Monday, August 29, 2011

The Top 10 Movie Musical Numbers

Let's not drag this out any longer, I say, on day 29.  I'll cut to the chase (preferably jump cut, because those are the most fun) and foist upon you my picks for cinemas grandest musical numbers.  A rush job? Or the lingering effects of the week mid-month where I inexplicably disappeared?  Whatever the case, I couldn't wait any longer, and if you know me, then you know there is nothing I like better than a good top 10 list.  Included under "nothing" are vitals such as sex, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, murder mysteries, and oxygen.  I have yet to find a way to combine all these things.

Crafting a list of 31 is easy.  It's just long enough to fit in all the concessions you would possibly care to, and yet the total number of entries is small enough to be fathomable.  Meaning, your list doesn't appear so exhaustive that an omission (intentional or otherwise) is offensive.  I could have easily gone to 50, and a slew of other classic numbers would have reared their fabulous heads, but that's just more reviews, more justifications, and more time stalling before the grand spectacle of any "Best" list, the Top 10.

And Top 10s are hard.  Lemme whip up a fancy analogy here and say it's not unlike creating a signature recipe.  There's not necessarily a right or wrong way to make a dish delicious, but certain ingredients help, and there's nothing quite like concocting something they've never tasted before.  And in being unique, you often have to go a ways out on a limb, and yet there still has to be something cohesive about the whole thing, otherwise it just won't taste right.  End lame metaphor.

Where was I?  Right, griping to myself about the significant mental anguish I expended for the sake of this neatly package Top 10.  Is it diverse?  To a point, although seven of the ten entries come from within two decades.  And four of those seven are divided (by decade, naturally) between two directors.  That points rather definitively toward my preferences as a film-lover, specifically my longstanding status as an Auteur Theory bannerman.  And while I usually vehemently deny any bias against contemporary films, there is some truth to that within the genres where the peak productive periods exist in days gone by.  This would cover westerns, noir, epics, and of course, musicals.

And yet, I do consider this an exciting, even eclectic mix, with nearly 50 years between the earliest entry and the latest, some of which have directly beget others within these ranks.  All are pivotal in one way or another to the history of the medium, or at the very least the genre, though as many as three of these will strike the musical purist as unfair play.  But I'll leave the justifications for a little later down the line.  For now, let me proudly present:

10. "Remember My Forgotten Man" from Gold Diggers of 1933

Musicals rose to prominence in the 30s because they were the ultimate form of escapism: wild, joyous fantasies that allowed audiences temporary reprieve from the ever-present Depression that was consuming them.  Busby Berkley was the grandmaster of such spectacles, and yet here, in a musical that includes the oft-cited Depression classic "We're In The Money," the film closes its curtain on a number that forces audiences to reflect not only on their current sorry state, but specifically on the inelegant fall of veterans of the Great War in these lean times.  To put it mildly, it's kind of a downer.

Well, as far as musicals go, that is.  I'd be hard pressed to think of a song with a stronger build to it, mounting on Joan Blondell's poetic lament until it reaches the astonishing closing setpiece.  It's the kind of song that sends chills down your spine, and with years removed now from the immediate critique present in the song, it feels no less effective, just less personal.  That makes it a rare musical number that deals with a social issue, and rarer still, one that feels relevant for when it was (oh, silly Hairspray, you untimely thing you).  Considering also, that the haunting music is one of the great tunes of classic Hollywood, "Remember My Forgotten Man" earns its lofty place on this list no problem.

Next, for those familiar with my tastes, the least surprising inclusion on this list:

9. "Bye Bye Life" from All That Jazz

I'm gonna repeat this again, All That Jazz is the high point of an entire genre, the last bona-fide masterwork in the history of movie musicals, and as I'm bound not to let you forget, the greatest of them all.  Opinions differ, but packed in here is everything there is to love about musicals.  Yes, it's relentlessly self-indulgent, but if you have any affection for this most self-indulgent of genres, then you'd better be used to that by now.

Why I chose "Bye Bye Life" shouldn't mystify anyone.  Few films have drawn to a close on such a spectacle as this, a song and dance farewell to the mortal coil on an ethereal stage that could only have existed between 1977 and 1980 AD.  Central to it all is Roy Schieder, wrapping up the performance of his career and proving that actors in musicals can mine real emotional depth from their roles.  Lending ample support is the one-of-a-kind Ben Vereen, who would probably also be my choice to MC my last moments on earth.

So the song ends up being by turns surreal and spectacular, devastating and divine.  Were it not for that chilling endcap, I might request this played via video projection at my funeral.  But those last two seconds are just so it might be viewed in bad taste.  Well, considering this essentially prophesied Bob Fosse's own impending exit from the stage of life, that only makes this all the more unnerving.

Upswing, Fosse will always live on through my eternal listing.  Small consolation, you say?  Well I say Fred Astaire never found it in him to complain...

8. "Girl Hunt: A Murder Mystery in Jazz" from The Band Wagon

Poor Fred Astaire was one of the casualties of my early list-cutting, back when I hoped to find room for something out of glory days alongside Ginger, probably from Swing Time or Top Hat, but while my whims didn't fall that way, at least I knew he'd be making one hell of a lasting impression with this final, spectacular number from The Band Wagon.

Right from the wicked-cool title on the program within the film, "Girl Hunt: A Murder Mystery in Jazz" promises some unprecedented union of two of my favorite genres.  What results is a sleek noir-ballet, and my pick for the best choreography on the silver screen this side of an Errol Flynn movie.  Rightly, this is Astaire's greatest triumph, though the film itself looks back fondly on his earlier days.

The number, however, owes itself to more contemporary influences (at the time), including the imaginative resurgence in the genre propagated by Donen and Kelly, not to mention a certain unparalleled achievement that we will be getting to in due course.  Yes, I will continue to be cryptic while there is still time.  This crazy-cool feast for the senses pushes the limits of what you might think of as a musical number, but I'd like to see any argument why it doesn't belong.  It essentially amounts to little more than a violent ballet set to voice-over narration, yet the motion and the music are perfectly at one with each other, and if this isn't a musical number, I don't know what is.  Certainly not this next entry...

