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Movies have entertained us for over a hundred years now. Making us laugh or cry with every film that we see. Movies break the monotony of our everyday lives and serve as our escape for a little over 2 hours each time. With all its genres ranging from the silent films all the way to action movies, the most entertaining form of movie entertainment has got to be the movie musical. A movie format that allows for interesting character development and plot devices because of the music that becomes part and parcel of the story.
Music is perhaps the most powerful and engaging tool that a movie has to offer aside from a solid storyline. It has the ability to transport us from our modern day reality to say, the flapper era of the Roaring 20’s. With the proper melody, we can be brought to our feet to dance with those onscreen, simply because of the infectious rhythm. Maybe even bust out into a song or two during a screening because the lyrics of a song simply overcome our emotions.
With the proper choice of sound and music, we can feel a variety of emotions such as fear and love. Music does not only exist in the movies for the benefit of preventing dead air between actor dialogues, it is there to help the story along. But not all movies have that seemingly magical ability. In fact, the best examples of a movie that uses music to help define a story would have to be the Hollywood musicals which were created by the finest production houses of its time.
Keeping that in mind, I have decided to review what I deem to be the 3 best musicals of all time. First up on my list, Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Thoroughly Modern Millie was released in 1967 to mixed reviews. Produced by Universal Pictures, the film starred (Dame) Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Beatrice Lillie, James Fox, and John Gavin in one of the most exhilarating, rollicking fun film throwbacks to the 1920’s. The academy award winning, flapper-era music was composed by by the writing tandem of Sammy Cohen and Jimmy Van Heusen.
The story revolves around the life of a simple town girl named Millie(Julie Andrews), who has just come to the big city in order to become a what was then considered to be a “modern woman”, who simply put, is a career woman who has her eye out on snagging herself a husband as well. Millie’s transformation from small town girl to modern city woman is explained through the title song “Thoroughly Modern Millie”.
As Julie Andrews sings the title track, we see her character onscreen undergoing a modernization of looks (or as modern as it got for its era). From the simple change in hairstyle to the more complex change of clothes, the danceable track invites one to join Millie on her journey as she continues to transform herself from a Plain Jane to Modern Millie.
As we join her on her journey towards becoming a modern woman, she meets a variety of people that allows us to see her in various comical situations and a few instances of mistaken identities between a few characters and Millie. There are even nods to the silent films of the 1920’s by inserting a few facial expressions from Millie and inserting her written thoughts here and there.
Upon reaching the single women’s hotel where she resides, she makes the acquaintance of Ms. Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore), an obviously rich young lady who does not have a clue about how the real world works.
After properly introducing Ms. Brown to their landlady, Mrs. Meers ( Beatrice Lillie) , the two young women strike up an instant friendship as they tap dance their way up to their respective rooms in an elevator that refuses to move up or down unless the person or people inside are dancing. Little did the two women know that their landlady was the head of a White Slavery syndicate operating within the city and that she had targeted Ms. Brown as her next victim.
The movie, obviously shot in the Universal Studios back lot, which at the time was a lot cheaper than going on location, did its best to transform itself into a believable period film, complete with the red jalopy chugging down the road and flapper hats for the women.
No small feat when you consider how many main stars and extras the production crew had to dress up for each scene which included multiple locations such as 2 hotel rooms, a reception area, formal office, plus an exterior and interior mansion, to name but a few of the dazzling sets created specifically for the movie.
As was normal for movies of that time, the lighting was bright and expertly used by the lighting department to evoke fun and gaiety during the light parts of the musical, and fear (by using red lighting) to instill simple fear in the viewers minds during one the more serious, yet still light, situations in the movie that involved the rescue of Ms. Brown from the White Slavery syndicate.
I would like to point out though, that although the movie keeps itself light at all times, it injected a sense of the changing world around them as they actually showed the abduction of Ms. Brown for sale into white slavery. Also included in the film were Asian cast members Johhny Foo and a very young Pat Morita as the abductors.
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Music-wise, this film does not try to become anything but what its director George Roy Hill set out to do, which is become a two hour escape from reality using some of the best written songs and well choreographed dance sequences. As anybody who studied American music history would know, the roaring 20’s had some of the most timeless music come out of the decade and the film capitalized on that sense of music nostalgia as they used easy to recall tunes like Baby-Face, Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life, and Jazz Baby.
The use of the tune Baby-Face was, at the time the film was made, considered to be a music coup of sorts as the producers managed to get permission from General Mills to use the song that the company had long been using as the theme to their Wheaties commercials.
Being a movie that showcased Julie Andrews in the lead role, most of the singing parts were reserved for her and each song, was carefully selected to not only highlight her singing abilities, but also, was required to help the story along.
