Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Musicals for people who don't like musicals

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Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in 'Rock of Ages.' Photo / AP
Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in 'Rock of Ages.' Photo / AP

Very few people admit to liking musicals. The ones that do invariably overstate the fact and make anyone listening want to have even less to do with musicals. I've never considered myself a fan of musicals, but watching Rock of Ages (which came out in cinemas this week) made me realise that perhaps I am.

Make no mistake however, Rock of Ages is freaking awful. But it was this awfulness that caused me to think about musicals I have enjoyed, and it turns out there are quite a few of them.

The overpowering blandness of Rock of Ages - a exercise in cinematic karaoke if ever there was such a thing - led me to wistfully recall a recent afternoon when I found myself strangely transfixed by the 1961 classic West Side Story after it popped up on TCM.

I had seen the film in my youth and viewed with due reverence, although I'd never felt particularly compelled to watch it again. But the epicness of the opening half hour (mostly shot on location in New York, as opposed to the stage-bound second half) really drew me in.

Beyond the whole breaking-into-song thing, it is the grandiosity of the emotions in musicals that seems to make audiences nervous about admitting to liking them. But as modern movies get more and more inert and starved of anything resembling feeling, a sense of emotion becomes a vauable thing. Even if it is over the top.

There are several generations of kids that grew up watching Grease on TV endlessly, and while many of them would never admit to being a fan of musicals, they could all probably easily sing along with any of Grease's catchy numbers. I am one of these kids. There's a sunny entertainment value to Grease that just makes it impossible to dislike.

Another film that seemed to be on constant rotation in my house as I was growing up is what I consider to be Grease's freaky cousin in the pantheon of musicals-that-everyone-has-seen: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Able to be accessed as a cult curio or a subversive thriller, the sheer stylistic overkill makes The Rocky Horror Show eminently watchable. And Tim Curry. He rules.

A couple of years ago the superlatively awesome 24 Hour Movie Marathon organised by Ant Timpson, the Grand High Serpent of all things film in New Zealand, introduced me to a film quite unlike any other I had experienced: The Last Dragon.

It's a kung fu ghetto action comedy produced by Motown records founder Berry Gordy, who crammed his roster of musicals stars into the film and on to the soundtrack. Which makes The Last Dragon a kung fu ghetto action comedy musical. And a pretty awesome one at that. I have sinced watched it at least five more times, and it never ceases to rule my world.

The musical scenes are all organically relevant to the plot, which involves the host of a video hits show and a gangster's moll with popstar aspirations, so it's not a musical in the traditional sense. But it still counts. Probably the most recognisable tune in the movie is DeBarge's Rhythm of the Night. Love that song.

Incredibly, The Last Dragon did something very entertaining with the idea of an 'action musical'. Speaking of action musicals, let us pause at this moment to acknowledge 48 Hours director Walter Hill's notorious 1984 folly Streets of Fire. I wonder if anyone will ever attempt an action musical again.

The way the characters in Rock of Ages used popular music to express their emotions reminded me of the one film to have executed this idea effectively - Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! All of Luhrman's films use music in an interesting way, but his only actual musical takes it to the next level and the enormity of the characters' emotional arcs ensure the songs aren't overstating anything.

Their constant presence on TCM has made me slightly obsessed with the endless '40s musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland as a couple of kids putting on a show to save 'fill-in-the-blank'. How can you not root for those plucky youngsters?

Most Golden Age musicals hold some sort of interest, and I'm particularly partial to Singing In The Rain and On The Town. If you're looking for an entry point into classic musicals, nostalgia-fest That's Entertainment is a good place to start.

Then of course there's Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Everyone has seen these right? They feel like classic books everyone is forced to read. Are kids ever subjected to Mary Poppins these days? Childrens entertainment is much more music-centric than it has ever been, surely that's going to lead to a generation of musical obsessives?

For some reason, I've never been able to buy into the musical aspect of Disney cartoons. For a long time I despised Randy Newman because of his Pixar candy music, but then I found out he co-wrote the screenplay for totally genius semi-musical The Three Amigos (and wrote all the songs in the film) and I've had to reconsider my view.

So yeah, I profess to not be a fan of musicals, but I consider myself a fan of most the above mentioned films. I guess I do like musicals. Do you?

Would you hesitate to admit to liking musicals? Which musicals would you show to someone who professeses not to like them? Comment below!

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