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Posts Tagged ‘musical’

It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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A bit over ten years ago I had the great good fortune to spend a year or so living in Japan. Naturally, there are lots of unexpected things that arise out of this kind of experience, things you never would have expected: and one of the realisations which it brought to me was how rarely you hear the music of the Beatles in the course of everyday life in the UK. In Japan, if you sit down for a toasted sandwich in a cafe, there’s a very good chance you’ll be doing it to a soundtrack from Rubber Soul or The White Album – you hear their songs everywhere and anywhere. (John Lennon is virtually the only foreigner to be treated like an honorary Japanese person, for possibly-obvious reasons, while there is a chain of shops named Yellow Submarine.)

Over here, though, not so much, especially when you consider the extent to which the Beatles have written themselves into the fabric of our popular culture. Everyone knows a couple of dozen Beatles songs in some detail, but nobody under fifty can remember where that knowledge came from, I suspect: it’s a strange kind of cultural osmosis, to which each new generation is subjected. Judging from the number of parents bringing quite small kids to a 50th-anniversary revival of Yellow Submarine which I rolled up to the other day, I may have seen the process in action.

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Directed by George Dunning, Yellow Submarine, I probably don’t need to tell you, was the Fab Four’s third movie, and one with which they had fairly minimal involvement, not least because this is a full-length animation featuring a dozen or so songs from the lads. Things get underway with a vision of Pepperland, a paradise of freedom, enlightenment, and music, where all is peace and harmony – at least, until the place is heinously assaulted by the implacably negative Blue Meanies, a bunch of killjoys with a rather eccentric arsenal of apple-bonkers, anti-music missiles, snapping Turks and a terrible flying glove.

Pepperland seems certain to fall to the forces of glumness, and so the mayor packs off the crusty sailor Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) to fetch help, putting him in command of, well, a yellow submarine, which can fly. Of course. Old Fred’s quest winds up leading him to late-sixties Liverpool, where he encounters first Ringo (voiced by Paul Angelis), and then the other three Beatles – John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes), and George (mostly an uncredited Peter Batten, who departed the production quite rapidly when it was discovered he was wanted for desertion from the British army). With the lads on board, the yellow submarine sets course back to Pepperland, but a strange voyage it will prove to be…

I’m really in two minds when it comes to the plot of Yellow Submarine – on the one hand, there is something absolutely sound and perhaps even mythic about the basic structure of the quest for help against invaders. But on the other, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t a musical film in the conventional sense – by which I mean, it’s not a narrative in which the songs serve to establish or develop character, and comment on the plot. Rather, it seems like a collection of songs around which a very loose storyline has been written, with animated sequences used to illustrate the tunes. Comparisons with Fantasia (another non-narrative musical anthology) seem to me to be quite apt.

It is customary to praise the film for the ceaseless psychedelic invention of its visuals, but if you think about it, what else were they supposed to do? Given the job of animating an accompaniment to the song Yellow Submarine, what would you do? You’d look at the lyrics and try to discern some underlying metaphor or subtext to the song. And I suspect you’d find that this really is just a piece of oompah-oompah silliness about some people living in an ochre-hued submersible. The same seems to be true of a lot of the other songs here – I’m reminded of a John Lennon quote, about Hey Bulldog in particular, suggesting it is ‘a good-sounding record that means nothing.’ In a similar way you could probably argue that Yellow Submarine is a visually-striking film that has no particular depth to it.

Then again, the late 60s were littered with good-looking cultural artefacts that are a bit cryptic, to say the least, at first glance – you could probably add The Prisoner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same list. And the best sequences of animation in Yellow Submarine are certainly distinctive and reasonably inventive, even if the animators seem to be struggling with the fact that some of the songs don’t really have any particular meaning. (The film’s sequence accompanying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – and I have to say that while I like the Beatles’ rendition, it’s William Shatner’s which is truly definitive for me – shies away from actual visions of newspaper taxis and marshmallow pies in favour of rotoscoped ballroom dancing.) By the far the most effective segment of the film, if you ask me, is that accompanying Eleanor Rigby, a song which genuinely seems to be about something, and I think this is not a coincidence.

