Hair today: The Pacific Film Archive replays greats from the past and present in the musicals genre.

Can't Stop the Musical: PFA's Classics

Dennis Harvey January 27, 2010

As soon as the silent era hit sound circa 1927, musicals became a leading film genre worldwide. How could their appeal possibly die out?

Yet it gradually did—starting in the 1950s (despite marvels from Singin’ in the Rain to Gigi), escalating in the late ’60s (when myriad big-budget musicals thirsting after The Sound of Music’s success flopped). Nails were thumped into the coffin by later duds like Lost Horizon (1973), Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music (both 1980).

It seemed audiences now thought the notion of characters bursting into song and/or dance was impossibly corny. (Recent specimens like Chicago or Nine finesse that by presenting musical numbers as character fantasies.) Despite the odd smash like 1979’s Grease, the entire genre looked headed for dinosaur status.

Hence the movie musical almost died out. Yet after low-ebb decades, it now thrives again in a limited fashion via such Broadway adaptations as Mamma Mia! and Hairspray (not to mention those High School Musicals). This is a rather shocking turnabout.

The genre’s last half-century—how strange to think its moon has been in Uranus for so long—gets a glancing survey in a Pacific Film Archive series running January 31 through February 28. The Kids Are Alright: Post-Fifties Musicals and the Rise of Youth Culture charts the form’s still-in-progress transition from Broadway to MTV as primary inspiration, with room for other significant influences en route.

It’s an eclectic mix, albeit one that oddly pretty well skips the 1970s—meaning there’s no Grease, Godspell, or Jesus Christ Superstar here. (There is Milos Forman’s 1979 Hair, but even three decades later there remains a sense that this sporadically delightful adaptation of the stage counterculture classic offered too little, ten years’ too late.)

The nearly-last gasps of old-school Hollywood musical spectacle are sampled in four Broadway translations: The triumphant 1961 West Side Story, the following years’ workmanlike screen versions of The Music Man and Bye Bye Birdie, then the ginormous flop of 1969’s Paint Your Wagon, starring such song-and-dance improbables as Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg. One of the most notorious (and expensive) major-studio musical disasters made in the giddy wake of 1965’s box-office bonanza The Sound of Music, it’s a California Gold Rush-era triangle that stubbornly refuses to charm—no matter that My Fair Lady’s Lerner & Lowe wrote the songs.

A feature-length, U.S. reduction/expansion of brilliant writer Dennis Potter’s original BBC miniseries, the 1981 Pennies From Heaven was something much more adventurous, though it also died a cruel death in commercial terms. Steve Martin (in his first at least semi-dramatic role) played a Depression-era ne’er-do-well who haplessly wrongs wife Jessica Harper and mistress Bernadette Peters—all of whom express their hidden emotions in dazzling Busby Berkeley-esque numbers lip-synched to 1930s recordings. I haven’t seen this movie since it came out, when it seemed a disappointment. Nonetheless, Harper, Peters and some staggering musical setpieces (“Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You,” anybody?) made still-sharp impressions, suggesting a film worth rediscovery.

The series’ other selections bravely soldier into that terrain Hollywood remains a little scared about: Rock. That territory was tepidly faux-approached by Bye Bye Birdie—which satirized Elvis-level teen idolization, but was pretty vanilla nonetheless. (Ann-Margret and Paul Lynde’s screen participation notwithstanding.) Alan Parker’s deluxe 1982 visualization of Pink Floyd The Wall was a perfect marriage of surreal directorial bombast to pomp-rock pretense, though it still makes one nostalgic for the relative levity of Ken Russell’s Tommy.

Four years later, then flaming-hot director Julien Temple-heard of him since?—made his first real feature (i.e. not an extended music video) in the form of Absolute Beginners, a style-heavy, emo-lite Brit period musical wrung from Colin MacInnes’ cult novel. Despite the cominglings of Patsy Kensit, David Bowie, Sade, James Fox and others, it failed to ignite.

The same year Talking Head David Byrne’s sole feature directorial effort True Stories repelled me so much with its faux-Americana, postmodernist, contrivedly cute grotesquerie that I haven’t seen it since. Quite likely it’s improved with age.

Last up in the series is Fruit Fly, which premiered at last year’s S.F. Asian-American Film Festival. Director/star H.P. Mendoza—largely responsible for one of the most refreshing movie musicals in years, Colma: The Musical—stars as a Castro district emigre underdoing the usual new-fish-in-old-aquarium experiences. He’s not particularly likeable, nor is fellow Colma holdover L.A. Renigen as our ostensible heroine. Despite a handful of catchy songs, it’s no Colma. But it might yet signal the future of movie musicals: Cheap, technically resourceful, focused on characters as brattily self-absorbed as the potential audience.