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Why Modern Movie Musicals Need Better Directors ASAP

Why Modern Movie Musicals Need Better Directors ASAP

Jersey Boys” might have been the Broadway hit of the year in 2005, but Clint Eastwood’s film isn’t making too many waves at the box office. Most critics haven’t been too enthused either, and not without reason. The appeal of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s show was that the audience could get swept up in live performances of songs they knew and loved, and that they could sing and dance along. You can’t really do that in the movie theater unless “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is playing, and the fun (if slight) jukebox musical is turned into a tired music biopic about a bunch of guys who had personal problems, stopped liking each other, and, oh, by the way, also sang some first-rate tunes.

Even if “Jersey Boys” absolutely had to be turned into a movie, Eastwood’s style is totally at odds with the material. The film retains the same desaturated palette that’s been Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern’s look of choice since “Mystic River,” a bad fit for a musical that should pop off the screen (consider the look of Tom Hanks’s directorial debut “That Thing You Do!”). Even when Eastwood shoots for blatant artificiality with fake sets, Old Hollywood-style gangsters and fourth-wall breaks, his somber style sits on the damn movie, draining it of the energy it had on stage.

But here’s the thing: Not counting films starring the Muppets, it’s the best (and best-directed) live-action movie musical in nearly a decade.

Eastwood is the wrong director for “Jersey Boys,” but he’s still Clint Eastwood, a classicist with a real sense for images that are memorable without being fussy. On top of that, Eastwood himself is a very musical director (let’s ignore his previous outing starring in a musical, the disastrous “Paint Your Wagon”): his love of jazz is best exemplified by his Charlie Parker biopic “Bird,” but music also helps drive genre efforts like “Play Misty for Me” and prestige films like “Mystic River.”  With “Jersey Boys,” Eastwood’s confident, un-showy compositions and precise edits serve the musical performances beautifully, even if the inappropriate gray-tone ultimately muffles them.

That’s more than what can be said for most of its contemporaries. The last musical adaptation that had the exuberance the genre required was Tim Burton’s take on “Sweeney Todd,” where Burton’s lurching camera, gothic sensibility and expressive use of blood perfectly fit the Stephen Sondheim show’s morbid wit and gorgeous melodies. Sure, Johnny Depp and company don’t have vocal gusto or the musical ability to do Sondheim’s tricky songs justice, but the assurance of the filmmaking and the actors’ expressive performances mostly made up for it.

Since then, there have been four major Broadway shows adapted into films: Phyllida Lloyd’s “Mammia Mia!,” Adam Shankman’s “Rock of Ages,” Rob Marshall’s “Nine,” and, most successfully, Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables.” The first two are jukebox musicals featuring cheesy pop hits, while the others are based off highly-acclaimed musicals that themselves are adaptations of beloved works of art by Victor Hugo and Federico Fellini, respectively. They all have one thing in common: totally inept direction.

Lloyd directed the original stage production of “Mamma Mia!,” but her film was characterized by clumsy staging and a slapdash, thrown-together quality. Shankman took an already tacky show off the stage and turned it into an ugly, overlit nightmare. Marshall’s “Nine” expanded on the flaws of his inexplicably-acclaimed botch of “Chicago” by showing zero imagination on how to stage the fantasy/song sequences and shooting and editing the musical numbers in a way that made it difficult to tell what the hell was going on. And Hooper’s much-derided over-reliance on fisheye-lensed close-ups of actors staring into the camera turned what should have been a moving experience into a visually incoherent disaster, while his editing of the “One Day More” sequence is so arbitrary that it makes one wonder why he didn’t just follow the example of Robert Wise in the “West Side Story” number “Tonight Quintet.”

Most of the immediate predecessors of “Sweeney Todd” are equally lousy, from Bill Condon’s slick, soulless adaptation of “Dreamgirls” to Chris Columbus’s laughable version of “Rent,” from the mediocre film of “The Producers” to Joel Schumacher’s schlocky “The Phantom of the Opera.” The only great musicals of the 2000s other than “Todd” were Lars von Trier’s devastating “Dancer in the Dark,” Baz Luhrmann’s intoxicating “Moulin Rouge!,” John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and Francois Ozon’s still underseen “8 Women,” all of which are over a decade old. Spike Lee filmed a terrific performance of “Passing Strange” in 2009, but it’s clearly a performance-driven film more than a cinematic one. The only filmmakers to direct more than one musical in the past decade are Rob Marshall and Adam Shankman, neither of whom can do justice to “Chicago” or “Hairspray.” It isn’t as if most recent musicals written directly for the screen have turned out much better, either (“Burlesque,” anyone?).