For example, the song ” Poor Butterfly” though used only as the background song in the scene where she was listening to her boss, Trevor Graydon (John Gavin), gush over meeting her roommate Ms. Brown and asking her to arrange a date for the two of them, effectively portrayed the heartbreak of unrequited love and the sense of self-doubt that could only affect a woman whose love has been painfully ignored. In the end, all of the mistaken identities and the truth behind the characters of Ms. Brown and Jimmy Smith were finally cleared up and, in true Hollywood fashion, all was well that ended well for the characters involved.
Everything about the musical designs of this movie just screamed perfection as I watched the movie and listened to the music that had my feet tapping and brain humming the songs long after I had seen the film. It was only after looking up the film online that I discovered that this movie was an academy award winner for its musical score.
Now we come to the 2nd best musical film to be released in 2002, Miramax Films released the movie version of the highly successful stage musical Chicago. Set as a period piece, the movie takes place during the mobster run Chicago era where lawlessness seemed to run rampant and women seemed to be the most common murderers.
Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Richard Gere, the trio played Velma Kelly, Roxie Hart, and Billy Flynn respectively. As we will later find out, music plays an integral part in this musical that uses Jazz-era Chicago as its backdrop.
Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart plays a highly ambitious housewife whose dreams of having a stage career drove her to infidelity and murder, killing her lover once she realized that he would not be able to make her stage dreams come true. Catherine Zeta-Jones portrays Velma Kelly, one of the marquee names in the era who goes to jail for the double murder of her husband and sister, who happened to be cheating on her.
Richard Gere is Billy Flynn, the criminal lawyer who knows the power of the press, publicity, and the unsatiable appettite of the public for celebrity, even if the celebrity is a criminal, and uses it to the benefit of his death row clients. All together, the 3 make up the major cast of the most exciting musical to hit the movie screens since Fame in the 1980’s. Also playing an important role in the movie is Queen Latifah as Big Mamma, the jail warden who can get anybody on the inside anything they want or need, for a price.
Roxie is introduced to us in the movie during the overture, when Velma is performing the timeless And All That Jazz while Roxie is cavorting with her lover in the nightclub, the lobby of her matrimonial apartment, and then finally on her matrimonial bed before shooting her lover to death after he makes a nasty confession about how he was just using her for sex.
She tries to avoid a murder rap by getting her husband to confess to the crime in the song “Funny Honey”, who later on reneges on his confession after finding out the dead man is the salesman who sold them their furniture.
The movie more often than not has a dark feel to it, possibly due to the dark theme of murder and death row life. Most of the movie’s musical numbers take place in the minds of the characters, therefore we often have the camera cutting from the real time setting of the character, to what they are actually thinking, imagining, or feeling.
The musical numbers then take place mostly in a smoke filled, spotlight lighted, night club. With the songs and dialogues usually being performed at the same time. Admittedly, such a presentation tends to get confusing for the audience. Specially if one is not familiar with the Broadway show versions.
Roxie ends up in Cook County Jail together with some very hardened criminals who are not repentant about their crimes and introduce themselves to Roxie by doing the Cell Block Tango, a musical number that introduces us to the various women Roxie will be spending time with and what their crimes were.
Most of them went into the slammer for crimes of passion, and they were usually unrepentant. One of the most important notes I made during this number is the fact that they were doing a traditional Tango and modern interpretative dance at the same time. Such interesting choreography is part of what made this movie highly engrossing.
Upon crossing paths with Velma, the two instantly become adversaries even after they end up sharing the same lawyer. Instead of simply showing us how their rivalry plays out, the viewers are treated to a smorgasboard of stories told through song. Some of the most entertaining musical numbers in the movie belong to Richard Gere whose Billy Flynn uses songs to manipulate the press into believing his spins.
We first meet him through the song “All I Care About Is Love”, where he explains the reasons why he became a lawyer and what he “shuns most about it” which, it seems to me, is a tongue in cheek song since Billy Flynn is one of the most materialistic men on the planet as evidenced by his meeting with Roxie’s husband. Later on, we see what a master press manipulator he is when he comes up with the “We Both Reached For The Gun” scenario for Roxie during her first press conference.
A highly danceable musical number which was so highly imaginative and possibly difficult to have shot since Renee and Richard’s choreography meant that they had to pretend to be a puppet and puppet master, which is a real reflection of the client lawyer relationship Billy had with all his clients. He was the master planner and the defendants were his strategy executioners.
Eventually, we find out what would have given a simple housewife like Roxie the desire to break out of her boringly normal life through the glitzy, glamorous number “Roxie”. We come to understand who she actually is underneath all the lawyer created publicity. All Roxie wants to be is a star, even if it means being a notorious celebrity. She was hellbent on getting her five minutes of fame.