7. "Hot Voodoo" from Blonde Venus

There's a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers where Eva Green, decked out in the sexiest painter's apparel you've ever seen, wielding a makeshift spear, pays glorious homage to this number.  It's just about my favorite scene of the last decade, and it owes nigh everything to what happens to be just about my favorite scene of the 1930s.  Coincidence?  Yeah, probably.

"Hot Voodoo" comes at the midpoint of the great Josef von Sternberg's obsession with Marlene Dietrich, the stage just before that obsession turned to madness, madness which incidentally resulted in one of the greatest films of all time, The Scarlet Empress.  I think I've already exceeded my superlative quota for this review, so I'm going to back off a bit, but suffice it to say that this to me plays as so much more than a cabaret act or musical number.  "Hot Voodoo" isn't in the traditional sense a spectacle, but there is something special about it, if I can only put my finger on it.

There's the obvious.  The beauty and the beast dynamic is kinda fun, and the whole thing reveals itself to be one phenomenally cool entrance (not into the film, but the scene) for one of Hollywood's most untouchable goddesses.  It's also quite the catchy beat, and while perhaps not wholly politically correct, you'd have to be looking for a fight to deem this offensive.

But for me there's some deep kind of movie magic at work here, the kind that's imminently tied to an icon's defining image.  For Dietrich, she was never more electric than when under Sternberg's lens, and this is the perfect encapsulation of his pageantry.  In this cabaret-act-cum-musical-number, she scarcely has to do a thing, but that's because Sternberg has created her not as an entity unto herself, but as one in perpetual contrast to her surroundings.  Odd how with minimal exertion one can so effortlessly command one of the great nightclub acts in cinema, but that is the magic of movies for you.

6. "Isn't It Romantic?" from Love Me Tonight

I spoke vaguely of three musicals that could vie for the title Greatest Ever, the breathless Umbrellas of Cherbourg, my personal favorite All That Jazz, and the third, at long last revealed, Love Me Tonight, hands down the most influential and important movie in the entire genre, the one without which I could not fathom everything to follow existing as it does.  Have you heard of it?  No?  Get on that.

It feels good to finally, all the way down at #6, work in a Maurice Chevalier song.  I mean, I knew this one was a shoe-in for the upper ranks, but I'd have loved to include something from Gigi (which I love, and will defend to my dying day) or from the marvelous early Lubitsch musicals that made Chevalier a Hollywood name in the first place.  But I will settle for a little Love Me Tonight, by one month the oldest movie on this list (just ahead of the aforementioned Blonde Venus), and yet prophetically more akin to modern musicals than anything to come out for the next dozen years.

"Isn't It Romantic" is a song of soaring ambition.  We start with the affable Chevalier himself, chirping wistfully about joy of true love, infectiously enough that the tune begins to carry.  Therein lies the marvel of the song, as our mouths hang agape in wonder while the simple song carries itself from flat to cab to traincar and well beyond.  The artist and the soldiers and the gypsies keep the song alive and bridge the countrywide gap between Chevalier and the lovely Jeanette MacDonald, who at long last emerges on the balcony singing the song that her future paramour began some time ago.  Lovers united by song.  What a novel idea.

Ugh, blogger is doing that thing again.  The thing where it won't let me embed certain videos.  One3 of those videos being our next entry.  I considered, briefly, uploading a version performed on The Muppet Show, but nifty as that may be, it was not directed by Bob Fosse, so instead we'll just live with a picture and a link.

First impressions are so important, right?  And by logical extension, so are opening numbers.  No discussion of these is complete without mention of the sexy and surreal "Willkommen" from Cabaret, the highest ranking adaptation of a stage number on this list.

Joel Grey is sensational.  This is not the kind of performance that wins Oscars, except that it did, and in doing so trumped a gaggle of Godfather goons,  Under any other circumstance, that would have earned Grey the scorn of movie history, but his MC is one of the defining characters of 70s cinema, and even to the detractors, the win is not as egregious as it may seem.  Personally, it's one of my favorites in the entire category.

But things are not as they seem: this number is a two man show.  Grey's magnetic weirdness has us at hello, but Bob Fosse's staging of the whole spectacle is no less memorable.  Grey had previously won a Tony for this very role. but from the opening reflection, we can tell we're not in for a standard stage adaptation.  The camera never settles into place, while the editing exposes every nook and cranny of the Kit Kat Club (exactly what you wanted to picture, I know).  There no better example of a musical adaptation moving beyond the theatrical and into the cinematic than Cabaret, and it is first in "Willkommen" that we understand what kind of a ride we're in for.

And now for something completely different:

4. "Haan Jab Tak Hain Jaan" from Sholay

Everything about Sholay is downright mythic, the essence of the American western cloaked in the guise of a Bollywood musical.  Heroes, anti-heroes and villains loom larger than life, and from early on it's perfectly clear that this is a battle of white hats and black hats.  Unlike so many American westerns, however, Sholay succeeds in making its leading lady no less fascinating than the boys.

"Haan Jab Tak Hain Jaan" comes well into the film's roughly 3 hour run time.  After the hero has been taken captive by Gabbar (who is one bad dude), his lover Basanti is offered the chance to prolong his execution, so long as she continues to dance.  Rarely has Bollywood needed a reason to launch into a musical number, but never was there a more opportune time than here.  Her song is a plea of love and desperation, and one of the most beautiful numbers I've ever witnessed on film.  Her dancing, nothing short of mesmerizing.

Then Gabbar and his bandits up the anti, smashing bottles and scattering broken glass across the ground.  The dance for life itself becomes a dizzying fight of perseverance for Basanti, bleeding all across the dust, her strength rapidly failing her.  Everything about the number exists on such a grand scale, with love and devotion and justice all at stake in a battle of good vs. evil.  What makes it all the more special is the realization that this is what art and entertainment in the world of globalization can achieve: a distinctly Indian movie that nonetheless owes a debt to American cinema, across multiple genres no less.  Then again, I could reduce the discussion of this song's merits to the hypnotic movements of Ms. Malini and this would still be deserving the estimable rank of fourth on this list.

