Category Archives: Musical

#330 The Sound of Music

(1965, Robert Wise)

“The hills are alive with the sound of music”

So, my original intention was to get this review up for Christmas, because my usual Christmas review is a family movie that people may sit down to watch for the holiday. The Sound of Music is one of those films. It’s a classic musical that always gets chucked onto Christmas TV schedules because it’s long and it’s family-friendly and it’s feel-good. But I got sick, so this review got delayed. But the sentiment remains. Time to look at this family favourite in a little more detail.

The Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews as a nun named Maria who is trouble for the other nuns because she daydreams and wanders off into the fields to sing and prance around while she’s supposed to be praying and being reverent. To deal with this, she is sent to live with the Von Trapp family to act as the new governess to look after the seven children of Captain Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), who controls them using whistles and makes them wear uniforms as some bizarre way of grieving for his late wife. Maria sets out to bring some joy into the children’s lives again, mostly through singing and prancing about.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t particularly like musicals as a general rule, but I tried to give this one some degree of respect because, well, it is a beloved classic and many of its songs have entered public consciousness for eternity. I tried. Honestly, I did. But my god, The Sound of Music was not the musical to win me over to musicals.

First of all, Maria. Jesus Christ, Maria. She is the epitome of the boring wholesome Mary Sue protagonist. She prances around singing a lot, she goes gooey-eyed over nature, she apologises profusely to the stuffy nuns (who we’re supposed to dislike but quite frankly I sided with) and is all about being sweet and lovely. And oh my god, is she annoying. There are Disney Princesses who look at this girl and think she needs to tone it down with all the twee.

What’s worse, the movie wants us to like her unquestioningly because she’s the assigned protagonist. But she has no real character traits beyond being generically nice, and it’s very easy to feel tired of her within the first 30 minutes.

Not that many other characters are better. Georg is a typical stern military dad who undergoes a massive personality change into the same generic niceness somewhat early in the movie for no real reason. The children are precocious brats who also seem to exhibit the same generic niceness underneath an implied, but rarely seen, love of pranking governesses.

And of course, everyone is singing all the time. I know, I should expect it from a musical, but this takes it to such extremes that it felt like a parody. What’s more, even though I knew many of the songs, hearing them in context and hearing them constantly made me realise that, controversially, I didn’t think any of them were very good. From “My Favourite Things” helping to cement Maria’s rather dull and somewhat air-headed personality (“when bad things happen I think of kittens and instantly feel better tee hee”) to “The Do-Re-Mi” song featuring the laziest lyric in the history of music (“La, a note to follow So”), these songs just got tedious and annoying, much like how I felt about Maria herself.

And then there’s the plot, which is devoid of any conflict because god forbid things stop being generically nice for even a second. There’s a love triangle aspect here, where Georg is engaged to a baroness but falls for Maria, that gets resolved entirely in a five minute conversation between Georg and the baroness, the latter of whom has the reaction “oh okay, carry on then” when faced with the fact her fiancée is dumping her. And that, of course, comes after Georg stops being a grumpy sourpuss when…he hears a song. Yes. He hears a single song and then thaws. Did he never hear a song before?

And then there’s the fact that this movie failed to make the Nazis threatening. Let that sink in. The people behind the Holocaust failed to come across as a threat here. I know I’m not a fan of many World War II movies either, but I’d take more movies that had effectively terrifying Nazis over this. Their attempts to escape from the Nazis look less like desperate innocents trying to escape a fascist genocidal political army and more like a fun family day out in the countryside.

Obviously, many of my criticisms here are those of a self-confessed cynic who doesn’t like the genre, but I tried to find something to like. It’s a film with a huge following and it is a good film on a technical level. But on a personal level, I had too many problems with The Sound of Music to be able to truly enjoy it.

Starring Julie Andrews & Christopher Plummer
Written by Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse (musical) and Ernest Lehman
Produced by Robert Wise
Music by Rogers & Hammerstein (songs) and Irwin Costal (score)
Cinematography by Ted D. McCord
Edited by William H. Reynolds

Favourite Scene: I tried, but nope.
Scene That Bugged Me: That whole business with “teaching the kids to sing” when the eldest daughter was seen singing exactly two scenes before.

Watch it if: You like twee musical escapism
Avoid it if: You really can’t stand musicals

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#288 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

(1953, Howard Hawks)

“We’re just two little girls from Little Rock”

It was only a matter of time before we got round to taking a look at a Marilyn Monroe movie, and where better to start than with one of her more iconic appearances – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but is it any good?

Adapted from a stage musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about two close friends who work as showgirls. Lorelei Lee (Monroe) loves diamonds and is determined to marry a rich but socially awkward man so she can share in his wealth. Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), however, isn’t interested in wealth and seeks out men based solely on attractiveness. The plot of the movie involves the duo travelling to Paris for work and so Lorelei can prepare for her marriage. A private detective has been hired by Lorelei’s fiancee’s father, and the duo have to avoid shenanigans, although shenanigans inevitably ensue.