That said, the film’s producer Al Brodax was quite cynical about the creative process involved: the Beatles were under contract to produce four brand new songs for the film, and ended up only giving Brodax ones which they didn’t think were particularly good, saving the better ones for other projects (or so he suggested). I have to say this does remind me of the apparent modus operandi of the Monty Python collective, who would sell any sketches that didn’t pass their own quality control process to The Two Ronnies – but then comparing the Pythons and the Beatles is something of a cliché, for all that some of the animation here looks decidedly Gilliamesque, and the surreal humour of the film also not a million miles away. (Much of the puns and wordplay in the script were apparently courtesy of an uncredited Roger McGough.)

One is tempted to suggest the whole film could almost be seen as an exercise in the meeting of contractual obligations – the band themselves turning in some rather variable tunes (It’s Only A Northern Song is about as close to forgettable as the Beatles ever produced) and only turning up in person very briefly at the end. (It has to be said that the actors do a pretty decent job of presenting the Beatles as they are, or were, popularly received – John the sarky rebel, Ringo the clown, George the mystic, Paul the nice guy of ambiguous mortality.) For all of its inventiveness, there are still moments when the film is clearly being rather thrifty – seconds go by in front of static images, while the animation for the second half of the Nowhere Man sequence is plainly pretty much that of the first half, only run in reverse.

And yet, and yet, and yet. You sit there and think this film has not aged well, and its roots as a quaint piece of pop-art psychedelia are clearly showing, and the plot is not up to much – but then you listen to the string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, or the guitar solo of Nowhere Man, or the piano part of Hey Bulldog, or the crescendo from A Day in the Life, and it lifts you up and makes you smile and reminds you of just why the music of the Beatles is woven into all of our lives so indelibly. No-one else in music has ever done so much, so quickly, so well. If ever a band was touched by genius, it was these boys, and for that I am more than happy to forgive them, and this movie, a lot.

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‘Why are you going to see The Greatest Showman? You’re going to hate it,’ said Next Desk Colleague, looking genuinely baffled. Well, a number of reasons, to be perfectly honest – things are quiet at work at the moment, giving me plenty of afternoons to spend catching up on the current crop of movies, and there’s also the fact that a friend whose judgement I respect had already informed me that it was (not to put too fine a point on it) ‘atrocious’, and if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s the promise of a genuinely duff film. And, as frequent visitors will recall, lurking at the back of my mind was the spectral figure of the mysterious individual who went to see The Greatest Showman eight times at the same local cinema in the first few days of its release. I’ve only ever seen The Empire Strikes Back four times at the cinema, for heaven’s sake, and if memory serves the all-time record is held by The Two Towers, on six – and that was over the course of twelve months. So I couldn’t help but be a bit curious about Michael Gracey’s movie.

Depending on how you look at it, this is a feel-good family-friendly musical extravaganza, a carefully-positioned tilt at the awards season from 20th Century Fox, or the first step in Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine movie career. Or it might just be a biopic of the famous American entrepreneur and impressario Phineas T Barnum, albeit one with an especially shaky grip on historicity.

Well, anyway: Phineas Barnum (Jackman, mostly) grows up in abject poverty as a pauper on the streets of New York, but makes enough of a fortune (the film is vague about exactly how) to be able to marry his much-better-off childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), even though they and their inevitable children end up living in fairly limited circumstances. Barnum eventually cons a bank into lending him the money to buy a museum, which is far from a runaway success (the film is characteristically cheery about the fact its protagonist is what is technically known as a massive fraudster).