I'm gonna have to ask that you take my word on this one.  You'll notice the lack of video above.  I did provide a youtube link, which offers a nice prelude, but that's maybe a third of the whole song if that, hardly enough to justify its rank as the third greatest movie musical number of all time.  I would say youtube dropped the ball on this one, but the likelier culprit is society's waning interest in classic film.  There's no good excuse for a masterpiece like Footlight Parade to be falling through the cracks.  The clip above may be enough to pique your interest (if "By a Waterfall" hadn't already), but this is one you'll have to seek out on your own.

Lament over.  Here's the substance.  I think it only appropriate that one of the first great musical numbers in movie history would be directly inspired from the number one box office hit of the year before (that film is Sternberg's Shanghai Express, and it is marvelous).  That is, of course, merely what enticed me to Footlight Parade in the first place, and the number itself, which closes out the film in spectacular fashion, is anything but an homage.  It starts with the brilliant lead in of the multi-talented James Cagney literally falling into a musical number, where he promptly assumes the lead role. That's a pretty grand entrance, wouldn't you agree?  It only gets better, moving along from a familiar bar song to a rousing dance routine before coming to a head in a triumphant march, all set to one of the catchiest songs in Hollywood history.  Alas, I'm stranding you without proof on this one, but if you consider yourself an advocate for this strange and improbable genre, then you'll be wanting to catch up with Footlight Parade sooner than later anyway.  When you do, kindly remedy this little youtube travesty for me.

Never has one man expended so much energy in such a short space of time.

The titular song of "Singin' in the Rain" gets all the credit, but nearly any fan will point to "Make 'Em Laugh" as the film's signature track.  If Donald O'Connor's reckless abandon can't make you a believer in the power of musicals, then there is literally no hope for you, and your very existence has already ceased to interest me.  There's a hint of desperation in the performance here, the kind where one man throws literally everything he's got against the wall and hopes it will stick.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, but mostly, it just crashes right on through.  That's the moment you realize you're in the company of greatness.

Best of all though is the song's function as a whacked-out defense of the entertainment industry, one which neatly sums up the role of musicals in general.  It's not strictly about laughter per se, but there is definitely something to the saying "give the people what they want."  This number is the beating heart of a movie that's a fantastical celebration of show-business, and a love-letter to those who've fallen under its spell.  To watch O'Connor run amok here is to completely forget oneself if only for a moment, and that is the kind of escapism that entertainment at its finest can offer.  Even such a skeptical film viewer as myself can appreciate that sentiment.  To bask in the hilarity of "Make 'Em Laugh" is one of the great wonders of cinema.

1. The Ballet from The Red Shoes

A relentless excursion into the dreamspace that exists at the crossroads of artistic modes of expression.  This is equal parts stage and sound and dance, packaged in a way that could be described as nothing but cinematic.  Don't let the drawing of the curtain fool you, no traditional staging could possibly replicate the wonders of The Red Shoes and its central ballet.  Yes, this is a musical number.  No, there's really not anything else quite like it.  If it stands a measure apart from the other entries on the list, that's only because it belies comparison.  This, friends, is the genuine article.

It shares all the essential ingredients of the other musical numbers ranked before it.  The star of the show, Moira Shearer, turns in a transcendental performance, her hair afire as she dances from backdrop to backdrop, confronting her demons both onstage and off.  There are elements of surrealism at play here, but the influences are more firmly rooted in artistic mediums than anything else.  Only through the magic of movies is such an onslaught of art and dance and music possible.  Time falls by the wayside as one image merges with the next, with Shearer's intrepid Victoria Page commanding every frame with her effortless poise.

This could only be the work of The Archers.  No directors, save perhaps Peter Greenaway many years later, can boast a grander commitment to the assessment of the place other artistic mediums have within cinema.  The Red Shoes ballet is a summation of their devotion to this subject, and within these frames the cinematic artistry knows no bounds.  The camera itself might a well share a billing as it grants us access to angles of the stage we would never be privy to, and the hypnotic effects owe directly to the hand of a master editor.  The tricks are little different than the other landmark musical numbers, but the illusion burrows miles deeper.  We're I a man prone to hyperbole, I would call this more than the greatest musical number of all time, I'd decree it the greatest scene ever captured on film.

But of course, I am a man prone to hyperbole, and so I will pronounce with significant enthusiasm that art simply doesn't get any better than this.  And on that bit of extravagance, it's time to bring this spectacle to a close.  Good night.  See you next month.

Friday, August 26, 2011

11. "Singin' In The Rain" from Singin' In the Rain

Hey look, it's the greatest musical number of all time!  If this is what it's like being number 11, then surely the top 10 must have some trick up its sleeve.  At any rate, the pressure is on.  I'm afraid I didn't just set the bar high, but in fact tossed it onto the roof.  Seriously, what could be better than this?

"You'll see" is the answer, but fact is, this could have been swapped out with any of the nine numbers to follow (not #1 though) and I'd have called it a fair trade.  As to why not, I had my reasons, which may or may not have had something to do with spreading the wealth in the top 10.  Was that a giveaway?  Whatever.  Carry on.

There's a reason why this song is the defining moment of one of the greatest films of all time.  I don't bandy with that label lightly.  Among the top 10 or so films AFI considers to be the greatest ever, Singin' in the Rain is for me the one that most delivers on its classic status.  It's the one that most fully delivers on the hype, and every ounce of the fulfillment is readily apparent in the titular song.  Crucial, too, is the presence of the genre's leading man, Gene Kelly, singing and dancing in his finest hour.  In a genre that truly plays to the strength of star persona, there was never a finer face than Kelly, and could I fall into the shoes of any Hollywood star, he'd be my choice in half a heartbeat.  Well, him or Lee Marvin, but poor old Lee's adventure into musicals was somewhat less successful.

