With Damien Chazelle’s gorgeously dreamy La La Land – starring Ryan Gosling as an aspiring jazz pianist and Emma Stone as a struggling actress in LA – just around the corner, let’s take a look at some fantastic post-2000 Hollywood musical films. The genre, of course, differs from our ‘natural’ desi musicals (in which song-and-dance is narratively ingrained), in that song-and-dance in films of the West is more of a glorified Broadway rendition that relies on us knowing/enjoying the extent of exaggeration. And more often than not, their USP is: their actors train, acquire a new skill set, and become actual singers/dancers on the set; the voices you hear will be theirs, the music you hear will be theirs. The same for their music-oriented biopics (Ray, Walk The Line, Amadeus). There’ve been a legacy of great musicals: Singin’ In The Rain, The Wizard of Oz, Grease, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, High Society, Fiddler on the Roof and The Lion King.
Here are some of the finest of the last 15 years:
MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann, who had already made one of my favorite adaptations of all time (Romeo + Juliet, 1996), returned with a trail-blazing “pseudo-pastiche jukebox” musical (Wikipedia’s description, not mine) set in Paris’ famous Montmatre cabaret club. It tells an infectiously energetic and doomed story about a young writer (Ewan McGregor) falling in love with the club’s top performer (Nicole Kidman). Luhrmann designed his colorful film, inspired by an unnamed 3.5 hour Bollywood comedy-action-thriller-drama he had once watched in India, deciding to infuse the Western style of storytelling with an absurdly over-the-top moodiness. To date, this remains one of my earliest experiences of a contemporary Hollywood musical – and the one I will always remember for opening the doors to my understanding an entire genre.
Two in a year for Hollywood musicals – after Moulin Rouge’s 8 Oscar nominations, Chicago went on up and won 6 awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta Jones (as Velma), who plays one of two singing-star murderers in the 1920s. The other is Renee Zellweger, in this movie adaptation of a relatively unsuccessful Broadway show (1975), and an extremely successful show revival in the 1990s. Chicago was remarkable for its genuinely good stage performances by both actresses and Richard Gere (a sly lawyer), who finally completed the comeback of the old-fashioned, dazzling world of loud musicals into American cinema.
One of the more underrated musicals of the noughties, this Chris Columbus-directed, New York-based film is based on an immensely popular Broadway play of the same name – about Manhattan’s Bohemian lifestyle in the 80s, and a bunch of diverse and affected youngsters navigating their way through this period. Rosaria Dawson plays one half of an HIV-positive, heroin-addicted couple. You’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more depressing ‘cheery’ musical about the tough life. Even when I think back now, all I remember is the dark East Village streets and a whole lot of desperation and singsong sadness.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)
Julie Taymor’s wonderful contemporary celebration of the Beatles’ music stars Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood in a typical Englishman-in-New-York underdog story, centered and plotted around all the songs and the songs’ ‘characters’ (Sadie, Lucy, Jude, Prudence) of the famous Liverpool band. Again, this is centered around a Bohemian New York enclave in the 60s, piecing in events like the Vietnam War, protests and deportation into its very innovative timeline. The two leads, as well as the supporting actors, do a great job of ‘re-singing’ some very precious classics.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
Perhaps the darkest and most twisted musical in recent times, this appropriately comes from the circus-act mind of Tim Burton, starring his favorite Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Helena Bonham Carter, as well as the late Alan Rickman – all doing their own singing. A fantasy horror film of its own genre, it is an adaptation of a Tony-award winning musical, and tells the story of an unhinged English barber who is out to avenge the death of his lady love in the Victorian era. Burton paints such a bleak and haunting picture of London that it’s hard not to feel perversely entertained by a most unusual visualization of what is a middling-stage musical.
Mamma Mia! (2008), Hairspray (2007), Rock Of Ages (2012; the stage rendition is a sight to behold in London).