Meanwhile, we also have Velma, whose performance of All That Jazz at the beginning of the movie serves to whip the viewers into the mood for the nightclub style performances to follow. When she begins to lose her celebrity status to Roxie, she tries to entice Roxie to join forces with her in and effort to keep her name in the papers by performing a highly complex choreographed number titled “I Can’t Do It Alone” for a disbelieving Roxie Hart.
When the case of Roxie finally goes to trial, the music takes on a different meaning as it starts to get serious and Billy gets waylaid by a new murder case. Causing Roxie and Velma to both panic, without each realizing that their lawyer already had their acquittal strategy in place and ready for execution.
In one of the biggest musical highlights of the film, Billy Flynn got to show us how a theatrical lawyer thinks fast and on his feet through the “Tap Dance” number. Where he showed the viewer how easy it was to manipulate the press and the jury into believing that which he wants them to do.
The songs in the movie were written by quite a number of music and lyrics tandems. Majority of the songs come from the brilliant musical minds of John Kander and Fred Ebb (most of the musical score) , Jimmy McHough and Dorothy Fields ( Raisin’ The Roof ) , and finally Fred Fisher (Chicago). A quick look at the publishing dates for the music these people composed for the film indicates that the songs have been in circulation since the 1920’s.
When Velma and Roxie are both released from jail thanks to the machinations of Billy Flynn, they both find themselves without the interest of the public that they craved so much. As individuals, they could not hold the interest of a dog. But as partners, as the two most highly publicized murderers of the flapper-era, they later discovered that they had not only a high profile, but a corresponding marquee value as well.
Let us just say that in the end, music proved to be the uniting factor that can turn even the worst of enemies to suddenly become the best of friends, all in the name of vested interest.
My Fair Lady
And finally, we come to one of the most beloved musicals of the Hollywood golden era, My Fair Lady. In this film about a young flower vendor from the wrong side of the tracks, we meet Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) as she tries to make some sales after a theater show in a ritzy part of London. As fate would have it, Prof.
Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) takes a keen interest in her uneducated manner of speaking. Due to the fact he is a professor of Phonetics and can identify over a hundred fifty spoken accents by ear alone. Based on the book by Alan J. Lerner, which was in turn based upon George Bernand Shaw’s tragic Pygmalion, this Warner Bros. opus was released in 1964 as a George Cuckor directed musical of the finest kind.
Starring Audrey Hepburn in the title role and acclaimed British stage actor Rex Harrison as her (tor)mentor / secret love, the movie brought the term musical to new heights as the film’s creators gave life to a new form of singing and also caused a scandal by the way the movie sound track tried to put one over the movie going public.
The reason that the music execution in the film became high profile and most important to the production was because the libretto of the film came from 2 of the most brilliant music producers of the era, Frederick Lowe and Alan Jay Lerner. Two masters at the art of using the gift of song to further along a storyline.
From the first stanzas of “Why Can’t The English?” which clearly establishes the occupation and temperament of Prof. Higgins, all the way to “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” at the end of the opening scene, we see that Eliza is easily smitten by this older man who seems to be promising her the world. Or, just a chance to get out of the ghetto marketplace of London in order to become a respected middle class woman who is respected because she knows how to speak properly.
One must note that although Audrey Hepburn did have theater training and could manage to carry out a pretty decent tune when asked to sing, her singing parts were either mixed with or dubbed with Marni Nixon because the producers did not believe that she had a solid enough singing voice with which to carry the film. This was apparently, an open secret in Hollywood at the time and caused an uproar among certain circles in the industry.
But then, semi-scandal aside, the most notable accomplishment of this film was the development of the “Speak Singing” style of musical performance. This new fangled musical creation was necessary in order to help along Rex Harrison, who was a serious stage actor and not a trained singer.
Speak Singing basically meant that he spoke his singing lines to a specific beat or rhythm which corresponded to the actual musical score of the film. Something which, at the time it was done, had to be considered a breakthrough in film making due to the ingenuity of the film’s director.
Known as the “perfect musical” the movie stayed true to the original musical score used in the Broadway version of the musical. Unlike the movies Thoroughly Modern Millie and Chicago, where music was used as a separate part of the film, yet still somehow relating to the main themes, My Fair Lady had its music as part and parcel of its dialogue. Not all of the characters spoke their lines. In fact, the lines of Eliza and Prof.