Also, lest we forget, "Singin' in the Rain" is the greatest song about being in love ever.  Or rather, it captures that giddy feeling of romance on the horizon - how you see beauty in any situation because you're just so damn overwhelmed with the desire to be alive - and right from the "doo-doo-doo-doo-doo..." he hums on the sidewalk you realize that you've been in that situation before and wish that you lived in a society where it was socially acceptable to burst out into song on the street corner.  You have done that, right?  Because that can't just be me.  Can't.

All that's to say, this song is total cinematic bliss.  A musical tour-de-force that is crucial viewing whether you're a film lover or not.  And if you're not, why then then this right here could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

12. "By A Waterfall" from The Footlight Parade

It pains me, wounds me deeply, to leave this one out of my top 10.  Because when I talk about spectacle, well, there ain't no musical number that can hold a candle to this here.  It could teach the kids these days a thing or two about putting on a show.  Think musicals have only gotten better?  Bitch please, this is the bee's knees.

We've already established that Busby Berkley is the man, right?  I mean, aside from commanding a seemingly inexhaustible arsenal of synchronized swimmers, the guy was responsible for the greatest cinematic gymnastics of his day.  "By a Waterfall" as a song is a bit too drawn out, too brassy even, for my tastes, but that's just fog on the glass of the greatest window dressing of all time.  This is surrealism on a Hollywood sized budget, the kind of epic scale event that might as well have been born from an early improbable union of Salvador Dali and Ernst Lubitsch.  Berkley achieves transcendence here from going where no theatrical spectacle could possibly go, training the camera in on birds eye views and dreamy poolscapes, bombarding the senses with an array of visuals that are his and his alone.  To be immersed in a Busby Berkley number is to drift temporarily from your body and hover above a world of his creation.  Time stops, only sound and image exist.  It's a trip worth taking again and again.

13. "I've Seen It All" from Dancer In The Dark

You want some Bjork?  Well here's your Bjork.

From time to time, a director strays from his own beaten path and does something entirely unexpected, and for a great many filmmakers, that unexpected something would be making a musical.  Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, John Huston and Martin Scorsese have all tried their hands, but more successful (and surprising) than them all is Lars von Trier.  Whether thanks to him, or his most unlikely leading lady to date, Dancer In The Dark is a modern cult classic, and the consensus is generally strong enough that you could probably drop the cult label all together.  Thus far, at least, it seems to have held ground as one of the more important European imports of the last decade, and really, was there a better musical in all that time.  I think not.  Ok, I secretly think 8 Women, but the technical mastery of Dancer is hard to argue with, and its emotion impact is earth shattering.

And then we get to the best song and dance of the show, the melancholy, but not-overwhelmingly depressing slice that is "I've Seen It All."  Credit for the music goes to the Icelandic songbird herself, while von Trier taps into ethereal greatness for the dreamy locomotion that moves the music along.  It also fulfills my suspected hypothesis that no great genre of cinema is without at least one memorable train scene.  Yes, I guess we got a bit of that with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well, but here we get train dancing, and train dancing is infinitely more uplifting than train farewells.  A shame the rest of this film isn't.  If you thought Umbrellas was a tear-jerker, than Dancer in the Dark will probably make you walk into traffic.  "I've Seen It All" is an emotional high in a film that relishes every emotional low.  Soak it up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

14. "42nd Street" from 42nd Street

This deep into the list and the legendary Busby Berkley makes his first (far from last) appearance with the film that landed him on the map.  Like a few other numbers to miss out on my top 10, "42nd Street" is one of the obvious choices for greatest musical numbers of all time.  I'd prefer to think of it as Berkley's warm-up act.

That's clearly not meant to devalue this spectacle, when in fact on the magnetism of the great Ms. Ruby Keeler's alone, this stands as one of the great set-pieces of the genre.  She casts out those opening verses so effortlessly that it seems anyone could step into her shoes, but like all born hoofers, she made a career of being light on foot and in verse.  That classic opening launches us into Berkley's first masterful orchestration, a gritty odyssey through the streets of Mid-Town, by turns both tragic and comic, with the artful deception allowed by camera laying groundwork for his spectacular triumphs to come.

It also may well be the best song of the whole batch.  The lyrics stay on point and never feel the least bit forced, and the interludes offer ample opportunity for Berkley's legendary choreography to take the stage.  42nd Street has worked its way into the annals as his finest hour, and beholding this climactic production, that's not exactly surprising.  Here though, is where I'd pull out the ole, 'you ain't seen nothing yet,' because grand as this all is, one of the hands-down most important directors of classic Hollywood was just getting started.  Hopefully one or two of my selections still to come will inspire some further viewing.  Until then, watch the clip above and remind yourselves of what Hollywood at its most ambitious was once capable of.

15. "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music

Surely you've been expecting this.

I've never been over the moon for The Sound of Music, but classic status I cannot deny it, and it does some things very very right.  Those things would include the casting of Julie Andrews, and of course the stunning on location scenery, both of which come to a head in the film's best song, the indefatigable "Do-Re-Mi."   Is there a more infectious tune in musical theater?  Doubtful.  Or even a more joyous one?  I'd argue not.  Simple in nature, but it banks its energy steadily becoming the grand musical romp that it is.  By the time Maria leads the children through the gardens and fountains of the ancient estates, something special has transpired.

It's a feeling that doesn't come across the same in the stage show.  This is where location shooting and sweeping camera motions can make all the difference, and there's almost no other movie adaptation that can boast such successful ascension over its musical theater roots.  To love musicals is to love this song, though it helps, I'm sure, that it's one deeply rooted in childhood nostalgia too.  For many, it's like a gateway to the genre, and I think that's why I love it so much.  Hearing this as a child may well determine whether you'll grow up to be a fan of musicals, so I feel I'd best lend it my endorsement.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

16. "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast

First of all, isn't that gorgeous in HD?  Everyone needs to buy this on Bluray, then invite me over to watch it.

