Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Movie Musicals

Written for the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through The Shelves - why don't you join us?

Way to pick an easy one this week! Musicals are only my favorite kind of movie, so I only have about a hundred different movies I could choose to write up for this. Therefore, I had to come up with an extra criterion to even begin writing. Therefore, here are three Non-Hollywood Musicals.


1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964) I'm not going to lie, this may be my favorite musical of all time. The key to getting into musicals is accepting the very heightened reality in which they exist, one which allows for people to spontaneously burst into song when they're feeling too much to simply speak. In Demy's vision of war-era France, people primarily communicate through singing (yes, very near the whole thing is sung-through), and the mise-en-scene is even color-coded to match their emotions (and outfits), so it helps you along this path. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also one of the most swoon-worthy romances in screen history, as teenagers Catherine Deneuve (in her film debut) and Nino Castelnuovo fall madly in love right before he gets drafted to serve in the army, all to Michel Legrand's gorgeous, Oscar-winning score. Will they ever get reunited? All I'll say is that Demy's Palme d'Or-winning film (one of three musicals to claim cinema's most prestigious honor) contains one of the finest ending scenes of all time.

Hey! If you like this one, why don't you try: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Even more candy-colored fun from Demy and Deneuve, with Gene Kelly for extra flavor!


2. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001, Ashutosh Gowariker) Even for people who love musicals, Bollywood films can be a bit daunting: At least three hours long, with unbelievably (necessarily) complicated plots, and expensive, expansive musical numbers that often sound like they're sung by particularly nasal children - and all in a foreign language! But what they have in their corner is unrivaled spectacle. My freshman roommate in college was of Indian heritage, and every once in a while he would pop in a Bollywood movie to watch when he was bored, and I would tag along. Thankfully, they had subtitles. Lagaan was the one that stood out to me the most, probably because it's very atypical. Epic even by Bollywood standards, it's an historical drama set during India's colonial British Raj (and thus lacks the sparkle and pizazz of most Bollywood films). The residents of a small, poor village are oppressed by the high taxes imposed on them by the crown, so one of the more arrogant British officers makes a wager: The villagers will not have to pay the tax (the "lagaan" of the title) if they can beat the Brits at a game of cricket. Problem is, the villagers don't know how to play. Can they overcome all the odds and win? The result is a lot more fun than it sounds. Unlike most Bollywood musicals, the songs aren't modern-sounding at all, using period instrumentation. Plus, instead of stopping the action dead in its tracks, they are integrated into the story almost seamlessly. They also tend to enliven scenes that would otherwise be standard clich├ęs (a training sequence, a "let's show those outsiders we have culture, too!" party). At three hours and forty minutes, Lagaan may sound like torture to anyone who doesn't like musicals, but I'm telling you: This is entertainment of the highest order, even if it doesn't sound like it. (BONUS: the film's score was composed by A.R. Rahman, later of Slumdog Millionaire fame.)

Hey! If you like this one, why don't you try: Devdas (2002) Aishwarya Rai is only one of the most beautiful women in the world, and the musical numbers truly have to be seen to be believed.


3. Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier) Either you like Bjork or you don't. Either you like Lars von Trier or you don't. But Dancer in the Dark is an undeniable triumph for the both of them. Bjork is simply remarkable as the poor factory worker Selma, who has a genetic degenerative disease which is slowly stealing her eyesight. She saves every penny she can in in the hopes of getting her son an operation that will prevent him from suffering the same fate. Will she be able to do so? In a sort of middle ground between the classic musicals Selma loves to watch with her co-worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and a more naturalistic musical like John Carney's miraculous Once, the musical numbers here come from what Selma hears around her, be it the factory machines, a flag flapping in the breeze, or a train rushing past. And the songs are rather gorgeous - "I've Seen It All" was even nominated for an Oscar (yes, this is where we got Bjork's infamous swan dress). Deeply felt but also typically von Trier in the way it toys with, interrogates, and alienates the audience, Dancer in the Dark is quite divisive despite it's Palme d'Or win. I love the film's subtle stylistic flourishes (the musical numbers are filmed with static cameras with brighter colors than the rest of the film, which used handheld cameras) and incredible performances. Bjork has said she found the filming of this to be so nightmarish that she would never make another film ever again. Whatever von Trier did to her (and I hate to say this), it was probably worth it for this sublime film.

Hey! If you like this one, why don't you try: ...yeah, there really isn't anything like this one. The closest you'd get is probably the aforementioned Once (2007), which is a truly perfect film.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting picks. I've never seen any of them, so thanks for the suggestions. I've really wanted to give Demy a try. Would this be a good one to start with? I have Playtime on my Blind Spot list.

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    1. You are most welcome! Umbrellas is as good a place as any to start with Demy - I would say either this or Lola, but Umbrellas is probably the best combination of being a good representation of his aesthetic and not much too much, which is how many people find his films (especially The Young Girls of Rochefort).

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    2. Although I should add that Playtime is Jacques Tati, not Jacques Demy - don't get them confused! They are VERY different. For what it's worth Playtime is brilliant - I'm kind of in awe of it - but it's NOT a good entry point to Tati. I'd start with Les vacances de M. Hulot (M. Hulot's Holiday).

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    3. What a moron! I totally got confused. Those names are way too close. Haha! Thanks for the suggestions anyhow, man.

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  2. Umbrellas is a very recent discovery for me, within the last year, but what a discovery! Although I was aware of its reputation I approached it cautiously. Neither speaking French nor being a fan of musicals that are totally sung I was leery, happening upon it just as it was beginning one night on TCM. But I'm so glad I did, I was engaged from the first scene all the way through. It's a big favorite now.

    Haven't seen the other two though. The only Bollywood musical I've seen is Bride and Prejudice which I liked but was definitely different.

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    1. Bride and Prejudice! I LOVE that movie! So glad that you stuck with Umbrellas despite not loving musicals. It's a very special film.

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    2. Oh I LOVE musicals just not the type along the lines of Les Miz, which I hate, where everything is sung and there is no chance to engage with the narrative. That was my resistance to Umbrellas but perhaps since it was in French I had to focus on the action anyway to follow the story, the full lyric text didn't annoy me like it usually does. It lead me to watch The Young Girls of Rochefort which I liked although not as much as Umbrellas.

      However most any other musicals, I have a particular affection for Judy Garland and all her films, are gold to me. I especially like musical drama or biographies where the songs are set in a performative setting.

      My three choices for this Thursday are Love Me or Leave Me starring Doris Day as Ruth Etting, The Rose with Bette Midler and La Vie en Rose starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf with I'll Cry Tomorrow starring Susan Hayward as Lillian Roth my runner up.

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  3. Haven't seen any of these. Love it. Though I have come across pics of A. Rai over the years and, yeah, she's gorgeous. Thanks for putting these on my radar.

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    1. You're welcome! I tried to go a bit further afield with these since I'm a bit of a musical freak. Watch Devdas if like Rai - you won't be disappointed!

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  4. Haven't seen any but have heard of the last two. My cousin is a big fan of Bollywood movies and would sometimes be watching one when I'm around though I mostly tune it all out. Musicals isn't my genre and the spectacle kind with big song and dance numbers is not something I usually like. On the other hand Once I really like and would love to watch something like it...John Carney does have a new one in the works, Sing Street, so hopefully that is as good.

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    1. Dancer in the Dark treats its musical numbers like some combination of Once (naturally coming into the narrative) and Chicago (clearly taking place in the main character's head), although for the most part they aren't heavily staged production numbers. It's pretty unique (as most von Trier films are, actually).

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