought was, "Those people are out of their minds!"

My current favorite Bollywood film is Om Shanti Om (click this link to watch the trailer), which pokes fun at films and stardom but has a wonderful (albeit strange) story line of love and loss, murder and justice, death and rebirth.  It was hard to pick something from it to link to - I like it all.  There's a long party scene in which many of the stars of Indian cinema make cameo appearances, and a hilarious music video called The Pain of Disco.  I finally decided to include this sequence, in which a Bollywood bit player (Shah Rukh Khan again), who has a major crush on a superstar, imagines himself in her latest movie.  I really like this silly stuff.

What's all this got to do with writing? you've probably been wondering.  A lot.  There's more to writing than putting words down on a page, or crafting an accurate description.  We have to convey emotion, too, and make our words do the work of the performers in these videos.  Our words have to sing and dance and act upon the emotions of the reader.  That's what separates well-written prose from a traffic report, in my humble opinion.

So, how do you feel about musicals?  Love them?  Hate them?  Please comment below and, if you like musical movies, what is your favorite?  Why?


Annette said...

I've loved musicals since I first saw OKLAHOMA on TV when I was little. I admit I haven't seen any of the ones you've posted here. I'm thinking I really have to rent some DVDs...

My two favorite musicals haven't been made into movies (at least musical ones) that I know of: Les Miserables and Cats.

Joyce Tremel said...

I love musicals, especially the Rodgers & Hammerstein ones. My favorite is South Pacific, which was recently here in Pittsburgh (didn't go-tickets were too pricey).

I've seen just about every version of it from the movie starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi, to the read-through one with Reba McIntyre and I can't remember who. I even suffered through the one with Glenn Close playing Nellie. (I love Glenn Close but she was WAY too old to play Nellie.)

I try to watch the Sound of Music when it's on TV, too. I vaguely remember my older sister taking me to the movie theater to see it when it first came out.

Another favorite is Camelot, but the movie is atrocious. I think it's well past time for a remake.

Gina said...

I like Oklahoma!, too, Annette. I once had a part in a parody of it called "Aliquippa!"

I haven't seen either Les Miz or Cats, although I've heard the music and read the works they're based upon. I had some trouble getting through Les Miserables - it's an incredibly long book, full of digressions into philosophy - but T.S. Eliot is a favorite. I measure out my life in coffee spoons . . .

Gina said...

South Pacific, Sound of Music, Camelot - all good also, Joyce. And Brigadoon was on tv this weekend.

Gina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karen in Ohio said...

Love musicals, too, always did, especially My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, and just about any of the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. Thank goodness for soundtracks!

I've seen both Cats and Les Miz on Broadway (and Chorus Line, Chicago, and Bubbling Brown Sugar). In fact, all of the shows I've seen on Broadway were musicals. Never realized that before!

Thanks for the links, Gina. I had no idea Reefer Madness had been made into a musical! It has to be on the cult-following level of Rocky Horror Picture Show!

Karen in Ohio said...

PS Here's a list of musical plays, with years, in case you're interested:

Gina said...

Right, Karen. My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, Chicago . . . I've never even heard of Bubbling Brown Sugar, but that list you provided the link to makes it clear that I've never heard of most musicals! Interestingly, the list includes my second favorite rock musical movie (Pink Floyd: The Wall) while leaving out my favorite (The Doors). Oh, and maybe "Beyond the Sea" could be included, too. Bobby Darin's music plays a major part in that bio flick. [It's also a very good movie.]

Jennie Bentley said...

Love musicals, both stage and screen. Those old Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire movies from the 30s were the reason I wanted to become an actress in the first place. They have some of the most fabulous music ever, and who can resist Fred Astaire? My favorite, though, is a 1948 movie starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly called 'The Pirate.' Satire at its best, with Gene Kelly playing a sort of overblown swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks-type character - an actor pretending to be a pirate to woo the girl who has a crush on the reputation of the Black Mococo. Fabulous music - Jerome Kern, IIRC - and incredible singing and dancing. For stage musicals, I have to say I'm partial to Les Miserable. A Chorus Line is great - I've seen that in various incarnations and languages - and I also love Grand Hotel, the musical, since I saw it on Broadway and it had several acquaintances in the cast. Chess is also a lot of fun. If you've only ever heard Josh Groban sing "Anthem," do a Youtube search for David Carroll, who originated the lead role in Chess, and hear how it's supposed to be done.

