A Star is Born (1954) Tag

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I presented five films, ranging from the silent classic Metropolis to possibly the greatest musical ever, The Band Wagon, that have been restored with questionable results. Here, I will tackle some more recent films—if you consider the period from 1954 to 1972 recent—that weren’t necessarily improved by the efforts of the restorationists.

A Star is Born (1954)

The 1954 A Star Is Born ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as one of the most ruthlessly cut films of all time. When missing songs, footage, and soundtracks were found in the early 1980s and restored for a 1983 re-release, it was all quite exciting. Since two of the songs—“Lose That Long Face” and “Here’s What I’m Here For”—had been included on the best-selling LP soundtrack album, everyone knew something was missing, and a whole generation of Judy Garland fans had wondered where the footage could be.

This was finally and blissfully restored. However, there was also about 15 minutes where only the soundtrack existed, so production photos were shown over the audio to suggest what had once been there. At the time, this was fascinating and

lovely. However, the stills now look grainy, blurry, antiquated, and sometimes tasteless. But we are stuck with them.

 

In truth, A Star Is Born feels about 20 minutes too long anyway, and the “talking stills” only make that worse, interrupting and dismantling the fine dramatic story. Recently investigating this myself, I became suspicious that the scenes represented by these added black & white sections may have only been part of a preview print, not the opening-night presentation.

 

As regards the trimming of the film, one must remember that almost all road-show versions of films—which typically included an overture and intermission—were trimmed for general release. Only a handful of very popular epics like The Ten Commandments and musicals like The Sound of Music were never trimmed. Even Ben-Hur was trimmed by 1969. All films were trimmed of at least their intermissions and overtures.

 

So the actual problem with the butchering of A Star Is Born is not that it was cut down, but how and when. When Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals such as South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel were trimmed, special versions were prepared in pre-release so, one, dramatically nothing was compromised; two, no songs were cut without approval from R&H; and three, you would never even notice anything was missing.

 

The producers of A Star Is Born should have prepared a 150-minute version for general release. It might have made 

it a better film, and Judy could have won her Academy Award! As it is now, we all have to suffer through the antiquated 1983 restored version, which now looks messy and choppy. Can’t the fascinating extra “stills” footage just be an addendum to the live-action version? We have all the songs now—that’s all we really want.

Touch of Evil (1958)

This oddball crime drama was seen for decades in a somewhat conventional 93-minute version that Universal-International prepared. It was always fascinating because of its set of major stars: Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich. And, of course it was directed by Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. Universal’s version contained a jazzy score by Henry Mancini and a few additional scenes that were shot without Welles on hand. Directed by Harry Keller, these were primarily shot to clarify some of the more ambiguous plot points.

 

Because of the film’s team of stars, and Welles’ appeal to a growing audience, in 1976, Universal released a 108-minute version to cinemas and later issued it on video, billing it as “Complete, Uncut, and Restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all but a preview version.

 

By 1998, interest in the film had developed to the point where a full restoration was produced, based on Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal on how to re-edit the preview version. This version is certainly more complete, but eliminates Mancini’s music over the credits. This is a valid choice, meant to showcase Welles’ celebrated long take, but the opening isn’t as exciting sans the excellent score. Some of the scenes shot by Keller for clarity were also removed.

 

Today, the film makes less sense than it did in 1976. While it is fascinating to see what Welles’ envisioned, the more conventional Universal version is easier to follow. What went wrong is not that the 1998 restoration was done (or whether it is better or worse than the Universal version), but that it is now considered the only valid version of the film.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

True, this was one of the greatest films of all time. And it still is. But, thanks to its restoration, it’s not quite as much of a great film as it was in the 1960s. Some footage was added in the 1990s, and the resulting edit was deemed to be the “Director’s Cut.” However, I suspect this was done to create a new copyright, and even to compensate David Lean financially. This longer version may have indeed been what Lean handed over for the film’s premiere, but the subsequent cuts made it much tighter and smoother.