Barnum refuses to let this get him down, and – acting on advice from his daughters – decides to convert the museum into first a freak show and then a circus, personally headhunting his troupe of midgets, bearded ladies, conjoined twins, morbidly obese gentlemen, and giants. Naturally, this turns Barnum into a roaring success, and allows him to take on a junior partner (Zac Efron). Soon he is rubbing shoulders with the well-off and well-bred, and taking the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, not doing her own singing) on a tour of the States. But is Barnum’s desire to better himself socially in danger of making him forget the really important things in his life?

Counterpointing this, in the sense that it basically hits pretty much an identical set of notes but with different actors, is a subplot about Efron’s character having a bit of a romance with the circus’ trapeze artist (Zendaya Coleman, in a Mollie Sugden wig). He comes from wealth and privilege, and she is African American, which is obviously a problematic combination given the period in which the film is set. Can true love win through?

Well, it may be that some people will be surprised by the manner in which the story of The Greatest Showman eventually resolves itself, but I cannot imagine who they are: members of remote tribes of Papua New Guinea on their first visit to civilisation, perhaps. Then again, it’s not actually a crime for a film to be a touch predictable, and it’s not as if this is the film’s biggest problem.

It may be that you don’t live near a cinema or are otherwise unable to sample what The Greatest Showman has on offer. In this case I offer the following guide to having a broadly similar experience: carve yourself a heroic chunk of the ripest cheese you can lay your hands on, sprinkle it more than liberally with sugar, and then feast away to your heart’s content. The Greatest Showman has no truck with things like subtlety or nuance, it just ploughs through the story with a big happy grin on its face. Barnum’s early life is dealt with so summarily that he starts singing the first big number of the film as a pre-adolescent boy and finishes it as Hugh Jackman, who is rather older (sadly, the song is not a rewrite of one from The Sound of Music entitled ‘I Am Thirteen Going On Fifty’).

The film clearly wants to give the audience a joyous, life-affirming experience so much it hurts, but it makes the fairly elementary mistake of assuming that in order to do so the mood has to be relentlessly up all the time. If you look at the truly great musicals, they all contain a strong element of real pain and darkness, and some quite heavy subject matter. The Greatest Showman makes a vague gesture in this direction but it never really feels as though its heart is in it, to be perfectly honest.

The film’s big theme, to the extent that it actually has one, is the currently-ubiquitous one of inclusion and diversity. Fair enough: it is, as I say, inescapable at the moment. It is, however, surely a slightly odd choice to try and couple this to a story about a man running a freak show, even leaving aside the fact that this diversity-friendly, inclusive movie is one where the two lead characters are a couple of heterosexual white dudes. The mauling that historical fact takes in the process of being adjusted to suit the film’s agenda might be sufficiently brutal to make some viewers call the emergency services.

But now we come to the volta, because I haven’t really touched on The Greatest Showman‘s songs and other musical routines yet. The songs are courtesy of Pasek and Paul, who also did the ones in La La Land, and on paper they seem like a fairly anodyne collection, all with messages about being yourself, following your dreams, choosing your own destiny, and so on. Some of the choreography is a long way sub-Bob Fosse, too. However, I’m beginning to suspect that Hugh Jackman’s own mutant superpower is the ability to sell musical theatre to an audience, because the very least you can say about the songs is that they are pleasant to actually listen to. It’s not quite Hamilton, but this is still contemporary stuff: this only occasionally becomes intrusive and silly, as in the moment when renowned opera singer Jenny Lind commences a concert with a 21st century power ballad.

However, many of the musical numbers are good enough to lift the spirit in the same way as the best moments of classic musicals of the past. I was humming the first big number, ‘A Million Dreams’, all the way home on the bus, for instance. The staging also helps – Jackman and Efron swagger through a duet entitled ‘The Other Side’, and a very decent song is lifted by some brilliant choreography. The songs are really the main reason to even consider watching this movie.