So initially, I didn’t know what to expect. My experience with Marilyn Monroe is through her modern-day iconic image, where she’s largely been reduced to t-shirt slogans and teenage girls’ messenger status messages, and images of her standing on a vent. The fact that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a musical didn’t really help my wariness.

But the good news is, I was wrong to be wary. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an excellent movie. In fact, the musical aspects of the movie are barely there bar a couple of flashy numbers, including the famous “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” sequence. On the whole, this movie is a screwball comedy with female protagonists, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Lorelei had the potential to be incredibly annoying. She’s a somewhat ditzy gold digger, exploiting a man for his money as the central premise of the movie. But Monroe makes her incredibly likeable, and her character is more often made fun of for her more negative traits, meaning that we’re not really supposed to approve. Plus there are depths to her character that get revealed as the movie progresses, so this helps significantly. Oh, and she delivers my favourite line in the movie, so there’s that too.

But while Monroe is clearly the star of the show here, I have to say that this gentleman preferred the brunette. Jane Russell as Dorothy had superb comic timing, flinging out quips and one-liners at every turn. She’s a smart counterpart to Lorelei and spends most of the movie despairing about what she’s gotten herself into. She was a fantastic character.

That said, I didn’t really like the subplot where she falls in love with the detective. It didn’t really make a lot of sense to me because he was such a slimy character and she seemed to be a lot smarter than being interested in someone like that. Especially after he screws her best friend over. It also just…happens instead of following a revelatory moment that maybe he isn’t as bad as he first seemed to be. He does some terrible things and gets off scot-free and wins the girl, which frustrated the hell out of me.

Another gripe I have with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes does revolve around the musical numbers, although probably not in the way you’d expect. There seems to be a real sound mixing issue going on between the normal spoken portions of the movie and the musical numbers, the latter of which constantly sound louder than the rest of the movie. This includes vocals too, and it’s incredibly jarring when Lorelei or Dorothy are speaking and then break into song, with their voices suddenly ramping up several decibels for no apparent reason.

Aside from this, I seriously enjoyed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, much more than I ever expected I would. It’s a fantastic classic comedy and it’s a lot of fun, even if at times it can feel a little dated. I can see why Monroe was such an icon now.

Starring Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell
Written by Joseph Fields & Anita Loos (play) and Charles Lederer
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Music by Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Adamson, Jule Styne & Leo Robin
Cinematography by Robert Taylor
Edited by Hugh S. Fowler

Favourite Scene: “Don’t be fooled, she’s only marrying you for your money!” “No, that’s not true! I’m marrying him for your money!”
Scene That Bugged Me: They couldn’t have picked a better colour for the Olympic swimming team’s trunks? Really?

Watch it if: You’re a fan of campy screwball comedies
Avoid it if: You never like gold diggers under any circumstances

#246 The Wizard Of Oz

(1939, Victor Fleming)

“There’s no place like home”

It’s Christmas Eve! You know what that means, right? Yes, of course, it’s time to take a look at an appropriately Christmassy movie! But wait, there aren’t actually that many actual Christmas movies on the must-see list (It’s A Wonderful Life was the main one of only two), so like last year, when I reviewed Babe, I’ll instead be pulling up a family-friendly movie.

In other words, the kind of thing you’re likely to stick on when you’re full of turkey and unable to move. The kind of thing that tends to get added to Christmas programming for that very reason. This year, we’ll be looking at The Wizard Of Oz.

You should all know what The Wizard Of Oz is, surely? Judy Garland plays Dorothy, a young girl living on a farm in Kansas. After a run-in with a grumpy neighbour (Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy runs away from home and ends up caught in a tornado, waking up in the mysterious Land Of Oz. Here she is instructed to find the Wizard who will be able to return her home, and along the way she gathers a rag-tag team of friends in the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who wants a brain, the Tin Man (Jack Haley), who wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who lacks courage. Throughout their journey they have to watch out for the Wicked Witch Of The West (Hamilton again), who likes to keep trolling them as they move through the land.

Everyone knows about The Wizard Of Oz. It’s cemented its place in pop culture over the years, and has been the subject of many homages and parodies over the years, but has it stood the test of time?

First off, visually it certainly does stand up. Being one of very few movies from the 1930s in full colour, The Wizard Of Oz made great use of its colour palette, presenting a great contrast between the drab sepia of Kansas and the vibrant world of Oz. The transition from sepia to colour was also superb and seamless, performed entirely through a doorway as Dorothy steps out into her new world, and I was genuinely impressed by it.

Some of the effects look a little ropey today, but it’s a movie from the thirties, what do you expect? Despite the obvious man behind the curtain for most of the effects (see what I did there? EH?!?), they do still look pretty impressive, and it’s hard to fault the makeup jobs of Dorothy’s trio of friends, which are a real highlight.