The footage restored for the current version includes a shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle goggles in the bushes. Lean uses the same exact shot in Dr. Zhivago when Tom Courtney’s eyeglasses are flung into a snow drift during a World War I battle. Would he really have wanted to restore this shot once it had been seen in Zhivago? (Or would he have used it in the later film if Lawrence’s goggles were actually in the first road-show version?) The next restored scene is in front of a marble bust of Lawrence. This seems a bit campy, and I’ll wager Lean was happy to see it go in 1962.

 

The second half of the film suffers from the restoration of several scenes. This is exactly where Lawrence does not need to be longer. The lengthening of Lawrence’s torture by Jose Ferrer as the Turkish bey is slow, moody, and also a bit tasteless. But the scene that is simply overly long is the political discussion between Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence is far away. We wait patiently (or not) as we watch Alec Guinness in brown face affecting a singsong phony Arab accent. Add an always less-than-stellar Arthur Kennedy with his one-expression disgruntled face and you have a scene that looks straight out of South Park. Further add to this embarrassment overdubbing done by an older Alec Guinness in 1992 (that is noticeably dropped in) and the scene becomes a blot on the film.

 

I think the trims done in 1962 were all wise, meant to keep the film moving and word-of-mouth excellent. I’m suspicious someone at some point said, “Hey, if we can find 15 minutes to expand the film with, we can re-release it in 70mm again and market a new video!” I’m glad they found this footage, but can’t both versions be available in 4K HDR instead of only the overly long, questionable one?

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time based on probably the best Broadway musical of all time. It’s all expertly done, because as Bette Davis said to George Cukor: “You’re directing My Fair Lady? You’d better do it right or they’ll shoot you.” Every detail is meticulously done—even right from the first frame of the main titles. “Wait! What’s this?” you say. “All they do is flash grainy photos of flowers under the hard-to-read script credits?” Well, do you think in 1964 George Cukor really wanted to be shot? No! What you see in this most recent restored version is not the original main title!

 

Now remember, My Fair Lady was a very important film and it had to look that way from the top. Whether it was George Cukor’s idea or perhaps art director Cecil Beaton’s, here’s how it originally looked, as designed by Wayne Fitzgerald (The Music Man, Imitation of Life). The movie fades in to a picture of a beautiful rhododendron. It’s clear, detailed, and gorgeous. It then dissolves to a picture of a delicate carnation—but we begin to realize these are not freeze-frame pictures but actually live flowers filmed in 70mm! There’s another dissolve to another gorgeous flower! It seems to breathe as it sways in the soft breeze. The next set of flowers subtly waft in the wind. In Super Panavision and widescreen, it was glorious! After a while, you could swear you could smell the flowers’ perfume. The title card “My Fair Lady” appears over the soaring bridge of “On the 

The title sequence from the restoration

Street Where You Live” as the flowers seem to open up right in front of you.

 

It’s a very different and entirely special way to start a film. It says. “This is important. We spent a lot of extra money to do this ‘live’—and, like the story you are about to see, it’s subtle and intelligent.” That’s 1964 to 1993.

 

Now fast-forward to 1994 when the film is being restored so CBS can take back control of it from Warner Bros. Probably to save costs, it was decided 

to dump the old main title and create a new freeze-frame version rather than restore every frame. Presumably, no one would notice. Who would? Well, the answer to that is, yes, you don’t really notice outright, but (as with any brilliant detail) you do subliminally. Think of all the subliminal visual elements of, let’s say, Citizen Kane. Who really notices those shots that include a ceiling? Hmmm?

 

To make matters even more disturbing, the newest video restoration of My Fair Lady seems to have redone the credits yet again. There is still no live footage of the flowers, but now the timing of the dissolve between the names is slightly off, probably because it was done with video instead of real film. Each credit comes up a split second too fast so you can’t clearly read them. For the generation that isn’t used to reading (or writing) in script, the credits must look like strange markings in Sanskrit. As for the music, it’s mixed rather strangely too. The strings are too soft and fairly far off in the background.