Whether or not the songs are enough to lift The Greatest Showman from the realm of well-meaning cheesiness and give it some credibility is, I suspect, a question everyone will have to answer for themselves. I don’t think this comes anywhere close to the great musicals of the past, but for me the musical numbers were good enough to make the weakness and cheesiness of the rest of the movie excusable. Your mileage may differ, of course, and even I would say that The Greatest Showman is probably more enjoyable as a soundtrack album than an actual movie.

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A venture into a wholly strange and slightly baffling world now, as we launch a new, probably fairly irregular feature, entitled NCJG Goes To Bollywood. Your ability to find proper Bollywood films in the UK is really a bit of a postcode lottery – if you live in a region with a sizeable Asian community, the chances are there will be at least one or two screens at the local multiplex doing a roaring trade in the latest releases (hence their regular presence on the UK box office top ten), but elsewhere the pickings are much slimmer (where I live, you’re more likely to find a Polish movie – Pollywood? – than anything from the subcontinent). I suppose there is always Get Clicks (until they start paying me to endorse them, I’m not using their actual name), but my cursory research suggests most of the Bollywood films available to stream come from the ‘pilloried by the critics’ category.

Let us be thankful, then, for the BFI’s India on Film initiative, which last week brought us Ray’s The Chess Players and this week offers, in a similar vein of cultural outreach, Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film Bombay. My research – once again, pretty cursory – suggests this is considered a bit of a modern classic as far as Indian movies go, with nothing more recent ahead of it in the lists of the best of Bollywood.

Things get underway in rural India as the chunkily moustached Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) returns to visit his family after being away studying journalism in Bombay. His father (Nassar) is a respected man around the village and is on at Shekhar to marry a nice local Hindu girl, so it is a bit awkward when he falls head over heels in love with a local Muslim, Shaila (Manisha Koirala), whose father makes bricks for a living. A couple of banging musical numbers inevitably follow, along with many significant looks between the two, before Shaila gives in to her own heart and the two launch a passionate but also almost entirely chaste love affair.

Naturally, a Hindu-Muslim romance is bound to cause trouble, and when Shekhar approaches Shaila’s dad Bashir (Kitty) to inform her of his marital intentions, Bashir grabs a scimitar and tries to hack him to pieces, which is not the response he was hoping for. Despite the disapproval of both families, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay to begin a new life together. For a while everything seems to be improving, with the two families gradually brought closer together, but as sectarian tensions rise in Bombay, it seems that not even Shekhar and Shaila’s love is safe…

There are obviously many things about a film like Bombay which seem rather strange and alien to a western viewer – cultural things, of course, but also some cinematic conventions. (And the fact that while the film is theoretically subtitled in English, it is a variety of English that seems to have been written with minimal knowledge of the language.) One might even rashly suggest that making a musical romantic drama set against the backdrop of bloody sectarian violence is a bizarre tonal choice, the product of a wholly different perspective. But then if you think about films like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and (if we really must) Absolute Beginners, you can see that they use music and dance to address challenging topics in exactly the same way.

To be perfectly honest, there were rather fewer big musical numbers in Bombay than I was hoping for, and I got the impression the film-makers would like to have included more too: at one point the story just stops and everyone launches into a fairly lavish routine on the thinnest of pretexts, with minimal relevance to the plot, presumably just because that’s what they fancied doing. Elsewhere the songs are incorporated into the story a little more subtly. Before watching this film I was unfamiliar with the Bollywood concept of the ‘item number’, which is a musical interlude featuring stars not appearing elsewhere in the movie, usually included for promotional purposes only. There’s one of those here, a suggestive pop song featuring some belly dancing and MC Hammer-style moves, but it does serve the plot rather neatly – having arrived in Bombay and got wed, Shekhar and Shaila find themselves unable to, ahem, consummate their relationship for several days. When the time comes, proceedings are alluded to by various shots of Shekhar taking off his vest, intercut with the aforementioned suggestive song. The overall effect is rather pleasingly subtle and genuinely mildly erotic.

