It’s that time of year when the weather is starting to get warmer,
things are blossoming, and people are generally happier. Though, while
most folks may not actually break into song in real life, it happens all
the time in movies, whether they’re happy, sad, or even blaming Canada.
This week, a wide-ranging batch of musical and music-related films helps
celebrate these and other high-spirited moods.
Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) was not well received
in its day, but it was a hit and is still a unique comedy musical.
Altman’s laid-back observational direction really helps bring the
seaside sets to life, both heightening and stripping away the
artificiality. Harry Nilsson composed the sweet, silly songs (like “He’s
Large”) and cartoonist Jules Feiffer wrote the offbeat screenplay. Robin
Williams makes a great Popeye, using his comic gifts to perfectly
imitate the cartoon character, but Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl is one of
the great casting achievements in history.
The Muppet Movie
After their success on the small screen with a
hilarious combination of vaudeville and self-aware humor, Jim Henson’s
creatures made their incredible big screen debut with The Muppet Movie
(1979). The jokes are great, the visual effects—fully, upright,
walking Muppets—are impressive, the guest stars (Steve Martin,
Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Orson Welles, and so on) are stellar. But Paul
Williams’ music is the highlight, ranging from Dr. Teeth and the
Electric Mayhem’s “Can You Picture That” to Fozzie Bear’s “Movin’ Right
Along” and Kermit’s Oscar-nominated “The Rainbow Connection.”
Though Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain is considered the
greatest musical of all time, his follow-up effort, Funny Face (1957),
starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, is even more colorful and
inventive in its own way. Astaire plays a Richard Avedon-like fashion
photographer who discovers a bookish beauty (Hepburn) during a shoot in
a bookshop. Some of the fashion shoot sequences are astounding in their
depth, color, and design, but Hepburn outshines them all. Despite the
fact that Astaire was about 30 years older than Hepburn, their classy
chemistry still seemed just right.
Boccaccio ’70 (expiring 4/11)
Though Boccaccio ’70 (1962) isn’t a musical, it
features another of the 20th century’s most radiantly beautiful stars,
Sophia Loren, singing a catchy little number called “Soldi, Soldi,
Soldi,” that will win your heart with its adorable, feisty energy. She
stars in a segment directed by Vittorio De Sica about a beautiful
carnival worker who, each night, is the “prize” in a lottery entered by
eager men. The other three segments in this Italian anthology film were
directed by Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Mario Monicelli.
Everyone knows that, with a few exceptions, Elvis Presley’s
movies were not exactly the high point of his career—or of musicals in
general. But there’s no denying the King’s charisma when he sings, and
that’s often good enough. In the relaxing, open-aired Blue Hawaii
(1961), Elvis (at top) plays an ex-military man who returns home to Hawaii, where
he’s pressured to work in his family’s pineapple plant. But he’d rather
play on the beach with his friends. Fortunately, his girlfriend comes up
with a solution for another job. Songs include “Can’t Help Falling in
Love” and the incredible “Rock-a-Hula Baby.”
Rock ’n’ Roll High School
Rock ’n’ Roll changed quite a bit in twenty
years, and when the Ramones hit the big screen in Rock ’n’ Roll High
School (1979), things had sped up and become a whole lot more fun. The
movie focuses on a teen Ramones fan (P.J. Soles) trying to negotiate
high school under a strict new principal (Mary Woronov) while getting
ready for the big Ramones concert. The band recorded the song “Rock ’n’
Roll High School” especially for the occasion. Future director Joe Dante
and John Ford biographer Joseph McBride both worked on the screenplay.
The great Roger Corman produced.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog
Often, musicals can be weird, odd, and
totally unexpected, such as Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
(2008). Conceived during a writer’s strike, Whedon created the story as
a three-part miniseries to be released via the internet. (It’s now
available in one 43-minute movie.) Neil Patrick Harris plays the
good-hearted supervillain who wants two things: to join the League of
Evil, and to date a cute girl from the local laundromat (Felicia Day).
Unfortunately, the arrogant, selfish superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan
Fillion) gets in his way. Occasionally, characters break into funny,
sweet songs, though the story does not quite go where you might expect.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
If Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
isn’t one of the darkest musicals ever made, Trey Parker’s South Park:
Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) may well be. It’s a fearless satire about
a filthy movie that causes Americans to declare war on Canada. It takes
aim and skewers many sacred cows and hot topics with genuine laughs.
And, yes, it’s a musical. The song “Blame Canada” actually received an
Oscar nomination! George Clooney and Brent Spiner provide voices, and
Minnie Driver plays the voice of Brooke Shields.
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (expiring 4/1)
The lovely and talented
Sarah Silverman provides more irreverent humor in her one-woman concert
film, performance piece, and musical, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
(2005). Based on masterful timing and booby-trapped delivery, her humor
knows no bounds, hitting on 9/11, the Holocaust, sex, and just about
anything else. Interspersed between sections of her stand-up act, she
performs several sketches and musical numbers. They may not be polished,
but they’re certainly enthusiastic and truthful.
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (expiring 4/11)
Tim Irwin’s We
Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005), about the great 1980s punk
rock band from San Pedro, California, is one of the best rock movies
ever made. Celebrating the band’s short, meteoric career, this
passionate, energetic film highlights the history of the band, including
the creation of its 1984 landmark album Double Nickels on the Dime.
More than that, however, the film captures the genuine friendship and
adoration between the band’s genius leader, D. Boon (who died in a car
crash in 1985) and bassist Mike Watt. Watt’s onscreen interviews are
surprisingly heartfelt and elevate this to a level way beyond the usual