 

In addition, on my video version, more than a few of the songs are out of sync with the actors’ lips. Now, this could have been a sound/sync problem with my home theater, but I have never noticed it on earlier video versions of My Fair Lady, or any other musical for that matter. Most egregious was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now I know Audrey was dubbed by the great (and better) singer Marni Nixon here, but other songs were out of sync as well—even songs performed by actors who did their own singing, like Stanley Holloway, and at times, even Rex Harrison, who sang all his songs live on the set! I’ve seen this film over many decades and it’s never been out of sync till now.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2
1776 (1972)

This movie was originally filmed as a very straightforward adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster hit from 1969. It was planned to be a road-show presentation like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof—a film over two hours long, presented in two “acts” with an intermission. It also was the last film produced by Jack L. Warner, although it was filmed and released by Columbia Pictures.

 

But by 1972, road shows were a thing of the past. Either Jack L. Warner or Columbia decided not to present the film in that format, which meant it needed to be shortened and given a more modern or “cinematic” feel. Having witnessed that first version, I can attest it was quite excellent, and exactly the right choice. Even though I am a fan of the Broadway show (which, by the way, was originally performed in one act), I found the more cinematic version snappier and more contemporary for the 1970s.

 

In the 1990s, all the missing footage was added back in for home video. The additions include the second chorus of “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve,” the entire “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” two reprises, and a “new” (or perhaps original) main title that looks like a ripoff of the main title of Oliver! In this case, longer is not better. The songs now prove why the original producers eliminated them.

 

As far as stage-to-screen photographic efforts, these are the stodgier stage-bound segments, and, in the case of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” very bizarre. It has been said this number was cut by Warner at the request of then President Nixon because the lyric makes unflattering references to the political “Right.” However, on viewing the film version of the number, it is strangely overly stylized and doesn’t fit with the more realistic look of the rest of the film. My guess it was cut because it didn’t come off well and was an easy edit to shorten the film for general release.

 

The main title sequence the film was released with in 1972 is inventive. The film begins with founding father (“hero”) John Adams in contemplation beside the Liberty Bell. When the Continental Congress convenes, he rushes down the long staircase from the bell tower as the credits roll. He then begins “Piddle Twiddle . . .” It’s quite stylish and cinematic. Both versions are available on the 4K Blu-ray, which means you can enjoy it all and decide for yourself.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

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.

HAIRSPRAY (2007)

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 / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

ONCE (2007)

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 CommitmentsIn 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 / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

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 / KV / Y 

 

Mark Smotroff

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?

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3–1960 to 2019

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

In Part 1, I offered my definition of a movie musical and in Part 2 presented my choices for the best musicals from the height of the Hollywood Studio Era (1939 to 1959). Here, I will talk about my favorites from 1960 on—a period that includes the decline of the studio system, when movies in general, and musicals in particular, were going through tremendous change.

The 1960s

West Side Story (1961)

Dazzling on every level. The music is well beyond musical comedy into the realm of semi-classical. The photography, editing, and sound are perfection. It set the bar very high for all future Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. On a large screen, Natalie Wood’s performance is particularly fine and subtly beautiful. And of course, the Jerome Robbins choreography is unsurpassed on film.

 

The Music Man (1962)

This may be the most faithful and successful transfer of a Broadway musical to the screen. It’s so close to the stage version in every way, it makes you feel like you are watching a stage show—front and center! Yet it never feels static and has a distinct cinematic feel all its own. And It’s so fun and spinetingling right to the last frame. Robert Preston is superb as the phony Professor Harold Hill.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

It might seem strange to see this Elvis vehicle on the same list as West Side Story, but great talent is great talent, and Elvis Presley together with the one star who matched his charisma— Ann-Margret—is quite an atomic blast. Over the years, the film seems less trendy (or silly) than it used to. It’s all done with great fun and excellent production values, and the energy of the film and its eclectic score make it a wonderfully campy and a very enjoyable 85 minutes.