But beyond the visuals, how well does the movie stack up in terms of plot and characterisation? Well, I’m going to be brutally honest here – the plot is ridiculous. Dorothy doesn’t really have much motivation to do anything and her entire job is to stare vacuously at things in amazement. The Good Witch is a persistent Deus Ex Machina that conveniently solves every problem Dorothy encounters. The ultimate meeting with the Wizard results in them getting cop-out rewards for their efforts, and a realisation that none of the movie really needed to happen. And don’t get me started on the logistical issues surrounding the Wicked Witch’s final demise.

But that’s OK. The Wizard Of Oz isn’t even pretending to take itself seriously. The comic performances of the trio prove as much, since they’re all campy and over the top. One liners are thrown about all over the place, including some that still hold up today – I’ll admit I enjoyed the Scarecrow’s “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking” line a little too much. The entire movie just feels too much fun to discredit the plot issues too much, since it’s likely that no one involved particularly cared all that much.

Instead, the awkward plotting and general silliness of the whole thing are the movie’s real charm. It’s a delightful romp of a film that wants to do nothing more than keep you entertained, and does so in a way that so unashamedly happy.

Plus it’s Christmas, so bitching about the movie and saying it’s terrible wouldn’t be in the spirit of the holiday. Instead, it’s a great choice for this time of year, since it’s feel-good silliness which remains charming and lovely and entertaining, even to this day. But you probably watch it every time it’s on TV anyway, so I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Pat Walshe and Terry the dog
Written by L. Frank Baum (novel – The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz) and Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Music by Herbert Stothart (score) and Harold Arlen (songs)
Cinematography by Harold Rosson
Edited by Blanche Sewell

Favourite Scene: The aforementioned joke about stupid people talking a lot.
Scene That Bugged Me: “Only bad witches are ugly” What a great message for the kids! Ugly people are vicious monsters that want to murder your pets! Wonderful!

Watch it if: It’s on telly. Which it will be.
Avoid it if: You have a severe phobia of whimsy

#237 The Red Shoes

(1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

“A dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer”

Ballet is an obsessive art, as has been pointed out many times over the years. One of the more recent works to demonstrate this was the excellent Black Swan, where Natalie Portman steadily lost her mind due to her obsessive dedication to her dreams of being a great dancer. But it’s not a new story. Back in 1948, The Archers produced a movie about ballet and tied it into Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tale of vanity, The Red Shoes.

The Red Shoes stars Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, a girl who wants to become a great ballet dancer. After being snapped up by top ballet producer Boris Lermentov (Anton Walbrook) where she is eventually cast as lead dancer in a ballet based on the aforementioned fairy tale. The music is being composed by a talented young composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and he and Page begin a romantic affair. However, due to the demands of Lermentov, Page must choose between Craster and her career as a dancer.

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#218 A Star Is Born

(1954, George Cukor)

“It won’t happen”
“No, it might happen pretty easily, but the dream isn’t big enough”

I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear before, but I really don’t like musicals. Oh, I have made that clear before? Well, let me say it again. I don’t like musicals. Something about the constant stop and start nature of the genre, where the action and dialogue will stop for a song-and-dance number, actually tends to distract me rather than enthral me. And so we come to A Star Is Born, which not only is a musical, but is also almost three hours long. Hurray!

A Star Is Born is about singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), who has a chance encounter with actor Norman Maine (James Mason) while performing at a function in Hollywood. Maine’s career is in decline, and he turns up to the function drunk, and ends up stumbling onto the stage in the middle of the performance. Esther manages to pull him offstage, and he immediately becomes enamoured with her. Convincing her to leave her band and work in Hollywood as a musical star instead, she begins her climb to stardom as Vicki Lester, while he simultaneously begins his descent into failure.

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#209 Woodstock

(1970, Michael Wadleigh)

“What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand”

Round about this time 44 years ago, a bunch of hippies got together in a field and had a little gathering, where some people played music and a few million others watched. It wasn’t anything special, just Woodstock, one of the most influential and most successful music concerts of all time. Some guy also made some documentary about it. This is that documentary.

Woodstock documents the three day festival, bringing together vignettes of people involved in the festival, human interest pieces about the concert-goers and, of course, many music performances from the festival itself.

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#167 Once

(2006, John Carney)

“I play these songs at night or I won’t make any money. People won’t listen.”
“I listen.”

You don’t hear much about Irish cinema. Sure, it’s not drastically different from its close cousin British cinema, but you’d think it wouldn’t be so strongly overshadowed. So, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, here’s one of the few Irish movies on my list. This is Once, a romantic musical starring a couple of non-acting musicians. Oh dear, this could be bad…

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#164 Grease

(1978, Randal Kleiser)

“I got chills, they’re multiplying”

I’ve made it known on a few occasions how much I don’t particularly like musicals. Something about the constant shift into song and dance seems to always take me out of the movie rather than draw me in. The only exception thus far was Dancer In The Dark, and even then that was hardly a traditional musical (it centred around Bjork, after all). So, here we have another classic musical in the form of Grease, but will this one win me over?

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#151 Moulin Rouge!

(2001, Baz Luhrmann)

“Never fall in love with a woman who sells herself”

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#147 Fantasia

(1940, Various)

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