Anonymous said...

Right, Jennie! I love all of those, too. I was lucky enough to see Chess from a balcony seat, so the movement of the pieces (actors) was clear.

I meant to mention above that Karen's list leaves off Bollywood films entirely. Quite an oversight!

Gina said...

Sorry. That anonymous was me.
- Gina

Karen in Ohio said...

Gina, the list wasn't meant to include any films, if I understand correctly. They are all stage play musicals.

Bubbling Brown Sugar was what they call a revue, lots of musical acts strung together in a pretty loose excuse for a story. But I was invited to the show by a guy I met on the plane on my first solo trip to NYC. He lived here, so we saw each other a couple times after we got home, but that was a very cool trip, and my very first Broadway show.

Patg said...

I love musicals, mostly on the stage. I agree with Bente, the old Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire films are great, and now we are seeing more of Gene Nelson. However my all time favorite 'tap' dancer is Donald O'Connor.
I really prefer my musicals on the stage, movies loose something. An example is Chorus Line. I've seen it twice on the stage and love it, so I looked forward to the movie. YUCK. That chorus line scene is meant to be seen full view with you eyes catching all that is going on and only hesitating briefly on each dancer. In the movie the camera chose which dancer to focus on. Very disappointing.
The best musical I've seen lately is Wicked, and I loved it. I will never see the movie version, and will always buy a ticket to see a traveling troupe.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Looks like I'm the odd person out. Sorry to say, I'm not a fan of musicals. I think I was tainted many years ago hearing Clint Eastwood bust out into song in Paint Your Wagon. Scarred me for life.

Now I do like (or tolerate) a couple of musicals, like Little Shop of Horrors.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I can't check out any of the links right now because I'm in a quiet place, have to get back to them later. But I'm a huge fan of musicals. Fred and Ginger, of course, and Gene, and Donald, but those old Roger and Hammerstein's - South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I, Sound of Music - these were the stuff dreams are made of.

Gina said...

Will -
I forgot to include Little Shop of Horrors. That's another of my favorites, and one of only two horror movie remakes that I liked the second version even better than the first. [The other is "The Thing." John Carpenter's version rocks! When that guy's head sprouts legs, rips free of his neck and runs under the table . . . !]
I liked Paint Your Wagon! [It's ok to laugh at the incongruous stuff. It adds to the enjoyment.]

Linda -
I forgot about The King and I, too. Another great one.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

To me it would be like Dirty Harry singing: "I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

There are just some things that just don't mix.

Gina said...

No, Will! If Dirty Harry sang about that, it would have to rhyme -
Think of the tune to The Doors' "Five to One" and imagine Clint singing:
"Five or six was it?
Six or five?
You may not stay
Long alive."
There would, of course, be weird camera angles, showing both Clint and the punk's points of view and seeing each of them from all sides and above. Perhaps they would engage in a dance, like the gang members did at their rumble in "West Side Story" (another great musical I forgot to mention). Fleeing pedestrians could be the backup dancers; uniformed cops could join in. It would be great!

Annette said...

Gina, I'm sooo glad I wasn't drinking anything when I read your Dirty Harry Ditty. I'd have snorted it through my nose!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Oh Geez, I can never watch Dirty Harry again.

Dave S. said...

Must admit I'm not a huge fan of musicals generally -- not because I find them unrealistic, though: There are plenty of unrealistic films I think terrific, from IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS to THE TERMINATOR -- so I suppose it's for some other reason(s); that said, my fave musicals would include WEST SIDE STORY and THE WIZARD OF OZ (does that qualify?), with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and, oh, say CAROUSEL also contending.