That aside, this one probably demands more explanation than most other selections, because why, you ask, out of dozens upon dozens of worthy Disney (and other animated) musical numbers would I settle on this as the best of the best.  It is from one of the all-time great animated musicals, so that probably makes it easier to swallow, but even then, why not "Be Our Guest" or "Beauty and the Beast" or even the glorious "Gaston?"  What about the Jungle Book and The Lion King and The Little Mermaid?  I would chalk it all up to personal preference, but were that the case, I'd have gone and snuck "I Won't Say I'm In Love" from Hercules into the top 10 (and that is, incidentally, far and away my favorite Disney song).

But consider these points.  First, "Belle" sets the pace for everything to follow, and it does so much the way a classic musical would.  The song drives the plot, a lot of plot, and by the time it has played through, we're so thoroughly immersed in provincial France that we feel we've known it all along.  The music never plays as a distraction, not as something to hold the kids attention, nor does it squeeze maudlin pop songs in just for the pleasure of eroding our souls (coughTarzancough).  The song is intricate to the story in a way few other Disney songs come close to being.  This is one of the many reasons why I'll always go to bat for Robin Hood and Hercules - both also make the most of their musical roots. 

Did I mention Belle is also Disney's best character, and on such a list Gaston would surely factor in somewhere as well.  If you're going to use your songs to tell your story, it's most welcome to have characters of this caliber strolling and strutting about.  And while we're at it, the song itself is pretty marvelous, not quite a showstopper, but I maintain you could ask for a better scene setter. 

17. "I Will Wait For You" from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg


Unlike so many of the entries on this list, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a film that is more than the sum of its parts.  That explains why arguably the greatest movie musical of all time (and it's one of only three films I'd consider for that title) makes it's first and only appearance at a middling #17 on this list.  To those who know and love the film - and if you love movies, this is a non-negotiable - you'll understand just how hard it is to excise any section from Jacques Demy's cinematic valentine, though the main love theme which comes to a head with "I Will Wait for You" is the elegant emotional crux and the most obvious selection.

Still, I fear the clip loses much of it's power out of context.  If it doesn't feel particularly like a spectacle itself, that's because the entire film is a wall-to-wall spectacle, and an emotionally draining one at that.  Dancing doesn't factor in here, though you can get an excellent dose of that by watching the film's spiritual successor, The Young Girls of Rochefort, but the gorgeous music, the teary melodrama, and the candy-colored palate spirit you away to the realm of musicals just the same. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

18. "Ain't There Anyone Here For Love" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Because it's just about the strangest thing to ever emerge from the annals of classic Hollywood.

If you've watched the clip - or are already familiar with the movie, which is worth every ounce of its reputation - then there's nothing much I can say as a follow up.  Your take on it may vary based on gender or orientation, but I find it interesting how sterile the field of flesh constantly on screen feels, whereas Jane Russell's sexual magnetism is untouchable (and her costar is Marilyn Monroe!).  That she navigates the gymnasium in such a blasé fashion is kind of the point, but it's almost a feat in itself how mechanical Howard Hawks managed to make the athletes.  Russell is easily the life of the most bizarre party ever held on a studio lot.  Ok, so probably no where near the most bizarre, but if you happen to hear about these parties, please pass along the info.

Mostly, I'm just impresses that this exists.  I believe this was a song created specifically for the film, which had been a stage musical beforehand, but doesn't seem to use most of the original music.  Anyway, I don't know who thunk this one up, but it belongs to the ages now, and over 50 years later, it still has the power to raise a few eyebrows.

19. "Everything Old is New Again" from All That Jazz

Sidelined for a week, but I'm back and this will still be up and finished by the months end.  I'm planning to unveil the top 10 all at once, in what surely will be the movie musical event of the season.  First, though, are nine almost as amazing selections, starting with one I'd call a personal favorite, moreso even than many of the more spectacular numbers to follow.

All That Jazz is the apogee of the movie musical, or at the very least, the last landmark of the genre, directed by one of the definitive filmmakers in that particular field.  Bob Fosse was one-of-a-kind, and it's only fitting that the film which served as his cinematic autobiography would be his greatest. 

The film's musical numbers are few and far between, but they all leave an impression when they roll around, but although there are grander and stranger things to follow, I've always been totally fixated on the simple routine performed by Fosse surrogate Joe Gideon's (Roy Scheider) daughter and girlfriend.  "Everything Old is New Again" is a musical number as a labor of love, and there's more genuine emotion in these few minutes than in the genre's next 30 years all together. 

Fosse was one of the few directors who understood stage and screen in equal measure, which meant he also played to the strengths of his medium.  His own patented brand of choreography is on display here, but of no less importance is the way he uses the camera to frame it all.  This right here is a classic slice of 70s cinema, when it could easily have been little more than a filmed dance routine.  I suppose it also helps that no one before or since could move like Ann Reinking.  I mean, I know she pulls it all off so naturally, but that ain't easy.  And I can't look away.

Friday, August 12, 2011

20. "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers

That turning point where movie musicals finally learned that anything goes.

I'd be tempted to dock points from this for being a largely standard filming of a stage performance if the whole scene wasn't so damn influential.  Also catchy (is that bad), maverick, and entertaining.  Entertaining as hell.  A thousand numbers of musical comedy have come and gone and still this remains near the top of the heap, an ode to the offensive like cinema had never seen.

The Producers remains Mel Brooks' finest achievement, and this number is the moment you've all been waiting for.  The remake never really taps into the tawdry greatness of the original, but here's the only version that matters, perhaps the greatest comedy number of the movies.

21. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Fantasia

I'm prone to outside the box choices.  Rarely, though, am I prone to ones you're not doubt familiar with.  Fantasia was a staple of my childhood, and odds are you've at least crossed paths with this one once upon a time.

Ah, but is it a musical number?  Well, it is musical, that's clear enough, but there aren't lyrics, nor is there dancing in any tradition sense.  My justification though is that the story itself seems to serve the music, and actions on the screen transpire in great, glorious time to the cascading sounds.  Everything from the march of the brooms to the sweeping gestures of Mickey and the magician match every rise and fall in the music, and with image and sound in such perfect union, I wouldn't know what else to classify it as. 