This is for a given value of subtlety, of course. Bombay is essentially a sentimental melodrama with all of its emotions dialled up to 11 from the start – when Shekhar first catches sight of Shaila (her veil blows out of the way), we get the full slo-mo effect and Indian yodelling on the soundtrack. But you can’t fault the actors’ charisma or commitment – they are an undeniably sweet couple, with Koirala an almost irresistibly winsome screen presence – and, in its early stages at least, the film mixes some genuinely funny lines and business in with the romance subplot. (Shekhar can only speak to Shaila by dressing up as a Muslim woman – fortunately his niqab hides his moustache.)

‘I didn’t come here to be sentimental,’ says one of the characters later on in the film, which is possibly one of the most disingenuous lines in the history of cinema, for you could argue that everyone in Bombay has turned up to be sentimental, most of the time. As long as the film stays light on its feet, though, you kind of indulge it in this. However, the mood grows darker as the film progresses, and real-life events start to impact the narrative. The last third of the film concerns the Bombay riots of late 1992 and early 1993, in which clashes between Hindus and Muslims led to hundreds of deaths. The religious tension which at the start of the film is almost played for laughs – the two fathers can’t have a conversation without one of them reaching for a meat cleaver – becomes deadly serious, and the film basically turns into a deeply heartfelt plea for religious tolerance.

You can’t fault that as a message, I suppose, and given the nature of Bollywood, you shouldn’t be surprised when the film lays it all on a bit thick. But I have to say I found myself shifting in my seat and wanting to glance at my watch as the film approached its end, with many an impassioned speech about all blood being the same colour, and so on (you know, that may have been a song lyric – yes, they have songs in the middle of the rioting).

Bombay is not especially smart, nor is it especially subtle, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be – but I suspect it will stir your emotions and tug at your heartstrings, whatever your background, assuming you surrender to its considerable charms. It’s not as if sentimental melodramas don’t frequently do very well in Anglophone cinema, is it? Anyway: this is a thoroughly enjoyable film for most of its duration, with a worthy message passionately delivered. Probably a very good choice of sampler for the whole Bollywood experience.

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It is with some relief that I turn away from the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the trenches, and anti-semitic pogroms in the last days of Tsarist Russia, and instead apply my attention to musical which is – everyone agrees – almost completely charming and lovely, provided you overlook a few minor elements of the story, such as widescale exploitation of children, violent crime, and an abusive relationship ending in someone being battered to death. At least the anti-semitism this time around is fairly low-key, probably because the gentleman who wrote all the music and lyrics was himself Jewish.

I speak of course of Carol Reed’s 1968 film Oliver!, the last musical for nearly 35 years to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the last British film to do so until Chariots of Fire in 1981. Despite this, and the fact it has a British cast and director, it still feels like an oddly Americanised version of Charles Dickens, on whose novel Oliver Twist it is obviously based.

oliver

The film admits to being a ‘free adaptation’ of Dickens, but most of the bits you probably know from the book are still here (yes, both of them). Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, consistently moist throughout and frequently downright wet) has grown up in a workhouse in Dunstable, but is thrown out when he dares to ask for second helpings after dinner one day. After a brief interval working for an undertaker, he hitch-hikes down to London.

Here he falls into arguably very bad company, primarily that of Fagin (Ron Moody) and his gang of child pickpockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Amongst Fagin’s connections is the rather more brutal criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), whose devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) nevertheless takes a shine to the small damp waif. When Oliver falls back into the hands of the authorities, Sikes and Fagin are deeply concerned he may be about to snitch on the lot of them, and their scheme to get him back results in tragedy, as well as a few top-rate song and dance numbers…

Mmm, yes, about those song and dance numbers – there is surely the argument to be made that when it comes to musical films, the overall quality of the actual piece is fundamentally linked to how good the songs are – the tunes are, essentially, the sine qua non of a musical, right? If this is the case, then Oliver! is surely one of the greatest musicals of all time, for the killer-to-filler ratio is so good as to lend credence to the suggestion that Lionel Bart (writer of same) was some kind of musical genius. The problem, such as it is, is really that the film-makers know how good the songs are and possibly milk them just a bit too much. The film’s huge set-piece numbers, primarily ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy?’, seem to go on forever, with more and more dancers turning up as the choruses repeat. And I find it just a bit draining, not to mention the fact that it’s a Disney-picture-book-ish portrait of Victorian London (I can’t quite shake the suspicion everyone involved was sneakily looking at Mary Poppins and working out how to go one bigger and better).

