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By Ron Wells | August 5, 2001

NO TIME TO SING ^ Life happened. The 1960’s happened. Hey, for any movie to find success it has to connect with its audience. With the turbulence of the Vietnam era and the emergence of a more personal and relevant style of pop music, Americans no longer felt they could sing and dance their troubles away. Even Elvis stopped crapping out turkeys in 1969. The one-time wonders mentioned above worked because they found different ways to connect with their audience. In every case, there’s some reason why a studio can’t just do the same thing over again.
LET THERE BE ROCK ^ You might bring up the “rock” movie, but that’s an almost totally different beast. “The Who’s Tommy”, “Pink Floyd’s The Wall”, and Prince’s “Purple Rain” were films each of their respective musical authors created with very specific filmmakers (who had their own visions for the material). Each attempted to reproduce that success and each failed to attain it. With the exception of “The Wall,” even the originals haven’t aged particularly well.
CURSED BROADWAY ^ Your next question is probably, “If the musical is dead, why does musical theater seem so alive and well?” The answer is actually the same as for the question, “Why can’t a concert film deliver an equivalent experience as being at the real show?” If nothing else, a live performance can connect with the audience on the level of spectacle alone. A performer can more easily establish that connection if he or she is actually physically near you and can look in your direction once in a while.
It’s not like filmmakers haven’t tried to bring the shining lights of the stage to the screen. “A Chorus Line” was the longest running show on Broadway. Directed by Sir Richard Attenborough and starring Michæl Douglas, the movie failed to gross even $5 million at the multiplex. “The Fantasticks” was the longest running musical off-Broadway, and the produced film failed to even see release for 15 years. When it finally crawled out of the abyss last year to reach a whopping 6 screens, nobody came.
An interesting attempt was the film production of “Hair.” Nearly a decade past the time when the hit show was even remotely relevant, director Milos Forman radically altered the story (such as it was) to explore the failure of 1960’s idealism. While interesting, his eastern European sensibilities and cool reserve resulted in a kind of Berlin Wall between the film and the audience preventing, at least emotionally, any kind of meaningful connection to the material.
Of course, Broadway itself isn’t exactly in its golden age, now is it? To no small degree, much of the bread and butter of the Great White Way in recent years has been revivals of older works. Cole Porter’s been dead since 1964 and his successors have been a bit more, uh, limited in their appeal. Andrew Lloyd Webber has only seen “Jesus Christ Superstar” hit the screen and none of his bloated, humorless work since has sounded anything like that piece did. On other fronts, “Les Miserables” has pulled in the masses, but with narrative you can’t follow over its 3 1/2 hours length, it would need a little work in a different form. Old-schooler Stephen Sondheim still dabbles in the movies, but I can’t recall anything from he’s produced for the stage in the last 25 years having a broad appeal that could translate to the movies.
As for a significant number of other projects, like “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Producers”, well, weren’t they already movies?
THE END? ^ Looks pretty bleak, huh? For most of the last 20 years almost no one has attempted any sort of live-action musical, much less a good one. Why waste the time and effort? Musicals seemed as dead as gladiator flicks and good riddance. The final verse had been sung. Then again, it’s hard to say what exactly a new millennium might bring…
THE SOUNDS OF A NEW MILLENIUM ^ It’s funny that every time you think the film industry is going down the tubes a new crop of talent crawls out of the woodwork or some crusty veterans rediscover their muses and save the movie world from itself. Motion pictures are built on hard work but driven by vision. With enough talented people focused on a problem at least one of them will eventually arrive at a new solution. Perhaps multiple artists will even arrive at multiple, equally valid solutions, maybe at the same time. The musical is dead? HELL, NO! In one single year, from May 2000 to May 2001, not one, not two, not three, FIVE radical new musicals (rating from great to classic) have seen their world premieres come to pass. Of those, three have had wide theatrical release. One more is on the way while the fifth anxiously needs a distributor in synch with its quirky charms. What are these saviors of the cinema you ask? Why do they work? Let’s examine them one by one.

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