My decision becomes easier when considering the context it plays in.  "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is but one of many threads within Fantasia, and while some have more abstract relationships with their accompanying music, others such as "The Dance of the Hours" and "The Nutcracker Suite" full on embrace their roots in performance art.  My selection in question falls somewhere in between, but in my infinite wisdom, I've deemed it appropriate.  If not a musical number, what else is this?  What fun are musical numbers anyway if you have such a narrow definition of them.

And yet, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" wouldn't even come close to my favorite segment out of Fantasia (I adore "The Rite of Spring" and I have a soft spot for the "Pastoral Symphony").  It is, however, the most iconic, and in many ways, the most cinematic, especially with early cartoon folk hero Mickey Mouse finally coming into his own here (it's his finest hour).  It also challenges our conception of the musical more than "Dance of the Hours" and I like that about it.  I think it fits, and not even merely as a fringe entry.  Alas, I don't think any of my other choices are from as far left field, though this should set up nicely for some of the other more...symphonic....entries still to come.

Also, not the last animated number.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

22. "Rififi" from Rififi

No surprise that one of the great European noir flicks would produce such a slick and sexy nightclub number.  Rififi is a Parisian heist film and damn near the finest of its genre ever made.  And since it was directed by the king of the naked city himself, Jules Dassin, the film itself is neck-deep in noir, and all the better for it.

And so we're treated to this song of shadow play, an ominous moment in the film as the characters gather before the big heist.  It wears a richness that could only exist in black and white, and a sensuality almost foreign to modern audiences.  It feels both sexy and dangerous, and its timely placement serves to romanticize the job ahead, driving our expectations absolutely wild (and oh boy, does Dassin deliver).  The song itself bubbles over with energy, and doesn't seem to mind sticking in your head.  It's the first time in the movie where you realize you literally can't look away, and it only gets better from there.

23. "Wig in a Box" from Hedwig and the Angry Itch

I lied.  Or changed my mind.  A little from column A and a little from column B.  I had went as far as to swear this song hadn't made the cut and yet here it is, well, that would be because after considerable deliberation, I booted one song from the list because it just seemed too much the odd man out.  And I was feeling a bit bad about not squeezing in anything from Hedwig and the Angry Itch and low and behold, it's even from the same year as the film which I kicked to the curb (yes, I'm going to make you guess).

"Wig in a Box" is the obvious choice for me from the movie, and while it may have ranked slightly lower had I pulled the switcheroo earlier on, there's certainly no shame in it crawling all the way up to 23.  It's an indie musical through and through, and I love how inventive the number is with its sense of space.  And clearly the whole thing exists on a shoestring budget, but from within those confines it produces one of the more dynamic musical numbers of the last decade.  There's innovation at work here, and that, along with the ability to sing and dance, is all that separates us from the animals. 

Oh, and another hint for the song I dropped.  It was one of my nightclub act picks, and while undeniably landmark (and one of the coolest scenes ever), it just never quite fit in, even with the others of its ilk.  Ah, well, I will no doubt find plenty of other opportunities to rave about it in the future (and yes, you still have to guess).

Monday, August 8, 2011

24. "Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi" from Awaara

It has all the makings of a dream.

I admittedly don't know nearly as much about Bollywood as I'd like to.  I've dabbled, you might say, and this won't be the last song and dance from the subcontinent to land a spot on my list, but the Bollywood musical is a largely unexplored frontier for me, and one I'm just beginning to fall in love with.  It may be that I'm just in awe over the sheer surrealist spectacle of this, or even more superficially that I'm an unabashed lover of all things Indian, but this number has an odd kind of hold over me.  Tempted as I was to select the volcanic love song from Awaara directly preceding this, I just couldn't shake the otherworldly imagery here.  Even more impressive is that this is the only entry on the list that I've seen for the first time this year.

It may well be that this has more in common with Busby Berkley than with modern Bollywood spectacles.  It's certainly nothing like the other number still to come, nor does it fall much in line with any other example I can think of.  But I think it's a fascinating specimen from an industry just beginning to cultivate it's own inimitable brand of cinema, and an experience that's proved truly hard to shake from my head.

And regrettably, the link above only contains the second half of the number.  Which at least may leave you something to look forward to.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

25. "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" from The Life of Brian

The gall these guys had.  I mean really, who would dare try to stage a musical number in which all the participants are literally tied in place.  There's no movement.  Nothing happens.  They just sing.  Way  be weird, Pythons.

If Life of Brian claims the title of my favorite Monty Python outing, then it's got to be because this number so magnificently seals the deal.  They've had a lot of fun with musical numbers over the years - and I was very tempted include the sidesplitting "Every Sperm is Sacred" on this countdown - but here's the one the one that caps their magnum opus, their most cohesive and satirically charged film as a troupe.  Religion is serious stuff, and it's no easy task mining jokes from the rather gruesome idea of crucifixion, but that's all the more justification for this relentlessly infectious ditty.  For films that are inherent lightning rods for controversy, and no way could Life of Brian be excluded from this, it's pivotal to stick the landing, and settling on a tone to go out on isn't easy.  All the more reason why this final scene is so impressive.  While not shying away from the taboos that the Pythons played with throughout the film, it goes out with a song in its heart, but kudos to them for coming up with one so utterly uplifting, not to mention the brilliant juxtaposition.  Because all satire needn't aim to offend, and while you're never going to please anyone, this to me is the perfect example of how to get that recipe just right.  Even the detractors won't be getting that tune out of their heads any time soon.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

26. "The Worry Song" from Anchors Aweigh

Ah, the magic of movies.

Gene Kelly departs the world of Anchors Aweigh and heads off into a storybook land, where Jerry the mouse sits on a lonely throne with a case of the blues.  Turns out it's nothing a little song and dance can't cure.  This was huge.  The mingling of live action and animation is pure movie magic, and this number right here heralded the rise of Kelly and the man behind the curtain, Stanley Donen (the number was his brainchild), not to mention setting the bar for what movie musicals could achieve ridiculously high.  Musicals and animation already had a long shared history together, but this effortless merger with live action almost single-handedly ushered in a golden age for the genre that would eventually be overtaken by the rush to adapt every stage musical on Broadway.  Again, this was huge.