It’s all a bit at odds with the main thrust of the tale, which (as noted) is an essentially dark one (the climactic chase puts me rather in mind of how some Hammer movies conclude, although this may be down to Reed’s long-standing connection to the House of Horror). The most engaging characters in the film, Fagin and the Dodger, are at best amoral rogues, and the scenes in the criminal netherworld are a good deal more interesting than the ones in ‘respectable’ London. But the songs aren’t really about this world, apart from perhaps ‘You Got To Pick A Pocket or Two’, and even this is another cheery little number. Cut from the film, quite possibly because Oliver Reed couldn’t sing, was Bill Sikes’ song ‘My Name’, and as a result Reed has to rely on sheer charisma to make an impression (needless to say, he manages it effortlessly).

The odd tension at the heart of Oliver! is that the theme of what’s quite a dark story is one of belonging and camaraderie – most of the songs are either about the pleasure and comfort of being part of a gang, or part of a world (most obviously ‘Consider Yourself’), or the other side of the coin, feeling lonely and abandoned (‘Where is Love’, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’). Even the utterly brilliant comic character song, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ (which, as performed by Moody, is just about as perfect a marriage of actor and material as anything in the history of musical cinema) has a brief moment of pathos as Fagin contemplates his own mortality and lonely old age.

In the end, though, this is ultimately cinema as grand entertainment, mounted on a lavish scale (complete with overture, entr’acte, and exit music on its original release), and the songs from the original much more intimate stage version of the show thrive here surprisingly well, helped by a very strong cast and great performances (even if, these days, you can’t really watch Jack Wild here without being reminded of everything else that came later in his life). For me there just a bit too much emphasis on jolly spectacle at the expense of the story for Oliver! to qualify as a movie absolutely of the first rank, but it’s still a great piece of entertainment.

 

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There comes a time in every film reviewer’s life when he realises that, having set out to write a series on notable musicals from years gone by, the films actually at his disposal are not exactly a representative bunch: tending towards darkness in their tone, arguably Euro-centric, and mostly hailing from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. What can I say? The Sound of Music isn’t on Netflix, and anyway, that one’s about the Anschluss and has nearly as many Nazis in it as Cabaret.

Let’s briefly step away from musicals about the rise of authoritarianism and the insidious creep of prejudice and move on to the lighter subject of… oh. The First World War. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. Oh! What a Lovely War was made in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough (his first time in the big chair) and, nearly as interestingly, produced and written by the noted novelist and chef Len Deighton. The project began as a stage production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and the theatrical origins of the film are fairly apparent to the discerning viewer.

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The film’s main conceit is to present the First World War (or, as it’s slightly jarringly described here, World War One) as a sea-side attraction on a pier in Brighton. Field Marshal Haig (John Mills) is manning the turnstyle, handing out tickets to the families eagerly crowding in, most prominently the Smiths, who are the main points of audience identification. Within the pavilion on the pier, more distinguished figures gather – initially heads of state and foreign ministers, later the senior staff of the army.

Initially the tone is cheery and playful, no doubt intended to reflect the enormous public enthusiasm for the war during its early stages, but as the initial battles occur the film grows darker and more sombre, as it continues to do throughout the film. We are surely all aware of the grim progress of the war: a labyrinth of trenches stretching from the Alps to the coast, and slaughter on an almost industrial scale as the commanders settled on a policy of victory through attrition.

