Man vs Critics: Musicals

A genre that has endured for the better part of a century, first appearing on screens way back in the late 1920s. Pioneered by the likes of choreographer and director Busby Berkeley (who has the most old-school Hollywood sounding name that I have ever heard). A genre that regularly rakes in obscene amounts of money for movie studios, with the likes of Disney’s recent Lion King remake and the Frozen films grossing over a billion dollars each at the box office. 

It is a genre that millions of people across the world love dearly, many having fond memories of sitting down with their families to watch classics like The Wizard of Oz, Grease and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, which is apparently in the top 20 highest-grossing musicals of all time. It’s even higher on the list than The Greatest Showman. People love those weird little CGI chipmunks. 

Not me though. I do not care for those little furry b*stards. 

To tell the truth, I don’t particularly care for musical cinema at all. I remember being forced to sit through Les Misérables once upon a time, and I came away thinking that Fantine was the luckiest character in the entire movie because she at least dies in the first act and doesn’t have to see the cinematic atrocity that follows. There’s no way that much singing went on during the French Revolution, they were too busy lining up monarchs for the guillotine. 

In the interest of broadening my horizons, however, I thought it was only fair that I gave musical cinema another chance. All the singing and dancing looked like great fun, maybe I just needed to find one perfect movie, a film that would make me fall in love with the genre, like so many others.

So, to that end, I did the sensible thing and locked myself in the basement with only water and bread for sustenance, a notepad to write down my thoughts, the strange creatures lurking in the dark for company and a selection of notable musicals to keep me entertained. Cinema how it is meant to be experienced. After my experiment was concluded, I would compare what I thought of the movies to what the critics had to say. Maybe taking in musicals without distractions would lead me to a new appreciation for them. 

Here’s how it went: 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) Directed by Jim Sharman. 

Logan: Let’s kick proceedings off with a classic. This is certainly a movie with a reputation, and even before seeing it, I was familiar with some of the characters and the music, in particular Tim Curry’s Dr Frank-N-Furter, and the Time Warp song, which triggered some deeply repressed memories of childhood birthday parties when I heard it. Why were they playing this song at children’s birthday parties? I’m not sure where I sit on this movie, to be honest. I love weird films, and this film is no doubt weird. I really enjoyed the scene where Meatloaf is murdered, because I hate his music, so it was satisfying to see a pickaxe driven through his sizeable skull. I don’t really understand what the plot was about. The Dr is an alien sent to earth to seduce people and create genetically altered sex robots? I don’t know. Like I said it’s really fucking weird. I’ll give it a 6 out of 10. Enjoyed all the weird visuals and surreal humour, felt a bit thin on the plot. 

Movie critic Roger Ebert: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon. When the film was first released in 1975 it was ignored by pretty much everyone, including the future fanatics who would eventually count the hundreds of times they’d seen it. “Rocky Horror” opened, closed, and would have been forgotten had it not been for the inspiration of a low-level 20th Century-Fox executive who talked his superiors into testing it as a midnight cult movie. The rest is history. As for the movie itself, it’s no better than it ever was. Viewed on video simply as a movie, without the midnight sideshow, it’s cheerful and silly, and kind of sweet, and forgettable.” 

Roger seems to hold a similar ambivalence towards the movie as me, although he expressed it in a much more eloquent fashion. Probably why he got paid to write and I don’t. 

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Directed by Tim Burton. 

Logan: I was deeply conflicted about watching this one. A childhood classic and maybe the only musical I’ve ever seen that I remember enjoying, I was worried it wouldn’t hold up now that I am a rapidly ageing old man. I was also worried that watching it when it is neither Halloween nor Christmas would see me placed on some sort of register. Alas, I put my fear of a visit from the FBI to one side and persevered, and I am glad I did. Nightmare is funny, smart, dark and whimsical at the same time, with some rather grown-up visuals that I’m sure must have scarred legions of kids the world over. That two-faced Mayor still gives me the heebie-jeebies watching it now. Danny Elfman is on top form with the score, the music pivoting seamlessly between Christmassy holiday cheer and Halloween spooky weirdness. Real good stuff. 8 out of 10 for this one. A high bar has been set, and I reject any and all accusations that I have allowed nostalgia to cloud my judgement. 

Movie critic Peter Travers: “Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas restores originality and daring to the Halloween genre. This dazzling mix of fun and fright also explodes the notion that animation is kid stuff. The history-making stop-motion animation in this $20 million charmer transcends age. It’s 74 minutes of timeless movie magic.” 

See? It’s not nostalgia, it’s just a good movie. 

The Greatest Showman (2017) Directed by Michael Gracey. 

