Yankee Doodle Dandy
A singing and dancing James Cagney did indeed run counter to his image as a tough guy, but he applied so much of that all-American vigor of his to the role of composer, singer and dancer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) that he turned the job everyone knew Fred Astaire had turned down into one of his most dynamic performances. And scored an Oscar to boot.
As for Fred Astaire himself, watch just about any number in Broadway Melody of 1940 and you'll swear he actually was lighter than air. The storyline? Laughable, of course, but oddly enough, that's one of the film's charms. If this GreenCine favorite whets your appetite for more of Astaire's graces, try You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and Silk Stockings (1957).
Singin' in the Rain (1952) is par for the course, naturally, but for more of Gene Kelly's mighty choreographic envelope-pushing, head out On the Town (1949). Then, for a shift in pace, sample the mature Kelly in Les Girls (1957).
For those who favor singing over dancing, two Bing Crosby musicals are certainly noteworthy: Pennies From Heaven (1936) carries a lot of Depression-era baggage while High Society (1956), a reworking of Philip Barry's play The Philadelphia Story - yes, that one - is one helluva a swanky affair with its Cole Porter tunes and that famous duet with Frank Sinatra.
Riffing on the Classics
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Jacques Demy. Let's put it this way. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) have both made a few GreenCiners' lists and are both rated somewhere around 8 out 10 around here. Take a hint if you haven't already.
When it comes to rock musicals, there have probably been a lot more misses than hits. A lot. Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) is rather fascinating, actually, for the overblown 70s-ness of it all, but The Who's next stab at the genre, Quadrophenia (1979), is more to the point. That other quintessentially 70s rock musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), takes a 60s argument for the overthrow of 50s American values to a Warholian extreme: Yes, even rock-n-roll must die; Pop will eat itself indeed. Pink Floyd wasn't listening, but was off rehashing its spiel in The Wall (1982). And then, perhaps the most charming revisionist rendering of the 60s was Milos Forman's, particularly when he decided to have Twyla Tharp choreograph his take on Hair (1979).
Besides the recent fun being had abroad with the conventions of the musical - in the tradition of Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman (1960) - in films such as 8 Women (2002) and The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), Lars von Trier plays a more serious game in Dancer in the Dark (1999) where the cameras are just as light-footed as the players.
Suggestions for further clicking and reading...
The Bright Lights Film Journal has collected all its "Music and Musicals" articles on one handy page.
In Senses of Cinema: Peter Kemp examines the image of Julie Andrews in "How Do You Solve a 'Problem' Like Maria von Poppins?"; Caroline E. Layde on Jacques Demy; David Sterritt on a little-examined subgenre, the rock musical as art film; and Martha P. Nochimson on Betty Grable.
Roy Hemming's The Melody Lingers On: The Great Songwriters and Their Movie Musicals not only traces the careers of the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, the book also describes what went on in their musicals' journey from Broadway to Hollywood.
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