So, you may possibly be wondering, where are all the songs? Well, they are present, but one of the things that makes Oh! What a Lovely War a bit of an outlier as musicals go is the fact that it is mainly built around period songs – the popular music of the war itself, with numbers like ‘Who put the Kibosh on the Kaiser?’, ‘The Bells of Hell go Ding-a-ling’ and ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’. These are not the stuff of conventional musical theatre – they’re not strictly speaking ‘I am’ or ‘I want’ songs as they are conventionally understood, and their role in the film is equally ambiguous. They’re not exactly there solely to create atmosphere, but neither do they really advance the plot much.

Not that there really is much of a plot, of course, just a series of vignettes, some strikingly naturalistic, others surreal, detailing the course of the war. One consequence of this is that the Smith family, whom we are supposed to identify with, never quite come to life as people despite being portrayed by some very fine actors (Maurice Roeves, Angela Thorne and Corin Redgrave amongst them).

Rather more striking are the film’s cutaway scenes, generally surreal, featuring other characters – and here Richard Attenborough was clearly able to call upon all his resources as a fixer and a movie star in his own right, for the cast list of this movie is virtually a who’s who of great British actors of the period. The only major performer who seems to have eluded his net is Alec Guinness – the opening scene alone features Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Kenneth More, Ian Holm, and Jack Hawkins. Appearing elsewhere are Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, most of the rest of the Redgrave family, and Maggie Smith (vamping it up a bit as a music hall singer). Apparently, Attenborough managed to secure his stellar cast after Olivier agreed to work ‘to scale’ (i.e., for the minimum actor’s union wage), effectively obliging all of his peers to do the same.

These days the prevailing narrative of the First World War is well-established – four years of mud, blood, and futility, the death-spasm of the great empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, with clueless soldiers massacred by unfeeling, remote generals. I was about to say that Oh! What a Lovely War adheres quite closely to this view, but then I wonder if it didn’t to some extent embed it in the public consciousness? It is an extremely vivid and powerful piece of film-making, especially in its fantasy sequences. It is eviscerating as far as the generals and upper classes are concerned, but never less than profoundly sympathetic to the lower classes. Jeremy Paxman and others have argued that this line of thinking is a disservice to history and the people involved in the war, but it’s a tough fable to shift, especially when it’s promoted as effectively as happens here.

(And, unfortunately, still resonant in some ways: one sequence has Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a working-class crowd, speaking out in favour of ending the war, doing so in an educated, progressive manner. And, of course, the crowd turns on her, repelled by her arrogance and condescension and perceived lack of patriotism. It occurred to me you could change the words, but the tunes would still serve very well for a film about the British vote to leave Europe, or the rise to power of Trump.)

For a downbeat film with not very much in the way of characters or genuine plot, Oh! What a Lovely War is arguably rather too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it does contain many moments of brilliant cinematic invention, and some extremely powerful images – the final shot, a zoom out by the camera to reveal a seemingly-endless field of crosses, each one marking a grave (I believe 15,000 were used, and this was done as a practical effect) is haunting. Probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, but still a powerful and important movie.

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I almost feel the need to apologise for the recent tendency of the writing here or hereabouts to dwell on some fairly repugnant topics: there has been quite a lot about prejudice and particularly anti-semitism, of one form or another, in the last couple of weeks. Weirdly enough, I think this may be linked to the fact that I have been looking at a lot of film musicals recently. As I have said in the past, while you might automatically assume that musicals are the most frivolous and escapist of forms, the fact is that it’s often these films that allow us to consider the most serious ideas and darkest material in an accessible way.

So, on to some more anti-semitism set to a catchy tune, in the form of Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret, which I am tempted to describe as coming at the tail end of the era of the classic Hollywood musical (even though this film was made in Germany with a largely local cast). This seems to me to be a slightly peculiar film in many different ways – it was, for example, the first musical to receive an X certificate from the censor (hard to believe these days), and, in terms of the Oscars, the most honoured film not to receive the award for Best Picture.

