Archive for the ‘movie musicals’ Category

‘Fame’ remake stumbles where original dazzled

January 11, 2010

New on DVD Tuesday, Fame, sadly, deserves its blistering reviews and tepid box office. Compared to director Alan Parker’s gritty, galvanizing, inspired original of 1980, this remake is woefully weak, with bland characters, precious little plot, lousy songs and virtually no reason for audience involvement.

That said, the DVD does have one special feature: a lengthy and elaborate new music video for the original film’s title song, done for pre-release promotion. It’s executed much in the style of the first Fame’s Hot Lunch Jam number, where students from New York’s High School for the Performing Arts spill out onto the streets in a vibrant musical celebration.

If only the film as a whole were that good. But it’s not — nowhere close. Having Debbie Allen in the cast is about the only kinship it has with the original, a film with character involvement–via character struggles–and with  rousing music which even won an Oscar. Plus, Parker gave it miles of style without sacrificing veracity.

If the new Fame leads more people to check out the original Fame, then at least it will have achieved something. But beyond that, forget about it.

DVD Review: Save, Savor “Rent” via “Filmed Live on Broadway” DVD

February 2, 2009

Rent onscreen? Count on it — again. Though Christopher Columbus’ superb movie  rendition of Rent already has come and gone, the long-running Broadway show waited until its last performance to commit the stage show to its own visual record, which is fitting — and not just because you don’t want to compete with yourself while a stage stint runs.

More vital, by waiting till the end, Sony’s new Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway also celebrates the emotional conclusion of Rent’s 12-year Broadway era in magical and meaningful ways, from a reunion of original cast members during the final curtain call with then-current performers on Sept. 7, 2008, to the last-show appearance of the sweet parents of Jonathan Larson, creator of the show’s book, music and lyrics, who died suddenly from an illness just as Rent was born off-Broadway.

Rent has always soldiered on beneath the sadness of Larson’s agonizingly untimely passing, while serving as a eulogy of hope from Larson himself. With Rent, it’s not about stars or hype or media sensations. It’s about the central  inspiration within Larson’s work, no matter who’s performing it, or where, or when. Rent isn’t show biz. Rent is humanity — and great rock ‘n’ roll. And beyond all labels, descriptions, Tony awards and accolades, Rent is simply Rent. Rent is love.

That love shines through marvelously on this one-disc set, which is jammed with material. Beyond a stirring 2 1/2-hour performance of the show itself, there are compelling extra features, starting with a 37-minute Rent: The Final Days on Broadway, where the finality of the show’s closing spurs everyone to make those last days even more special.

Other featurettes spotlight the populism and humanity of Larson and his project, including The Final Lottery, which shows the Rent tradition of selling tickets for the front two rows for each performance for $20 each to those waiting behind barriers and lucky enough to have their name drawn. Also along those lines is The Wall, a chronicle of the signatures and messages left on the theater wall in Rent’s wake, and The Final Curtain Call, showing from backstage how original cast members — including Anthony Rapp and Jesse Martin — returned to celebrate and mark the moment as the Broadway run ended.

Not that you ever can capture the sheer electricity of an in-person stage show on film or on video. You can try, but there’s no matching the bond between performers and audience, or the special spontaneity and immediacy which every live performance brings. For those who want the highest degree of perfection preserved, I highly recommend the film version, which rocks so galvanizingly via original cast members mixed with the likes of Rosario Dawson, to whom I’ll forever be grateful for her Mimi.

All are part of the magnificent fabric of a show, a musical, a happening in which, in the mode of La Boheme, suffering artistic types in slummy urban digs (here, 1989 Manhattan) find comfort, solace, togetherness and love — despite poverty, despite AIDS and despite societal indifference. And they find that love in those 525,600 minutes which form each year of their lives by living day by day, minute by minute, one day at a time, and no day but today.

Through Larson, their story has inspired us for a dozen years. Through DVDs of the film and the stage show — and touring companies to boot — it will continue to inspire and move us as Rent — and Larson — keep casting their light of love upon the world.

DVD review: ‘Mary Poppins’ 45th anniversary sports lavish looks at grand stage show

January 27, 2009

If you’re a longtime Mary Poppins fan and already have one of its earlier editions on DVD, chances are you’re wondering if you should bother with the new 45th anniversary version, just out from Disney. And here’s your answer:

There’s probably not enough new content to merit a full purchase, but there’s definitely enough to merit taking a look via a rental. That’s because this Mary Poppins transcends the story’s origins in books, plays and on the big screen to launch a loving look at its recent stage incarnation as an impressively elaborate musical which expands the film’s story. And that musical may be coming your way on its national tour.

