Best/Worst Of The Decade: Musicals

Posted on 10 February 2010 by Rich Drees

We continue our look back at the past decade’s best and worst by genre with a look at musicals. As you will see, we’ve stretched the definition of musical a bit to include a couple of films where music is an important part of the telling the film’s story. Interestingly, this is the first installment of the series where the staff has some polarized views on a film. It may not be the last time…

Best:

Across The Universe (2007)

Much like Moulin Rogue (see both entries below), Across The Universe is a musical built around pop songs, in this case the classic John Lennon/Paul McCartney catalog that formed a majority of the Beatles output. Perhaps it is the fact that these songs all share common composers or the fact that the story is set in the same time period as the tunes were written, but for me Across The Universe resonates far stronger than Moulin Rogue could ever hope to. Also helping things is Julie Taymor, whom I suspect is more a visual artist who just happens to work in the medium of film than she happens to be a film director. Every image is spectacular, evocative of the 1960s, yet original in itself. It’s difficult to pick out just one good example, so below I’ve randomly picked out “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” featuring Eddie Izzard.

Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais’ script may boarder on standard “boy-meets-girl, boy-looses-girl, boy-wins-girl-back” territory, but they manage to flesh things out with inspired song choices that often impart new meanings to classic lyrics. Much like the catalog of Beatles’ music itself, Across The Universe is a powerful, emotional and at oft-times trippy tour de force through the 1960s. If you missed this in theaters, and a lot of you did, see it on the largest television you can.- Rich Drees

Go Go 70s (2008)

Based on a true story, Go Go 70s charts the rise and fall of one of Korea’s most popular rock bands of the 70s, the Devils. Starting off as just a group of musicians who form a bar band to play to American GI’s looking for the sounds of home, they soon find themselves the most popular band in the country thanks to their rollicking Motown-inspired music. But their fame was ill-timed, as Korea was currently being ruled by a brutal military dictatorship that was cracking down hard on pop culture in the name of anti-communism. It was only a matter of time before the government and the Devils would clash. I guess you describe the film as a Korean version of The Commitments with strong political overtones and you wouldn’t be far off. Although not musicals in the traditional sense, both films show that the music of the 60s could do more than inspire and fuel social change in the United States. Unfortunately, no US distributor has picked the film up for distribution, so it has remain little seen outside of a few festival screenings. – RD

Hamlet 2 (2008)

OK, Hamlet 2 is also not technically a musical, but the show within the movie that an Arizona high school drama creates as a way to save his job from the school board’s budgetary ax is and that’s what I want to address here. The idea of Jesus arriving at the climax of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to whisk the Danish Prince away for a series of adventures before returning to throne room for a lightsabre battle with Claudius may strike some as lying firmly in the middle ground between absurd and sacrilegious. But the parallel between the two characters and their complicated relationships with their fathers and what they feel their fathers demand of them is inspired lunacy, and the students dedication to the material makes me wish that the film makers had created the entire show as a DVD extra and not just given the portions we did get to see. I have to wonder if the film’s box office would have been better if it were released after the premier of TV’s Glee rather than a year before it. In the meantime, enjoy the show’s big production number, “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” which features a Jesus who can moonwalk on water. – RD

Moulin Rouge! (2001)
The story is common. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl belongs to another. The music is pop songs reworked to fit the storyline. So, on paper, Moulin Rouge! doesn’t have a lot going for it. But film aren’t made on paper, they are made on celluloid (well, at the time they were), and this film is an amazing spectacle, unlike anything that had come before and not equaled since.

Baz Luhrmann fills the film with imaginative visuals and creates a dreamy new reality on the screen. Neither Ewan McGregor nor Nicole Kidman was known for their singing abilities, but their acting skill and chemistry makes their combination a winning one. Critics might say this film is a case of style over substance. I say it is the style which gives it substance. And if you buy into it, the film will take you on a wild, yet bittersweet ride.- William Gatevackes

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Any musical about an insane barber who kills his clients and bakes them into meat pies pretty much fits the textbook definition of “dark”. And nobody does dark better than Tim Burton. Burton is a director who is often pigeonholed as “quirky, dark and weird”. But he has developed a career directing films that range from biopics, action films, and comedies.

For this film, he focuses on good actors over great singers. You wouldn’t say Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter rule the pop charts or the Broadway stage. But they are great actors (which is one of the reasons Burton works with them again and again) who provide emotion and feeling to their songs. And since this a musical where the characters inner motivations come through during their songs, that is an important aspect to have. Yes, this film is “dark” and “quirky” and “weird”. It is also moving and powerful as well.- WG

Worst:

From Justin To Kelly (2003)

Look… It’s a musical movie spin off from Gong Show-without-a-gong TV series American Idol. Of course it’s going to be terrible. Don’t believe me? Watch. – RD

Mama Mia! (2008)

It is hard not to actively hate this film, despite its numerous flaws. First timer Phyllida Lloyd’s direction is often flat and listless, shooting musical numbers with a matter-of-factness that feels disengaged from what is going on. There are far too many characters for a plot that is paper thin even by musical standards. Christine Beranski, the cast member best suited for all of this, is unforgivably relegated to the most minor part in the ensemble. When the movie does succeed, it is on the power of its slickly produced soundtrack that not even the warbling of Pierce Brosnan can completely derail. – RD

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

An excessive and brutal assault on the senses, Baz Luhrman’s attempt to tell a story of doomed love through pop songs does everything wrong that Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe does right. More dizzying than dazzling, Luhrman quickly looses sight of the story he is trying to tell amidst the visual cacophony of opulent production design, grotesque characters parading through poorly staged musical numbers and editing that frequently looks like it was done with a blender. Over indulgent on every level, one doesn’t emerge from a viewing whistling one of the film’s tunes so much as one reels out, punch drunk from the experience.- RD

The Producers (2005)

Like Mamma Mia, The Producers is not an aggressively bad film. It does, however, suffer from the inherent expectations raised by the talent involved. If the intent had been to capture the award-winning Broadway performances of stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, than they might have been just as easily served by bringing some cameras to the theater, as Susan Stroman’s direction often feels stage-bound and claustrophobic, never really taking advantage of the range of movement a film camera offers. Not helping matters is a production design that waffles back and forth between realism and the stylized falsity of stage design. Will Farrell’s usual over-the-top antics actually suit his role as the playwright of the so-bad-it’s-good musical Springtime For Hitler. The rest of the cast do well in their parts too, but for some reason the film never fully gels. – RD

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