Breaking Into Song, Bursting With Ideas

Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in
Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in "Once," John Carney's Dublin-based musical about a street singer and his muse. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Ever since the first musical "The Broadway Melody of 1929" revolutionized film,it seems that filmmakers have been trying to revolutionize the musical."The Broadway Melody of 1929," a backstage romance about a vaudeville act making its big break in New York, was the first bona fide Hollywood musical, one that introduced major innovations in sound recording and design to the emerging medium. And soon enough, artists were bringing their singular visions to the genre, starting with Busby Berkeley, whose dazzling choreography for such classics as "42nd Street" and "Gold Diggers of 1933" rivaled Salvador Dali in their kaleidoscopic visual sophistication. The giants followed. Astaire, Kelly, Donen, De Mille: dancers, directors and choreographers who helped define a genre that in large part defined American cinema itself. Who can imagine the movies without "Top Hat"? "On the Town"? "Singin' in the Rain"? Who would want to?

From the beginning, the musical has proved an invitingly elastic form for artists looking to tweak and fiddle with, deconstruct and even subvert. "Once," John Carney's wistful contemporary musical starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, currently in Washington theaters, is only the most recent example of filmmakers trying to integrate setting, plot, dialogue, lyrics and music in a spontaneous, organic -- or at least self-consciously ironic -- way. (Carney's exceptionally canny strategy is to make his leading man a street performer for whom bursting into song on a sidewalk is just another day's work.)

There have been other memorable leaps forward: Dennis Potter's visionary 1986 television series "The Singing Detective," starring Michael Gambon, was a watershed in bringing new seriousness to a genre most known for its "Let's put on a show!" naivete. (Psychological darkness had invaded the form before, in Bob Fosse's edgy "All That Jazz," and later, in Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World.")

Historically, offbeat musicals have been the purview of rock stars, justifiably inspired by Richard Lester's indispensable "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" The 1968 Monkees movie "Head," by Bob Rafelson, and Tony Palmer's 1971 "200 Motels," starring Frank Zappa, are still considered cult classics, as is Todd Haynes's 1987 "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," which tells the tragic story of the pop singer with Barbie doll reenactments. (The cultiest is "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," still the granddaddy -- or grand something-- of them all.)

Then there are the name directors -- your Woody Allens, your Martin Scorseses, your Francis Ford Coppolas -- who make "their" musical as if they're completing the filmmaker's version of a birdwatcher's life list; these usually amount to little more than career curios. Can anyone say they love Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You"?

But sometimes a director hits pay dirt with the form. To wit: Christopher Guest, whose "Waiting for Guffman" and "A Mighty Wind" qualify as the best of his signature mock-documentaries. Guest, of course, was one of the stars of the greatest rock musical ever, "This Is Spinal Tap," which introduced a hilarious new version of the classic "backstage" musical by way of another endlessly tweakable form, the rock documentary. "Tap," "Guffman" and "Wind" are their generation's "Broadway Melody," re-purposed with a wink and a crank to 11.

Most recently that show-stopping staple of the movie musical has been reinvigorated by Matthew Barney -- who elaborately quoted Busby Berkeley in his "Cremaster" film cycle of the 1990s -- and Baz Luhrmann, who so delightfully mashed up fin-de-siecle Paris, historic Bollywood and pop icons from Bowie to Nirvana in his "Moulin Rouge!" And just this year, the Oscar for Live Action Short Film went to "West Bank Story," which featured singing-and-dancing rumbles between two falafel stands, one Israeli and one Palestinian -- complete with a star-crossed romance. Now that's entertainment to kvell about .

© 2007 The Washington Post Company