A 48-minute featurette on the DVD’s second disc is both informative and richly entertaining, with interviews of the stage musical’s two stars (Laura Michelle Kelly and Gavin Lee) at Sardi’s restaurant in New York City, mixed with footage of co-composer Richard Sherman (in California) and the show’s new English composers (from a home in France) as they collaborate long-distance. And their creative process gives credence to the Sherman brothers’ song Spoonful of Sugar, hich avows that for every job that must be done there is an element of fun. Lots of fun, in this case.

On the downside, there’s theater-crowd gushing about producer Cameron Mackintosh, which comes across as sucking-up irrelevancy — especially when the average viewer doesn’t know this Cameron from James Cameron. I’m not saying the veteran producer doesn’t deserve credit, but it shouldn’t approach this level of fawning exaltation.

More enjoyable in the new DVD featurette are generous looks at the stage production itself, which truly dazzles, looking as colorful and magical as much of the ultimate big-screen triumph of Walt Disney, who died just two years after its 1964 release. There’s even a full-length (about six-minute) number, also on disc two, showing Step in Time as it’s performed on stage. Stage production drawings also are featured.

All this stage-setting has me salivating for a national tour stop of the Mary Poppins stage musical in Houston this October — and believe me, I’ll be there. Meanwhile, I’m savoring the fantasy and fun of this grand movie musical, and reminding myself that classy family entertainment such as this can be truly timeless.

So thanks to you Walt, author P. L. Travers, screen stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, composers the Sherman brothers and so many others. In creating this crowning achievement, you’ve shown how supercalifragilisticexpialidocious entertainment can be.

DVD review: I want to love ‘Mama Mia!’ but . . .

December 15, 2008

I wanted to love Mama Mia! — wanted to love it so badly. After all, it’s about some of my favorite subjects: women, romantic love, the sun-kissed beauty of Greece (a passion of mine since the guilty pleasures of Summer Lovers) and lively, highly melodic pop music (I’m a sucker for melody), notably the infectious, galvanizing pop of Swedish supergroup ABBA. And that’s not even to mention a cast which looked dreamy on paper.

But the finished film, alas, is filled with ABBA-dabba-do-nots, from actors who can’t sing (take Pierce Brosnan — please) to actors whose heaps of ham are more obnoxious than entertaining (take Julie Walters — please) to the most insipid choreography ever (take the prancing, arms-locked, oafish guys in flippers — please), all of which can’t help but undercut, rather than buoy, one of the world’s thinnest and most contrived plots.

As in the stage show, which I enjoyed once in Las Vegas, that plot concerns a girl approaching her wedding day on the Greek island where she lives with her mother, but obsessing instead over a lifelong question: Who’s my daddy? Via a discovered diary, she’s learned that her mother had three lovers in quick succession, any one of whom could be Dad, so she writes in her mother’s name to invite all three to her wedding. Why they’d want to attend the wedding of a girl they don’t know and to whom they’re not related, as they believe, no one can say. But naturally, all travel around the world to come, yet not one of them places a phone call ahead, and it’s a big, awkward surprise. Comic complications and romantic entanglements ensue.

Chronologically, the story worked better years ago on stage. Now, while seemingly set in the present, it references flashbacks of 20 years ago which seem better suited to the late ’60s or the ’70s. And if I see one more finger-pointing move passed off as “choreography,” then — now wait a minute. I’m carping. Let’s look on the bright side.

Meryl Streep is perhaps our best living film actress, and she does her best to breathe life into the titular free-spirited mama. Also, as in Prairie Home Companion, she sings well enough as a show-biz trouper, this one  a veteran of a garish girl group of long ago.

But even such a great actress can’t overcome this film’s bumpy bits, including having windblown hair invading her mouth while she’s trying to sing her big song, The Winner Takes It All, as poor Brosnan fumbles for something to do other than clasp his hands behind his back. Oops, there I go again — carping.

Happily, Amanda Seyfried, as her daughter, is a real movie musicals find. In a show devoted to middle-aged love (nothing wrong with that), she’s just what it also needs: a young, beautiful, charming girl who can really sing. Each of her numbers is a winner, including the deleted song The Name of the Game and the music video for Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! She also endears in other extra features, showing a quirky spontaneity — and even vulgarity — that offsets the fantasy-world purity of her Mama Mia! character.

Speaking of DVD extras, skip the plodding deleted scenes (Name of the Game is shown separately, anyway) but do catch the outtakes, the many making-of segments and a lingering look at a cameo by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus.

Back to the film, Christine Baranski also excels, feeling far more suited to an aging girl-group veteran and life-devourer than Streep or Walters, while Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard have tender moments as the suddenly fatherly men, though obsessing over long-lost but found children is the most cliched male role of any TV soap opera. And Dominic Cooper has a certain Simon LeBon charm as Amanda’s neglected fiance, while the co-stars’ reported off-screen romance gave a spark to their on-screen chemistry.