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The film is set in Germany in 1931, towards the end of the Weimar Republic. Arriving in the city is the diffident and reserved English academic Brian Roberts (Michael York), studying for his PhD and teaching English to make ends meet (well, it can’t be a vocation for everyone, I suppose). Lodging in the same house is another expat, the American Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), who dreams of stardom while performing as a singer and dancer at the decadent and sleazy Kit Kat Klub. After a few false starts, the two embark upon a relationship, but Sally’s ambitions, unrealistic though they perhaps are, continue to be an issue. Meanwhile, in the background, German society becomes harsher and darker as the Nazi movement grows in strength and influence.

The thing you first notice, watching Cabaret, is that it is practically the antithesis of the sung-through musical (a production like Evita or Les Miserables featuring no spoken dialogue whatsoever) – I might even go so far as to describe this as a drama with occasional songs, rather than full-blown musical in its own right. The second thing is connected to this, and it’s that Cabaret is, for want of a better expression, a diegetic musical. Virtually every other famous musical is non-diegetic (they are, to quote my mum, ‘where’s the orchestra?’ musicals) – characters spontaneously burst into song as they go about their lives, and no-one seems especially surprised by this (indeed, the supporting artists often join in the choruses and dance routines). Cabaret has a different approach and a different structure, for – with the exception of the chilling ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – all the songs are staged as musical performances at the Kit Kat Klub, and are mostly either character songs by Minelli, or reflections of or commentaries on the plot by the Klub’s Master of Ceremonies (a remarkable performance by Joel Grey). As a result, Cabaret is surely the only musical where the leading man doesn’t sing a word (although Michael York’s brand of fresh-faced, impeccably-cheekboned earnestness is effectively deployed), while the main male singer (Grey) doesn’t really participate in the main plot at all.

The result is that the musical routines have an unsettling, almost claustrophobic quality, tinged as they are by the atmosphere of the club: smoky, decadent, reeking of moral turpitude. If we’re going to look for a metaphor in this film (and why not?), it could be that the collapse in values on display in the club is intended to reflect that of wider German society at the time, thus creating a dangerous moral vacuum in which the Nazi ideology was able to establish itself.

Possibly somewhat at odds with this interpretation of the film is the fact that Sally herself is a fairly amoral character herself, and yet we are supposed to connect with and care for her as the story proceeds. If this happens at all, it’s because of Liza Minelli’s enormous vulnerability and heart as a performer, as well as her chops as a singer and dancer. It may just be that I’ve met a few too many real-life Sally Bowleses – vivacious, charming individuals, whose hedonism and self-centredness nevertheless mean they often leave emotional devastation in their wake – and this made me slightly wary of the character to begin with. Certainly, I found the personal drama of the relationship between Brian and Sally and the various other people they encounter – most prominently Helmut Griem as a wealthy playboy who initiates an odd love triangle with the couple – to be less compelling than the subplot about the gradual encroachment of Nazism.

Then again, I suppose that one of the points the film is trying to make is that the Nazis were able to seize power largely because people either didn’t pay them much attention or didn’t take them seriously if they did, being much too concerned with other things. The film is generally understated in this area, though still effective, and the moment when the increasingly-malevolent MC’s performance of a seemingly absurd comic song (‘If You Could See Her’) is revealed to be a repugnant piece of anti-semitic propaganda is genuinely shocking.

I’ve watched Cabaret a couple of times and while I think it’s a well-made and thoughtful film, I find it quite difficult to warm to. Perhaps this is because of its studied amorality and cynicism, in comparison to the genuine emotion and sympathetic characters to be found in most other musicals. As I say, I’m not sure it’s really a true musical, but the presence of the songs means it’s hardly a conventional drama either. Still, it’s an iconic movie with many effective moments in it.

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