 

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Director Richard Lester completely threw out all musical movie conventions to totally re-invent the form. It’s a perfect vehicle for The Beatles and spoke to a whole new generation. The free-for-all style of the film laid the ground for many rock and edgy film musicals of the ‘60s and ‘70s including Help and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (both helmed by Lester), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, and of course the whole MTV network.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Mary Poppins (1964)

Don’t forget this is an original film musical! Yet Mary Poppins is written (songs by the Sherman Brothers) with the sophistication of a Broadway show. It’s as if Walt Disney said to the boys, “I want my own My Fair Lady!” And in many ways, it is! Especially since it also stars Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Fair Lady. But the magnificent addition to its Broadway musical-like structure is all the fantasy photography. Technology might be even better today, but without great writing and good plot structure, musicals like Mary Poppins Returns and Cats, just don’t come anywhere near the high bar of “Walt Disney’s masterpiece” Mary Poppins.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the most elegant yet entertaining movies ever made. Absolutely perfectly done on every level. And made all the more powerful by the masterful 1956 stage musical on which it was  based. Warner Bros. knew they had a good one and they were determined to do it right. And director George Cukor did just that. Rex Harrison is magnificent, of course, but Audrey Hepburn adds that sparkling drop of cinematic magic to make this a true film, and not just an excellent stage-to-screen transfer.

 

The Sound of Music (1965)

If Singin’ in the Rain isn’t the greatest film musical of all time, then this is. Sound of Music is certainly the world’s favorite film musical, and deservedly so. Based on a true story, it has a humanness to it that makes the softer elements of the story moving. It’s directed with great restraint and taste by Robert Wise, and Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria is perhaps the best-loved female screen-musical performance ever. Sorry Judy, Liza, Emma, Rene, and Barbra . . .

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1965)

Michel Legrand’s unique jazz and romantic score is the principle reason this incredibly original film works. The jazz riffs are easily acceptable as a substitute for dialogue. It never slows the story or feels static. The wistful romantic music embraces the heartbreaking story. The color cinematography

is breathtaking. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are perfectly cast as the young lovers. It’s all brilliantly written and directed by Jacques Demy. This film is a worldwide treasure.

 

Funny Girl (1968)

Barbra Streisand’s first song in the film is “I’m the Greatest Star,” and by all accounts that she is! In this William Wyler film, she has never been better. The film looks, sounds, and plays perfectly to showcase Streisand’s enormous talents. Under Wyler’s direction, Funny Girl was realistic and dark enough to ride the cultural revolutionary wave of the late 1960s. At that time, audiences took this dramatic Fanny Brice bio-pic very seriously. And since Wyler and Streisand did such a good job, you can take Funny Girl as seriously today as you could in 1968.

 

Oliver! (1968)

At the exact time as Funny Girl was released, the stage hit Oliver! arrived on screens. And it easily won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1968. This may come as a surprise to some because there still is a lot of prejudice against a film whose title sounds like a kiddie flick. But they should remember this is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the film was directed by the great Sir Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol) and photographed by the great Oswald Morris. This musical of Oliver Twist, with book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart, has all the elements and dark characters of the novel and yet so much more. It’s witty, even outright funny at times, and yet it can turn scary and disturbing on a dime. The big musical numbers are spectacular and soaring (Academy Award-winning choreography by Onna White) yet they fit right into the storyline so you never feel like the action stops. It’s amazing on how many levels this film works.

The 1970s

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the 1967 Broadway smash is superb but hardly an adaptation at all. It’s very altered from the stage version and hardly feels like it was ever on the stage. Ergo, this film runs like an original film musical. This very adult and realistic version hit the mark in the 1970s when films looked more realistic than ever. It did include most of the songs from the Kander and Ebb Broadway score, but several important new songs by the same writers were added. Liza Minelli’s star performance sends the film into the stratosphere of entertainment perfection. Viewing this film today, it looks like it was made last week! Bravo, Bob!