The movie on Disc 1 also comes with a commentary by director Phillida Lloyd, but I can’t say I’m interested. Directing on stage (which she did) and on film (which she’s done once — this time) are far different animals, and Lloyd was clearly in over her head. This film’s problems in tone and technical details (even the blocking gets botched) are her responsibility, and she just wasn’t up to it.  While Mama Mia! merited a female director — it’s  a chick flick supreme — Lloyd was no solution but a large part of the problem.

Now, there I go again — carping. You want Shakespeare, some may say, then  try Hamlet. Well, no, I don’t want Shakespeare out of this, but I did want a lighter and more sure touch by the director, the choreographer and the actors, and for the most part we didn’t get it. What we got, instead, is a frothy, scenic lark which never truly catches fire, even with such great songs blazing.

I wanted to love Mama Mia! — to really, really love it (to paraphrase Sally Field). But at best — I liked it. Of course, there are worse things you can say about a movie. And as mixed bags go, this one’s still a keeper.

Personal note: While Dancing Queen is a sensational , rousing song, it’s a runnerup to my favorite ABBA number, which is this show’s emotional centerpiece: The Winner Takes It All. What an incredibly beautiful melody, and with such soulful sentiments. Streep may have been shot in the most unflattering and distractingly windy way possible, but it still sounds grand. This song is so good that it’s hard to ruin it, and it’s been long overdue for a big screen moment.

That said, the song was used to “score” footage long before Mama Mia! And for anyone who missed it almost 27 years ago, I have the answer:

Back in the era of Super Bowl XVI, when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, such telecasts would end with a song playing over closing credits on top of a montage of game highlights. In this case, that song was a surprisingly bold choice: not a rowdy rocker or buoyant pop hit, but ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All. The title certainly fit, I must admit, but the music was more soulful than exuberant.

Yet I loved it. Because even though I was ardently cheering for the 49ers (I was living in San Francisco at the time), I loved the contrast of a winner’s exaltation with a loser’s disappointment — of a winner taking it all while someone else got nothing — of conquering celebration mixed with melancholy moodiness — of combativeness mixed with compassion. And beyond that, the song, quite simply, is ABBA’s most beautiful.

So thank you for the music, ABBA. Your songs have served us well — including in this film, where they bolster  even lame scenes with bubbly, bouncy spirit. Great pop music deserves being showcased, just as this material deserved to be more than a campy, clunky sendup, but instead — dare we say it? — a sure-footed, smart, winner-takes-it-all classic. And though we didn’t get that classic, I’ll still take the mixed bag.

‘Hairspray’ gells well

November 15, 2007

Transformations.  They work. They don’t. With Transformers, big ‘bots morphing into vehicles and back worked, big-time. With Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ best movie isn’t getting the best reviews as a Broadway musical. But with Hairspray, even in four forms, a steady line of magic extends from a Baltimore TV show of the ’60s through John Waters’ 1988 movie to its recent Broadway musical spin to the movie musical version that’s new on DVD Nov. 20.

Such transformations are traced in Hairspray’s second-disc featurette The Roots of Hairspray. It begins with Baltimore’s Buddy Deane dance show for teens in the ’60s, which influenced Waters growing up. Cut to 2007, when director Adam Shankman (influenced in his youth by Saturday Night Fever) turned the Broadway musical based on Waters’ film into a movie musical that grossed a healthy $118 million.

Shankman was hip to the need for faithful transformations, as revealed on the DVD and also in an interview I did with him just before his film’s debut. First, he ensured he had Waters’ blessing. Then, he stuck with the original game plan of casting only a man in drag as heavy housewife Edna Turnblad (John Travolta for his film) and casting only an unknown newcomer as Edna’s spunky daughter, Tracy.

His Tracy turned out to be Nikki Blonsky, who hit the big-time after working at an ice cream parlor and who epitomizes this film’s feel-good charm as a ’60s Baltimore teen who just wants to dance and be loved for her plump self — and, while she’s at, help to fully integrate the  TV dance show.

After savoring a musical movie on video, I often treat its DVD as a CD, playing songs only and skipping around. Take Rent, for instance, and go straight to Out Tonight and Another Day, the most dynamic movie musical sequence in many moons. As for Hairspray, pass “Go” and go straight to I Can Hear the Bells, this show’s best song, in which Blonsky’s Tracy rhapsodizes about a hunk she adores from afar. In musical terms, it’s the heroine’s traditional Act One “I want” song in which she declares her dreams (think Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid or Somewhere That’s Green from Little Shop of Horrors). But whatever the want, this number isn’t wanting. Funny, clever, smartly choreographed and beautifully sung, it’s this year’s great movie musical moment, and as catchy and heartfelt as they come. So check out Hairspray and zero in on Bells, a song that rings with conviction.