Truthfully, Anchors Aweigh isn't all that spectacular.  The plot is tedious and few of the songs really stick in your head.  But there's no denying Kelly's magnetism, and people seem to like that Sinatra guy too.  When it rolls along, "The Worry Song" is a welcome break from the rest of the film, but regardless of everything before it, this pulls you back in.  And in retrospect, it's probably not nearly high enough on this list, but Gene Kelly is already the best represented actor on here (that is, in the most films, not numbers), and I had to fight the temptation to include even more.

Friday, August 5, 2011

27. "Put The Blame On Mame" from Gilda

The first of a handful of nightclub chanteuses to grace the list is probably the most famous cabaret performance in all of classic cinema.  And is there any wonder why?  In the late 1940s, Rita Hayworth was a goddess among mortals, her image so explosive that it adorned the nuclear bomb tested at Bikini Atoll.  And give or take a Lady From Shanghai, she never has a finer hour than the sultry noir Gilda, and therein no scene seers itself into your memory quite like "Put the Blame on Mame."

What was that?  Oh, sorry, I was drooling.  That hair!  Those gloves!  This could top any list of the most seductive scenes in cinema and I wouldn't bat an eye.  It's as transfixing as a musical number can get, and don't even try to tell me there's no spectacle in this.  Her figure is so effortlessly arresting that one can take for granted how rare that kind of talent is.  Her's is the warmest kind of glamour, the kind that ice queens from Garbo to Kidman could never pull off.  And did I mention she can sing?  It's all one perfect package, and if ever a career deserved to be summed up in a single scene, this would be the one.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

28. "America" from West Side Story

To know me is to know I hate West Side Story.

That's a critique aimed specifically at the movie, where miscasting abounds and too many a song falls totally flat, although there's something about the very concept of finger-snapping gang members that does a number on my suspension of disbelief.  Yes, I know it's a musical.  That doesn't mean it's allowed to be stupid.

Wait, this was not meant to be a diatribe.  See, for all the things that drive me batty about that damn movie, Robert Wise at least got one thing very right: "America."  Even terrible musicals can have a great song or two - take Aida or Paint Your Wagon - just like terrible films can on occasion stumble into a great scene.  Whatever my complaints about West Side Story, the exuberant "America" has got nothing to do with it.  It's rightfully considered one of the unimpeachable classics of musical theater, and considering the track record of other such greats, it's a marvel that it survives the transfer to film unsullied.

And that's kinda why I picked it.  When I think of the greatest of all musical theater songs, "America" is right up there with "Anything Goes" and "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" and a mere handful of others considered the best of the best.  "If I Were A Rich Man" might have made the cut, but there's one I feel plays just as well on stage, provided, I suppose, that you have Topol waiting in the wings.  But unlike those others, "America"'s cinematic counterpart ups the ante.  Credit Mr. Wise if you will, but it's the camera's love affair with Rita Moreno that electrifies the production.  She's funny and fierce, and she plays it to the camera and not the auditorium.  Stunning is what it is, enough to shake the torpor of the movie before it, alas, not enough for complete redemption.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

29. "Wise Up" from Magnolia

What the hell, right?  The surprise musical number, totally out of the blue in an otherwise non-musical movie, though granted, one that stretches suspension of disbelief a tad farther with scenes like the infamous plague of frogs.  Now, it helps that I'm a self-avowed Aimee Mann fanatic, and her contributions are probably the best thing going for this impossible object from the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson, but I'll maintain that this is a rare moment; for Anderson, for musicals, and for ensemble driven narratives everywhere.  Sobering and monotonous, it's somehow exactly what the narrative calls for at the time, an abstract (and vital?) strand to draw together the fragmented stories of PTAs many wayward souls.  There's no "Aha!" moment here, but it does serve as some neat stitching between these patches of life, a common harmony that everyone, old or young, on edge physically or mentally, can all seem to agree on.

If "Wise Up" violates my sacred rule of the Spectacle, I clearly don't care.  I'd still argue it is, though in a quiet way, and if for no other reason than its unlikely juxtaposition in the narrative.  There's a better, fresher, lesson to be learned here for movie musicals than in nearly every staple of the genre since at least the late 70s.  The musical, as a genre, need not be something a film must fully commit to.  Rather, to songs (and actors) to effective use, one that serves the larger purposes of the story - that's the greater challenge.  This one here may be a better song than a dance number, but like any great musical set-piece, it moves the story, and like any great movie scene, it moves me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

30. "Elephant Love Medley" from Moulin Rouge

Tread lightly, I've learned, where Moulin Rouge is concerned.  Pending on whom you ask, this is either the greatest musical of them all or the genre's gaudy nadir.  I take a less definitive stance, but I surely admire the spectacle, and if the songs aren't original, who exactly cares?  It won't be the last entry on this list to incorporate time-tested classics, though it's clearly the most unapologetic about it.

Why "Elephant Love Medley" though?  Precisely because, I think, it's the make-or-break number of the film, the point where the proverbial scales tip to one side or another and you either completely give up or are totally in its thrall.  It's the movie's entire musical shtick condensed into one madcap love ballad, and despite anything else you might fault it for, it's at least too damn fun to be sappy., tedious, your mileage may vary, but I think it's a sensational showstopper that reminds us that there's no shame in reinventing the old.  Now if only most other contemporary directors could grasp the concept that reinventing and remaking aren't the same thing, we'd be all set.  Final verdict, a number both fresh and nostalgic, gorgeous and vivacious, and something that only could have sprung from the spectacular mind of Baz Luhrmann.

31. "New York, New York"

Are you srsly not letting me embed the youtube video, blogspot?  Not cool, old friend, not cool.  Then you leave me no choice but to whip out my shiny new...

"New York, New York" from Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's On The Town.

