A “Best of” list for 2007? Too much to ask. I surely haven’t had the opportunity to see every good or even great film released in the past year, never mind digest them. It was a year of a great many things at the movies. I laughed and whooped through Edgar Wright’s comedy-actioner Hot Fuzz (more than once); I tried not to breathe too loudly at a screening of Philip Gröning’s meditative documentary Into Great Silence. I had my expectations met, exceeded, or disappointed by the flicks I chose to see; I overpaid for refreshments and remembered to shut off my cell phone; I have no desire to sum up twelve months of moviegoing with a list that I will inevitably grow to regret. So in lieu of that, I’ll zero in on one genre – the musical – and the welcome growth I saw in it this year.
For decades the movie musical has been a rare bird, topping the list of genres least likely to be coming to a theater near you. With few musicals being produced, and fewer still gaining success commercially or otherwise, the genre has been routinely derided as dormant, archaic, or dead. And so the true movie musical aficionado (a label that I am more than happy to cop to) has been the repertory cinema rat and the borrower of obscure VHS tapes from the library, the treasure hunter keeping a keen eye on Turner Classic Movies’ monthly schedule. I won’t say that this past year changed all of that. It grows tiresome to point to the success or failure of each big screen musical as indicative of the revival or decline of the whole of the art form. But I will say that 2007 turned out to be an uncharacteristically happy, healthy, and innovative year for first-run movie musicals. And what’s more, the genre’s successes came in all shapes, a thrilling testament to the musical’s versatility.
Once, the small Irish film written and directed by John Carney, deserves all of the praise it has received. A scaled-back, realistic(!) love story told through music, Once is both human and haunting. Glen Hansard (from the rock group The Frames) and young Czech singer-pianist Markéta Irglová star as an unnamed pair of musicians whose chance meeting on the streets of Dublin begets a fruitful collaboration. No production numbers here, but Carney knows that there’s poetry in the day-to-day. Irglová’s late night quest for more AA batteries (she’s exhausted her supply listening to Hansard’s demo CD on her discman) has stuck with me longer than many a sequined spectacle. Once was a surprise hit in a summer rife with – well, the types of flicks that summer is always rife with these days – and it’s wonderful to see a refreshingly intimate and honest piece of filmmaking get its due.
Where Once nails the spare and the bittersweet, Adam Shankman’s adaptation of the stage hit Hairspray (itself an adaptation of the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, following the film-to-stage musical-to-film musical road already traversed by Little Shop of Horrors and The Producers, not to mention Ninotchka/Silk Stockings) is willfully big and buoyant, gloriously unashamed of its glossy fabulousness. Shankman choreographed the cult-cool musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a few years back, and Hairspray brims with the same affection and chutzpah that made that project an unexpected touchstone. There’s an able and wonderful cast, lead by newcomer Nikki Blonsky as our heroine Tracy Turnblad, and in their hands the big numbers come off great. The performances outside of those setpieces hold up as well; this isn’t one of those pictures where the actors seem only to be dutifully marking time in between songs, but rather a fully-realized comedy whose characters happen to have a propensity to belt it out.
Of course the Waters original will always have more cred as a satire, but Shankman’s film couches some nice critical wit in its sugary sweet shell. The outsider is celebrated, big becomes beautiful, and racism and segregation are pointedly mocked. All of this in a film that never stops feeling like an extra helping of dessert. Back in July, Owen Gleiberman speculated that the “fizzy and delirious” flick had a fair shot at being “the happiest movie of the summer.” And you know something? That’s a perfectly respectable title for a film to hold. Onscreen joyfulness needn’t be so underrated, particularly if it can be as infectious as this.
Not that a successful musical is required to be bubbly, like Hairspray, or gentle, like Once. That brings us to Tim Burton and Sweeney Todd. Announcing its grim presence with a stunning organ blast, Sweeney Todd is all rough edges and sudden jolts, spurting blood and seething anger. Until now the Hammer-homaging Sleepy Hollow was really Burton’s only horror film proper, his other pictures oft-populated by creeps and monsters but short on gory eviscerations. With Sweeney Todd, though, Burton has certainly tapped into something very horrific indeed. It’s a charnel house of a film that understands too well the dangers of rage and despair. And yes, most of it is carried by song. Burton’s favorite leading man, Johnny Depp, proves more than capable in his first singing part, seizing the risky role and holding nothing back. (Incidentally, Depp’s singing was most winkingly dubbed in 1990’s Cry Baby a musical directed by&hellip John Waters.) We’re used to seeing Burton cast Depp as the beleaguered innocent, from his iconic turn in Edward Scissorhands on, and that only makes his villainy here that much starker. So much as we feel his pain, we can’t disagree when Todd intones, “We all deserve to die/Even you Mrs. Lovett/Even I.” It’s a troubling film, not easily forgotten, and it promises to be one of the movies of 2007 that I will most assuredly revisit in 2008, and thereafter.
I won’t credit any one of these films – or Julie Taymor’s flawed-but-intriguing Across the Universe, or Disney’s cute bonbon Enchanted – with bringing the musical roaring back as a genre. Who knows what the future holds? But each succeeds most memorably on its own terms, and that’s plenty enough for a movie musical aficionado who’s been looking for a reason to sing.