What’s happened to the movie musical? Why is it that the only directors who seem interested in making them are the ones who don’t have the formal chops to pull them off? In a world where there are still action and horror specialists, where are our musical specialists? Where are our Vincente Minnellis and Stanley Donens? Is it too much to ask for a modern Charles Walters or Busby Berkeley, or at least a Mark Sandrich? Can we get a Bob Fosse disciple who shares Fosse’s innate understanding of editing musical sequences to the rhythm of the song, rather than Rob Marshall’s seemingly arbitrary cuts and poor simulacrum of Fosse’s style?

There are a few reasons why modern formalists might shy away from working on musicals. Maybe they see the average length of Broadway shows (2 1/2 to 3 hours) and don’t want to risk the bloat of the late-60s musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot.” Maybe it’s the absence of studio backing for original musicals outside of Disney animated hits like “Tangled” or “Frozen.” Or are there too many stage musicals based off of films or popular songwriters? Maybe there aren’t enough modern equivalents to Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers or Judy Garland has made it difficult to churn out great musicals on a regular basis.

That last bit might have a lot to do with it: Few movie stars have the song-and-dance skills required to knock a musical out of the park, and not all musical theater performers have the charisma required for the camera. That leaves a lot of directors to choose between Russell Crowe and Pierce Brosnan warbling their way through well-known songs or John Lloyd Young, the original star of “Jersey Boys,” who reprised his role in Eastwood’s film, showing up and singing beautifully — but lacking the fire to keep Frankie Valli interesting when he’s not singing. There is a third option of pulling a Marni Nixon and dubbing Michael Cerveris singing over Johnny Depp or Patti LuPone over Helena Bonham Carter, but then you’ve got a star’s ego to deal with.

Still, it’s hard to believe that a genre that’s provided venerable classics like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “All That Jazz” can be completely dead. There are too many directors with a strong sense of how to use music in film for me to believe that not a one of them couldn’t make at least one good musical. There are too many great lyricists and musicians in musical theater whose work remains untapped for film (Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Robert Lopez). There have to be at least of a couple of proven musical acting talents who can hold the screen other than Anna Kendrick and Neil Patrick Harris.

Indiewire’s staff suggested a few possible adaptations that might be suited for screen, and while I can’t get on board with all of them – I’d love a David Lynch musical, but “Cats” should be dropped into a deep, dark hole and never be spoken of again – many of them are sound.

Why not hire someone as visually playful as Edgar Wright or Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to take on “Avenue Q” or “The Book of Mormon” (though I expect writer/directors Trey Parker and Matt Stone might want to take a crack at that one themselves)? Why not let Spike Jonze tap back into the inventive, anarchic spirit of his music video past for “Spring Awakening”? He’s already proven with his videos for “It’s Oh So Quiet” and “Weapon of Choice” that he can direct bodies in motion better than anyone who’s directed a musical recently.

How about a musical directed by Paul Thomas Anderson? Maybe he could be the guy to finally crack Sondheim’s “Company” for the screen. James Bobin’s fleeting direction of the musical scenes in “The Muppets” shows that he’s got potential, so maybe he’d like to try a full-on live-action musical sometime — “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” perhaps? Jacob Krupnick proved with “Girl Walk//All Day” that he knows how to film dancing, so how about giving him a shot with a dance-heavy musical like “Crazy for You”? 

Steven Spielberg recently expressed interest in directing a remake of “West Side Story.” The world probably doesn’t need an update on Robert Wise’s already terrific version, but how about a Spielberg-directed “Parade,” which would fit right into Spielberg’s thematic interests in man’s lack of empathy for others?

At any rate, the genre’s in need of fixing, or at least of directors who know how to frame a shot correctly. It might take the success of that musical Steve McQueen wants to make, which will hopefully happen sooner than later. We’re too late to save Sondheim’s superlative “Into the Woods” from the terrible instincts of Rob Marshall and apparent Disney-ification — but it isn’t too late to save the movie musical.

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