As lively a way to kick off this project as I could have hoped for.  Here's the scoop.  It's 1949.  The golden age of Hollywood musicals has been over for a decade, and the rise of the modern stage musical is already well under way.  It's do or die for movie musicals, and they might well have keeled over were it not for the two whip-smart kids on the block, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.  They had already amply proved themselves by this point (and we will return to that soon enough) but in On The Town, an adaptation from the stage, they became the first to prove that movie adaptations were very capable of elevating the original material.  Three words they understood that might have saved many a future musical mishap: On, Location. Shooting.

That's why On The Town's morning wake-up call is simply movie magic.  The clock strikes 6 am and the ship comes alive and all of a sudden, we're like, "This is not my beautiful studio.  This is not my beautiful set."  You're there, in New York City, dashing out for a day with Gene and Frank and Jules, and it's like seeing the city for the first time.  Actually, imagine this: it's 1949 and you've never been to the Big Apple, and in all these movies you've no doubt seen, the streets of New York only look as golden as the studio lot can afford to make them.  And then On The Town washes over you and you're suddenly seeing movies in a whole new light.  You're letting the cinema take you places, which is something I feel we almost take for granted now.

Better opening numbers (not many) have come and gone over the years, but none carry the spirit of adventure that "New York, New York" wears so effortlessly.  Alas, if only that trend had been heeded sooner, imagine how many horrors of future stage adaptations we could have been spared.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Month of Movie Musical Moments

Wilkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome.

August. Gosh, where have I been?  Did I not even bother dropping by here to complain about Transformers: Dark of the Moon?  Was my last post really about Weird Al?  So many questions.  So many answers I don't want to dwell on.

Point is, I'm back, and making a conscious effort to breath some life into this blog.  That's why I'm launching a month long project that ought to keep me (and you, right? right?) coming back on a daily basis.  Inspiration struck when I realized just how often my bored self ended up on youtube, revisiting my same favorite movie musical numbers time and again.  So I got to thinking what one might consider the greatest musical numbers on film, which lead to an entirely new debate of exactly how to define a musical number.

I've got some thoughts on each, and based on the criteria below, you'll be getting from me one full Month of Movie Musical Moments.

True to my favorite compulsion, this will be in list form.  A countdown from 31 to 1, saving, of course, the best for last.  Long and drawn out as this project is, that ought to ensure a healthy amount of speculation.

My thought process started out simple enough.  The chief criteria I had in mind from the outset was that these were first and foremost movie musical numbers.  That wasn't to say that stage musical adaptations had no place in the countdown, but it would surely be an up hill battle, especially with how lazy most theatrical imports are and have always been.  That brings us to rule one.

1. The Musical Number Must Be Cinematic. 
Difficult, perhaps, to distinguish from face value.  A number could take place on the stage (as a few of the songs to come surely will) and it could still feel like it belongs in a movie.  But by contrast, simply importing stage songs to a studio set and pointing the camera does not a classic number make.  Original movie musicals fair much better on my list, and indeed, in history itself.  So much can be accomplished through the lens of the camera and the eye of an editor, and the great movie musical doesn't take these tools for granted.  That being said, one of top 5 songs on my list comes straight from a stage musical, and it's a case where a director's singular vision actually elevates the stage number into something far greater.

2. Diegetic Music Only
That is to say, the music must be occurring within the world of the film.  This is done to eliminate montages from the running, which, honestly, could be a list for an entirely different month.  Granted, there are some murky cases (specifically when lyrics aren't involved), but my general rule is that so long as anyone is dancing in time to the music, then they must be hearing something in that cinematic world of theirs.

3. It's All About The Spectacle
While not every song calls for synchronized swimmers, we are talking about musical numbers here, and spectacle counts for something.  It's not about pageantry, although pageantry has produced many a movie marvel, but more for the spark, the spirit of adventure, the wonder, the glamour, and the general fascination with the fantastical.  Because that's what musical numbers are at their heart, flights of fancy, and cinema has means to carry these moments to heights impossible in musical theater.  Spectacle, or the unexpected, all the same to me.

4. When In Doubt, Opt For Inclusion
The final rule, in which I give myself free license to undo or ignore everything previously mentioned.  In attempting to draw lines in the sand to aid my in my selection process, things just kept getting murkier and murkier.  There's not a musical fanatic out there who could make a case against Bob Fosse's Cabaret, but does that not open the door for all night club acts?  If Liza and company are fair game, then why not any of the other great cabaret performances of cinema, some of which have a lethal dose of spectacle themselves.  I've made room for a few among these ranks.

Or dance sequences.  True enough, these are a hard sell, rarely rising above the category of filmed performances, but I simply can't see the difference between a beautifully photographed ballet sequence and the light-as-air Astaire/Rogers romps.  What of animation?  Does it have a place here?  Naturally, though narrowing a selection of those proved one of the most trying tasks of this whole project.

The only category that I seem to have shied away from are the more stripped down performances, the kind that appear to arise organically from their films, and thus feel natural, rather than fantastic.  My reasoning, feeble though it may be, is that they're not musical numbers in the sense that I've defined them.  They're instances of song breaking out quite naturally in the world, and (unlike the Cabaret example) they don't feel like performances, or at least not of the caliber that would admit them to these esteemed ranks.  Or maybe the truth is that with only 31 slots available, I simply couldn't cram any more in.  Some stellar examples of what I'm talking about here would include "Falling Slowly" from Once, "Take Me Home (Country Roads)" from Whisper of the Heart, "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's, "Whale of a Tale" from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and even "The Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie.

If I weren't so anxious to get this up and running, I might spend some time with honorable mentions.  But it's getting later, and I still want to get down to business on the first of my selections, so I'll just leave off with the lament that so many great showstoppers will be inevitable falling by the wayside.  Three movies will be gracing us with two spectacular songs, while countless others will have none, including one entire decade (from the 30s to the 00s), though honestly, that one shouldn't be too hard to guess.  Overall, I'd consider it a diverse mix, peppered with any number of numbers that are going to require some explaining on my part.  But therein lies the fun, while you roll your eyes and I swallow my pride, or as I prepare to dodge the dishes broken in outrage of my exclusion of several beloved classics.

Shall we dance?