3 Must-See Music-Based Movies
In “3 Must-See Music-Based Videos,” I presented a performance video, a jukebox musical, and a legendary concert performance. This time, all three of the highlighted titles are traditional movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less divergent in how they handle their music-themed material.
John Waters’ original 1988 movie was fantastic fun, with a quirky yet amazing oddball cast of characters including drag legend Divine, Debby Harry (of Blondie fame), Sonny Bono (yes, as in Sonny & Cher), comedian Jerry Stiller, Rikki Lake, and even special-guest showcases by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora.
While music is central to the movie—it has a terrific soundtrack—Waters’ Hairspray can’t really be considered a true musical in the theatrical sense. But the film became such a cult favorite over the years that is was eventually transformed into a fun hit Broadway musical. (I saw it in that original run with theater legend Harvey Fierstein taking over DIvine’s leading role of Edna Turnblad!)
Happily, the next stage for Hairspray was to bring things full circle and make a major movie out of the Broadway version, and that is where we enter the story:
“Good morning, Baltimore!”
The 2007 Hairspray is a wonder of poignant scripting, swingin’ songwriting, Technicolor-flavored staging, and a good ol’ dose of sweet-hearted fun. A joy to watch right from the opening number, the movie is chock full of earworm-worthy moments. (The
Blu-ray version even has a sing-a-long feature!)
The terrific cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Jerry Stiller (yes, he appears in both film versions, in different roles!), and Nikki Blonsky in her feature-film debut as Tracy Turnblad. The ensemble cast becomes especially important for the large group and dance sequences later in the film. Even Travolta’s full-drag portrayal of Edna Turnblad makes a great deal of sense once the dance numbers start. (He’s much more limber than Harvey was on Broadway, obviously still retaining some of the skills he honed during his Saturday Night Fever days.)
Where to See Some Music
All of the films here are available on all of the major non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape.
A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube
The original music in Hairspray echoes the vibe of early Motown soul and Brill Building girl group rock ’n roll, falling just this side of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The songs effectively represent the near underground sounds that helped change the pace and face of musical entertainment in the early 1960s—a period when mainstream pop was quite bland and stagnant until about 1963 when Motown and The Beatles hit it big.
The 48 kHz (probably 24-bit) 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is gently immersive and mostly in stereo, with a tasteful use of the surrounds for select sound effects, choral group singing, and overall ambiance. The music sounds rich, warm, and rocking.
The film’s look and feel features a rich, diverse color palette balanced by the gritty street realities of urban Baltimore. All this combines to make Hairspray a highly enjoyable home entertainment experience that somehow makes time melt away.
A / G / I / K / V / Y
Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once tells the story of a charming near-romance between two broken-hearted musicians who meet amidst unusual circumstances. In reality, Hansard is primarily a musician, singer, and songwriter who not only led his fantastic rock band The Frames for decades but also first came to this writer’s attention as part of the band in movie The Commitments. In Once, he plays an aspiring singer/songwriter armed with great songs, a passion for his unfulfilled musical dreams, and the unlikely prospect of reconnecting with his former girlfriend.
There is a great real-life back story to this film that ultimately became a terrific promotional vehicle for Hansard and Irglova, who ended up romantically involved and later formed a musical side project called The Swell Season. In the film, members of The Frames participate in a recording session that borders on Partridge Family idealism yet somehow manages to make you suspend disbelief while simultaneously tugging at your heartstrings.
This is not a big-budget production, but Once has a great independent-film look and feel that plays well on a big screen. Parts of it were filmed guerrilla style on the streets in Ireland.
It’s well worth the price of admission to watch Once for the mesmerizing opening sequence and for Hansard’s jaw-dropping performance of “Say It to Me Now” on solo acoustic guitar. (Do take note of his guitar, which has been worn down so much it has gaping holes in it!)
There is much joy to be found in this heartwarming film that eventually became a Broadway show. Once can be found on Kaleidescape and on Blu-ray with a stereo DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that sounds good and feels as natural as the cinematography. This film is ultimately a beautiful cinematic experience, thanks to compassionate acting, a strong script, and a timeless tale. A / G / I / K / V / Y
A STAR IS BORN (1954)
This Judy Garland masterwork—the second of the (to date) four versions of A Star Is Born and in many ways the benchmark-setter—deserves to be seen and appreciated on multiple levels. Beyond the fascinating and heart-wrenching story line, this film was a make-it-or-break-it moment for the Wizard Of Oz star. Accordingly, the studio pulled out the stops. Containing truly stellar performances by both Garland and James Mason, A Star Is Born contains many jaw-dropping visuals, including a fantastic behind-the-scenes perspective on what Hollywood was like in its Golden Age.
To get some idea of the richness of the production, one need go no further than the demo-worthy scene featuring the now classic pop/jazz standard “The Man Who Got Away.” Set in an after-hours jazz club, you will see arguably Garland’s finest moment on the silver screen, a perfect blend of tremendous music, impassioned performance—I still can’t believe she’s lip syncing to a pre-recorded track, it’s that good!—and beautifully designed staging supported by expert lighting. This one scene is like a mini film-within-a-film that took months and several complete redesigns to perfect—as explained in the deluxe edition bonus features on the Blu-ray + DVD deluxe edition that came out in 2010.
From a home theater enthusiast’s perspective, one of the really interesting things about the 1954 A Star Is Born is that it has one of the first stereophonic movie soundtracks, a good four years before stereo records became a commercial reality. The movie is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but the surround channels are mostly for room-filling ambience. Most of the action is up front in stereo, and that’s just fine. The sound design is tasteful, innovative, warm-sounding, and ultimately an integral part of the viewing experience.
When Norman Maine (James Mason) walks into the club prior to “The Man That Got Away,” note how the audio perspective convincingly creates the sense that you’re Mason’s character opening the door and entering that environment. And near the end, when Mason is starting to seriously contemplate suicide, the scene suddenly switches perspective. You can see him reacting to a distant conversation that Garland is having, which sounds like it’s literally coming from another room.
A Star Is Born is full of well-crafted details like that, making it an important film to take the time to appreciate. One of Warner Brothers’ first CinemaScope films, it remains one of the greatest dramatic musical movies ever. A / G / I / K / V / Y
Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?