Ann Hornaday Recommends . . .

Sunday, June 3, 2007

"Once" is just the most recent successful attempt to re-invent the movie musical. Here are three more that broke the mold and stand the test of time. They're all on Netflix.

"A Hard Day's Night" (1964, 87 minutes), Richard Lester's antic, endlessly inventive mock "day in the life" of the Beatles, was shocking when it first came out because it so brilliantly tweaked the wretched rock-and-roll musical form, as if Tristan Tzara had temporarily invaded the set of "Blue Hawaii." Lester went on to make "Help!" the next year, but "Hard Day's Night" is still better, if only because it answers the unmusical question of "Are you a mod or a rocker?" with "I'm a mocker." Quite!

"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964, 91 minutes, in French with subtitles) came out a few months after "A Hard Day's Night," and is just as vivid a period piece. The first color musical to be produced in France, it's a visual box of bonbons, bursting with color and opulence, but devoid of the showy production numbers and ersatz emotion that usually characterize the genre. Catherine Deneuve (never lovelier) stars as a teenage shop girl whose love affair with a handsome mechanic comes to a bittersweet, if not tragic, end. Director Jacques Demy infuses the production -- the dialogue is entirely sung -- with frothy romance and melancholy. The fact that the singing is dubbed only adds to "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg's" enduring fascination as a pop culture artifact.

"The American Astronaut" (2001, 91 minutes) is a western. Wait, it's a '50s sci-fi adventure spoof! No, it's a psychotronic cult film! "The American Astronaut," which traveled the festival circuit a few years ago, is all of the above, but it's also a musical featuring the band the Billy Nayer Show, led by super-cute Cory McAbee. Here, McAbee plays an interstellar outlaw who walks into a saloon and . . . You know what? I don't know what the heck happens next, except there are lots of song-and-dance numbers that defy description or categorization. Shot in black and white worthy of Orson Welles, "The American Astronaut" is a weird, wonderful trip to a gonzo future via pulp cinema history.

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