Movie Musicals We Love In Spite of Their Imperfections
Musical theatre fans often love their movie musicals as well. We are, however, skeptical of the movie musical format, since it often disappoints. Do we set our expectations too high? Probably. There are, however, a handful of movie musicals that are deeply flawed, but that we will return to again and again. Here are some titles that fit that description.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
A childhood favorite for many generations, the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is nonetheless a frustrating movie musical. The Sherman Brothers score is lovely and lively, but it runs out of steam after the title song accompanies the title vehicle's magical flight about halfway into the film. Also, the characters are broadly drawn, without much development. It's a musical more about a situation than people, and that may be why it fizzles toward the end. Still, we hum the hits and remain terrified of the sinister Child Catcher. But it is the Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood choreography that is the real star of this movie and that keeps us from remembering the lagging moments.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
A cult movie classic that becomes more mainstream with each decade of loyal followers, The Rocky Horror Picture Show starts out as a great concept, with fascinating characters, great songs, and just enough kink to keep us titillated. The problem is that, as it progresses, it doesn't know where to go. We end up feeling like we're guests at a party who just don't know when to leave. We stick it out when really we should just shut it off after "Touch-a, Touch-a, "Touch-a, Touch Me".
Across the Universe (2007)
Though juke box musicals are considered the bastard children of musicals, Director Julie Taymor struck an interesting tone of visual storytelling with Across the Universe. A compilation of popular Beatles tunes wedged into a convoluted plot with too many extraneous (and confusing) characters, we are transfixed by the visual imagery that is at the center of this movie. And let's face it: this is the Beatles and we will always sing along, hit after hit, and enjoy the music no matter how frustrating the plot.
A Little Night Music (1978)
Stephen Sondheim's and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music waltzed elegantly on the Broadway stage, but when Director Harold Prince reimagined it for a cinematic treatment, it felt both clunky and drab. However, the film is exciting to watch, even if it is merely to witness Diana Rigg's wonderfully acerbic performance as Countess Charlotte Mittelheim (changed from Malcolm in the stage show). Sadly, two of the show's best numbers, "Liaisons" and "The Miller's Son" were cut, but a brand new, exhilarating "Glamorous Life" was added in, and the montage sequence it is sung over is simply the best two-minutes ever in a movie made from a Sondheim musical.
I'm probably going to be stoned for this, but Yentl is such an uneven movie musical that I have to include it on this list. The chief problem is that most of the story focuses on Barbra Streisand that it never feels like an organic musical experience. It, instead, is a series of musical monologues that sometimes soar, but that sometimes feel endless. It also disappoints to have such a lovely, intense singer as Mandy Patinkin in a supporting lead but he's never given his own chance to shine with his own song. Still, Yentl had those moments that do soar as high as that "Piece of Sky" the title character is searching for, and that will always keep us coming back, again and again.
It's one of the most well-known film musical flops, and we all understand why it did, but we still have a deep affection for the train wreck that is Xanadu. Whether it's the totally groovy roller disco oeuvre it draws from, the infectious film score by Barry De Vorzon, or the ridiculous premise based in Greek mythology, we cannot let this film fade. Olivia Newton-John gets an honorable mention for selling her performance, no matter how ludicrous the whole endeavor.
The Wiz (1978)
How can a film musical be so wonderful and so awful at the same time? The film adaptation of the Broadway musical The Wiz somehow manages to swing like a pendulum between magical and mediocre. Its running time and Diana Ross's peculiar interpretation of Dorothy make it feel like it goes on forever. Nevertheless, the supporting cast, including Michael Jackson, Nipsy Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, Mabel King and Lena Horne sparkle in individual moments and when the film focuses on them, we are transported. Isn't that what the best musicals do?