 

Fiddler on the Roof (1973)

This is a very realistic film version of the 1964 stage smash hit. Rather than cast comedian Zero Mostel as Tevye, the lead, or some of the other famous actors who played supporting roles on Broadway (Bette Midler, Julia Migenes Johnson, and Christopher Walken), director Norman Jewison chose to cast all unknowns so that the characters appear very real. The Israeli actor Topol heads the movie, and it’s a loving but dramatic telling of the Sholom Aleichem stories. Fine musical adaptation by John Williams of the Bock and Harnick score elevates the movie yet matches the earthy Oswald Morris cinematography. It’s a great story about family, tradition, and persecution, and a moving experience in any decade.

 

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

In a way, this film follows the Richard Lester style of freewheeling camera work used in Hard Day’s Night, yet Rocky Horror Picture Show is as unique and wonderful as it can be. Based on the moderately successful West End and Broadway stage favorite, it works so much better as a film where it can be cinematically outrageous. Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf are all hysterically excellent and play the “horror-comedy” tone just right. It’s easy to see why this is the most famous cult film of all time, and stayed in release longer than any other musical film!

The 1980s

Victor/Victoria (1982)

This film has grown to enormous stature today! Blake Edwards’ intelligently adapted screenplay explores the fine line between masculine and feminine posturing. Julie Andrews and indeed all the performances seem three-dimensional, yet incredibly entertaining. The gorgeous Henry Mancini (music)/ Leslie Bricusse (lyrics)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

score has just enough songs to qualify it as a musical, but they always support the characters and story. The production is also visually classy with a beautiful Art Deco look. By today’s standards, it’s hard to believe it didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

The 2000s

Chicago (2002)

This film was a terrific surprise in its day, when it seemed musical films were a thing of the past. But it’s so well done and entertaining, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its success may have a lot to do with the excellence of the original stage show by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse, which is still running on Broadway today!

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Dreamgirls (2006)

This is a very ambitious and thoroughly successful film adaptation of the legendary Broadway show. Not since Cabaret 30 years earlier had a film been transferred with such freshness and cinematic energy. Dreamgirls feels like an original for the screen. Each member of the cast is superb, especially Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award, and Eddie Murphy in a stellar supporting performance. On top of all this, the music and singing are superb.

 

La La Land (2016)

Just when we thought it couldn’t be done ever again, along came this original film musical. It has an all-new song score with pulsating and exciting music by Justin Hurwitz. It’s all very stylishly directed by Damien Chazelle and attractively performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s also a great tribute to movie musicals of the past like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon yet it feels modern and fresh and youthful.

and let’s not forget . . .

Well, that’s 37 of the best. But for those who enjoy neat and nice round numbers, as do I, here are three more “best” movie musicals that co-incidentally all have the same name.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
A Star is Born (1954)

This is Judy Garland’s ultimate showcase. Judy shows off all her triple-threat talents (acting, singing, dancing) to the “nth” degree. Unfortunately, she has so much talent and so much to give, it took three full hours to fit it all in. Ergo, the film has suffered from destructive editing over the years. In 1983, an effort to restore the original version required inserting black-and-white stills. Today, the creaky technology from 1983 destroys the pace and believability of the story. It’s time for a proper restoration. But what is always superb about this version is that it’s a realistic portrait of Hollywood in the 1950s, thanks to screenwriter Moss Hart and director George Cukor, both of whom knew how it really was.

 

A Star is Born (1976)

This is Barbra Streisand’s ultimate showcase. Barbra shows off all her triple talents (acting, singing, writing) to the “nth” degree. It’s a solid retelling of the story, this time set in the world of rock. Kris Krisofferson is also quite good in his bathtub scenes. Nowadays, this is a terrific time capsule of the 1970s but it’s also “Evergreen.”

 

A Star is Born (2018)

This is Lady Ga Ga’s ultimate showcase (so far). Lady Ga Ga shows off all her triple threat talents (acting, singing, song writing) to the “nth” degree. But Bradley Cooper also wants his share of showoff time, and as producing-director, he makes sure he gets it. Set in the modern-day pop world once again, the love story pays off, being the core of another very good film musical.

 

To round things out, in Part 4, I’ll take you on a tour of some classic “antique”—but still hugely enjoyable—movie musicals from the 1920s and ’30s.

Gerard Alessandrini

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Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.