Logan: This movie should really be titled The Greatest Steaming Pile of Shite I Have Ever Seen, because that’s what it is. I remember well the dark age that was ushered in by this abomination. A time when you could not escape that awful Rewrite the Stars song. I’m positive there were other chart-toppers from the soundtrack, but I’ve managed to bury the memory of them somewhere deep down in my subconscious. Thank god for that. I normally enjoy Hugh Jackman’s work, even Van Helsing, but he is insufferable in this. How is a movie about the circus so boring? 2 out of 10. 

Movie critic Sheila O’Malley: “The Greatest Showman,” directed with verve and panache by Michael Gracey, is an unabashed piece of pure entertainment, punctuated by 11 memorable songs composed by Oscar- and Tony-winning duo Beni Pasek and Justin Paul, who composed the songs for “La La Land,” as well as the current Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen. The film is made for the whole family to enjoy, and so it leaves out many of the darker elements (explored in the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum, music by Cy Coleman). This is a difficult tightrope to walk, but credit is due to Gracey, a perfectly cast Hugh Jackman, and the entire cast, who play this story in the spirit in which it was written (by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon).” 

I can only assume this review was written by the critic as the studio executives behind The Greatest Showman held a gun to her head. That or it’s paid propaganda. Both are equally horrible. 

Moulin Rouge! (2001) Directed by Baz Luhrmann. 

Logan: Well, this is an interesting movie. Quite dark for a musical, there’s a fair amount of violence, tuberculosis and prostitution. Nice and cheery. It has a strong cast, I like Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. When did Obi-Wan Kenobi learn how to sing? It features lots (and lots) of popular music, with the lyrics changed to suit the setting of the film, turn of the century Paris. This works better in some instances than others. The scene with Smells Like Teen Spirit was one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen. Who in the Nirvana estate let them do that to their song? It was like watching a beloved family pet loaded into a cannon and shot into the sea. 5 out of 10, I appreciate that they tried to do something a bit different with this movie, though in my opinion it didn’t work a lot of the time. 

Movie critic Guy Lodge: “Luhrmann, never one to under-design a film, leaves no inch of the screen unadorned, meshing costume-jewellery fakery and diamond-cut expense into a single, strangely unified aesthetic. The music seesaws between gauche Broadway pastiche and infectiously besotted icon homage: it works by channelling a similar spirit of undiscriminating showmanship to the club in which it’s set, a spiritually appropriate intersection of high spirits and low art. It remains a fully unrepeatable feat.” 

This guy obviously doesn’t feel as strongly as I do about Nirvana, which is fair enough I suppose. 

Grease (1978) Directed by Randal Kleiser. 

Logan: Another classic of musical cinema, and a cultural juggernaut. How many couples have you seen at Halloween dressed up as Danny and Sandy? Far too many, I’m sure. Seeing as it is such a beloved classic, I won’t be too harsh on it. I can’t take John Travolta seriously as a high-school student, both because I’ve seen Pulp Fiction and because he must have been about 5 years past graduation age when this film was made. Olivia Newton-John also looks suspiciously old to be going to school. I can’t deny that some of the tunes are catchy though, which evens things out a bit. It’s silly and campy, which is what I imagine the filmmakers were going for. 6 out of 10, not my cup of tea but I can see why people enjoy it. 

Movie critic Jan Dawson: “Beneath its remorseless and aggressive façade of twitching adolescent energy, what the film is actually celebrating is a state of middle-class adulthood. Even middle age. Insidiously, it congratulates its audience on having achieved a stable perspective from which it can view with amused tolerance the turbulent times of its supposed teenage traumas. By drawing its archetypal teen crises from screen classics rather than first-hand experience, it seduces its audience into believing that they have lived more recklessly and glamorously than they had supposed.” 

Well, according to Jan it’s not as silly and light-hearted as I thought. Is this an art review in disguise? 

Having survived my musical movie marathon, I emerged from the darkness of the basement, tired and confused, into the harsh light of day, unsure where I stood on the subject. I enjoyed some aspects and hated others. The songs ranged from catchy and fun to plain offensive. If I went the rest of my life without hearing another track from The Greatest Showman it would still be too soon. But I suppose the same is true of all cinema, very rarely do you come across a film that is absolutely without fault. Like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. 

Maybe I’ve been taking musicals a little too seriously. From now on, I’ll do my best to sit back and enjoy the fun like everyone else. Catch me belting out the Time Warp on the karaoke machine in a pub near you soon. 

If anyone else in that pub attempts to sing a Greatest Showman song on the karaoke however, then we’re going to have some trouble.

Written by Logan Walker

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