Tuesday, July 15, 2014

the film musical: getting "serious"

John Huston with his younger cast members, including title star Aileen Quinn (center), on the set of "Annie"

As the popularity of the film musical continued to wind down, the studios picked up on an added trend: Not only was the public ostracizing musicals, but critics as well - professionals who, one would assume, have adventurous, open-minded tastes and should know better.

But as they say, never assume.

It became apparent that whenever a new movie musical opened, it would be compared - unfairly - to "Singin' in the Rain," a film which, for some bizarre, irrational reason, became the template to which all subsequent movie musicals would be compared. Yeesh!

So how do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, declare every new movie musical "an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster!"?

Well, you bring in the Top Guns.  Which is exactly what the studios did.  You hire respected filmmakers, honchos, who critics would never question.

Serious filmmakers.

And so it begun, in the late 1970s and early '80s...
  • John Huston signed on to direct a really terrific film version of "Annie."
  • Sidney Lumet did his part on behalf of "The Wiz."
  • Milos Foreman - Milos Foreman! - brought his considerable skills to what is arguably the definitive version of "Hair."
  • Sir Richard Attenborough - the operative word here being "Sir" - was given the delicate task of bringing that Broadway darling, "A Chorus Line," to the big screen.
  • Francis Ford Coppola, who in his youth did "Finian's Rainbow," pursued the provocative "One from the Heart."
  • Martin Scorsese, a veritable savior among critics, dared to try his hand at an original movie musical, "New York, New York." 
  • Peter Bogdanovich developed his "new Cole Porter Musical," "At Long Last Love."
  • Hal Prince, who delighted critics with his off-beat debut movie, "Something for Everyone," decided to follow it up with a little Sondheim piece that he directed on stage - "A Little Night Music."
In the past, the critics loved these guys, but guess what.  Right!  They were all accused of making musicals that weren't ... "Singin' in the Rain."

The ploy didn't work.  In fact, it backfired.  If critics weren't going to accept a musical directed by the venerable John Huston (abetted by the very qualified Joe Layton), exactly what would they accept?

4 comments:

Sheila said...

Joe! You said it all. No matter what Hollywood does, the film musical has become persona non grata. It's a losing battle!

Matthew said...

Since you used "Annie" as an example, it also seemed like a lot of the musicals being made around that time (1970s and 1980s) seemed to be aimed at kids and/or families. I guess it's because kids haven't had time to develop genre prejudices yet, they are more receptive to the idea of characters singing.

Cary said...

I still can't believe that critics, who should no better, lined up behind Rob Marshall's truncated TV version of "Annie" and dissed the venerable John Huston for his full-bodied version. Crazy - especially since critics now seem to hate Marshall.

joe baltake said...

Believe it! Ever hear of the herd complex? Modern movie critics are sheep, incapable of independent thinking.