Higgins, including those of the people around them are mostly sung. Such can be seen as evident in the Servant’s Chorus as they sung “Poor Professor Higgins” in unison as a protest to the day and night training of Eliza, who it seemed to everyone who could hear her, a hopeless case. But never being one to surrender, the professor trudges along, almost hopeless sometimes, until he triumphs in a reign of song while Eliza triumphantly sings “The Rain In Spain” as a testament to having finally beaten her cockney accent.
From that point on, the songs and singing in the movie only get more polished and the performances of the actors, more enthralling. There are however, instances when song and dialogue come together in a clever mix. The song “With A Little Bit of Luck” includes some interspersed dialogue between Eliza’s father and her landlady who has just informed him that Eliza had just moved in with the professor.
Overall, My Fair Lady was a considerable bit of movie magic., owing to the way that the musical director for the film was able to deal with the vocal shortcomings of the main stars Hepburn and Harrison. It would seem that, save for Mr. Harrison, nobody in this film ever actually did their own singing.
According to the DVD commentaries, all of Ms. Hepburn’s singing, except for the beginning of the song “Just You Wait”, was redubbed by an uncannily Hepburn sounding Marni Nixon, who was considered to be one of the most talented professional dubbers in Hollywood at the time since she seemed to be dubbing the singing voices for over half the female talent in the industry.
Had it not been for the recent anniversary DVD release of the film, the vocal stylings of Ms. Hepburn would have remained just where it was, in a vault and ready for the trash heap. Even minor stars like Jeremy Brett, who played Jimmy in the film, found his rendition of “On The Street Where you Live” being judged inadequate by the film’s producers and being dubbed over by Bill Shirley in the final version.
However, there was one person whom the powers that be at the Warner lot could not bend towards their will. Rex Harrison, tone deaf of sorts that he was, refused to pre-record his own numbers because he felt he would not be able to do justice to a lip synched version done for the film.
This was when the highly imaginative George Groves, director of the Warner Bros. Sound Studio Department came up with a novel idea for dealing with the problem. He got the green light from Jack Warner, the head of the studio, to try an on site recording method for Mr. Harrison.
Which was how Mr. Harrison found himself all wired up with what would become the first in a long line of wireless microphones and speak singing his song lines subtly into his necktie, where the microphone was inserted. It was this kind of creative thinking by the sound department that won this movie one of its many Oscar awards that year.
“My Fair Lady” can be said to have broken through many glass barriers in the name of music at the time it was filmed. It triumphed over a weak singing cast by casting voice doubles who could be mistaken for the original actor, and developed technology which our movie imagineers continue to use and improve upon to this very day.
The movie musicals are no longer in vogue these days due to the high costs of production and, quite possibly, the lack of musical talent that used to exist during the younger days of Hollywood, with the like of Chicago and Dream Girls being an exception to that rule. But that does not take away from the value of a good film score in helping to develop an excellent and engaging story line that will hook then reel in the viewers.
In Thoroughly Modern Millie, the music was whimsical and fun loving until the very end. Something that we can come to expect of such throwback films that deal with certain scenarios from the era being portrayed in a tongue in cheek manner. That is not to say that the music was making fun of the era.
But rather, that the era was filled with a lightness about the people. It conveyed the life and times of people who had lived in the period, which in this case was one of the wealthiest times in America, the female society on the brink of a social revolution, and the ugly foundations of modern society problems were beginning to rear its ugly head.
Chicago, stayed true to its dark, Chicago gangster type theme using music to portray the dark thoughts and manipulative actions of its main characters, all of whom are unwittingly working together in order to attain one common goal and ambition, their names in the paper which they equated with celebrity status. A status that Velma and Roxie, and even Billy to a certain degree, wanted to achieve at any cost.
Finally, we have the crowning glory of all these musicals, the musical that set the standard for all the movie musicals that came after it, My Fair Lady. Songs from this movie are as timeless as its story. Its rising from adversity theme was perfectly played out by the songs from the movie. Each musical piece creating the perfect setting from which each act of the movie sprung from.
From the rowdiness of the flower market, all the way to the elegance of the embassy ball, the music helped the characters grow from a street gutter vendor, to an educated middle class lady and an impatient professor blossomed into a caring and (in his own way) loving and protective mentor.
Of course nothing less than an extra ordinary musical extravaganza can be expected to come from the musical geniuses Lerner and Lowe. My Fair Lady cemented their place in Hollywood musical history in a way that none of their other musical outings ever could.
Used properly, the musical score of the film can manage to set the tone for the whole movie from the very moving frame that appears onscreen. The key, is in the way the musical director envisions the movie as told through music.
While costume design sets the tone for the movie in a highly visible manner, music on the other hand, uses a more subtle context for theme and mood setting. When used hand in hand, the combination of music and costume create an unbeatable tandem that allows us to lose ourselves for 2 hours in the world of make believe.