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Rant #532: Lions and Tigers and New Movie Musicals…Oh My!?

Can anyone tell me why musicals (or movies with music) are suddenly all the rage in Hollywood? Or why so many of the ones in production or heading that way are remakes, re-treads, re-imaginings? Just in the past week I’ve heard that Clint Eastwood wants to direct Beyonce in a remake of A Star is Born. And Bryan Singer wants to make a biopic of legendary Broadway and film director/choreographer Bob Fosse. And last but not least, Will Smith and Jay-Z want to co-produce a new version of Annie starring Willow Smith. (I wonder how Daddy Warbucks feels about all that hair-whipping, considering his bald state of affairs.) Is it the success of American Idol that’s created this musical interest? Is it the success of GLEE? High School Musical? What has made the musical such a newly popular form? When did all these musical fans (if they are fans that is, and not just cynical showmen trying to get on a bandwagon—see what I did there?) come out of the closet? I mean, I remember when the movie musical was anathema in Hollywood, other than maybe Blake Edwards letting his wife Julie Andrews sing in a coupla flicks (and of course, if you’re gonna put the bell-toned Julie in a movie, you damn well better let her sing and create something as entertaining as Victor/Victoria!) or Disney churning out animated musicals (not that we knew most of them would turn up on Broadway in a reverse-maneuver of the old days when a hit show got the big studio treatment). Even if they seemed to be sorta successful again after the success of Chicago (an over-rated, dazzingly miscast version of a brilliant Broadway musical in my opinion), the versions of Rent, The Producers, and Dreamgirls alone should have educated Hollywood that you just can’t give over production/direction of a musical to just anybody! I mean, what in Clint Eastwood’s arguably great directorial history speaks to his ability to direct a big soapy melodramatic music film? Bird? I think not. This choice sorta reminds me of Sidney Lumet directing The Wiz: as great a director as Lumet was, he had a leaden hand creating the magic and suspension of disbelief needed to create the world of that show. And as for a biopic of the late Bob Fosse, who’s seen a return to popularity (if he ever lost it, that is) after so much of his choreographic style has turned up in music videos: he doesn’t need a biopic after the lasting images and sounds of All the Jazz, his brilliant, darkly cynical, semi-autobiographical rumination of sex, death, love and jazz hands. Not even directed by the talented Singer, unless he wants to do something way outré like perhaps making Fosse a superhero or the second coming of Keyser Söze.  I also think finding contemporary talent to represent all the great entertainers who populated Fosse’s life—Leland Palmer, Liza Minnelli (amazing here in Cabaret), Ben Vereen (working it here in All That Jazz), Ann Reinking, Gwen Verdon (stunning here as Lola in Damn Yankees), Chita Rivera, among them—would be next to impossible today. The new Annie might be the closest thing to a good idea in this mix, as Annie’s a sorta timelessly adaptable story that might benefit from an urbanizing like the original Broadway Wiz or the updating I hear Debbie Allen gave to Oliver Twist, but the idea of Jay-Z potentially adding to or writing new music for Annie’s beautifully theatrical score. I won’t even touch that…Okay I will, and I’ll be quick: Jay’s talented but sampling “Hard Knock Life” does not a musical make.

Here’s the thing: to make a musical, one needs first a sense of rhythm, the kind of rhythm that understands that the heightened reality of bursting into song and dance to express inchoate emotion demands imagination in the combining of elements like music, movement and narrative momentum. And none of these directors/producers seem to me to be prepared to dance that tango or name that tune. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I shouldn’t complain until I see the work on the screen. But I do know this: if any of these musicals feel as stiff as Dreamgirls or as inert as Rent or as silly as The Producers, I’ll always blame the rise of Rob Marshall: how he managed to make Nine, a play about film, even more boring on film that it was on stage is beyond me.

That said: here are some of my favorite movie musicals, adapted from Broadway or created from scratch, in no particular order…some of them are flawed yes, but none of them fail on the level of musical/dramatic/narrative integration (scenes from a few of them are below, too; compare any of that Fosse staging or Jerome Robbins choreography to Rob Marshall’s work in Chicago. Or Gene Kelly’s tap dancing to Richard Gere’s in the same flick. Or the narrative work done by the music and staging to Chris Columbus’s Rent):


Singin’ in the Rain

West Side Story

The Bandwagon

On the Town

Funny Girl


Cabin in the Sky

An American In Paris

The Wizard of Oz


The Sound of Music

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Filed under movies, Rants, theater, Uncategorized

The SPB Mailbag: On Interviewing Beyonce, Diddy, Rodman & other assorted superstars

I really enjoyed your Prince interview. What was the best interview you ever did?” ~ D.E.

Thanks for the nice words, and no thanks for that hard question! Only because as similar as they can be in structure, tone and style, in many ways no two celeb interviews are the same. Maybe because no two celebs are the same? (That’s debatable; if you ever wanna believe in cloning, hang out in hiphop for a few days…just kidding!) Also you can almost never tell, before-hand, what you’ll get out of a subject and whether what you do get out of them will be useful to you or interesting to the reader. So, to answer your question fairly: I’ve had a few “best” interviews ever, either because of the “subject,” the situation or the outcome of the story.

The subject (a tie): Dennis Rodman and Beyonce. Dennis because, come on, could you find a richer subject than The Worm in all of American sports in the mid-90s? He was not only wrecking the league in rebounds and defense, but he was also a cross-dresser! He ran with drag queens (or female impersonators, as he’s wont to correct people, fabulously)! He talked about his potential bisexuality! What (black?) athlete is giving you all that? Also he let what was supposed to be an hour-long lunch interview turn into a whirlwind three days in Chicago, letting me completely inside his clubbing/Taco Bell-eating/vintage-shopping/Pearl Jam-loving world. You can’t ask for more than that from an interview subject. Well, you can, but then you’d probably be killed after getting the lowdown.

Beyonce, because she managed, it seemed, better than any other “superstar” I interviewed, to play “star” and “friend” at the same time. We talked about being Virgos; we sang Dreamgirls lyrics together; we canoodled on the couch in SONY Studios. Okay, that last thing didn’t happen, obviously. Sue me for daydreaming. What I’m saying is that homegirl knows how to be a star yet remains down-to-earth enough to make you feel like everything between you is cool—not exactly a secret, but a nice little pact of privacy that feels almost like a protective shell; she’s taking care of you so that you’ll take care of her—in print. You can hear some of the interview (and one of our giggle-fests) here at Giant.com

The situation: Sean Combs/Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Diddy. I’ll just call him Puff here, since that’s what he was going by when I did the article. My time with Puff taught me two things: 1) how to be insinuating enough that you can turn an allotted “hour or two” with Prince or Rodman or Shaq into a coupla days or more and 2) sometimes having as big an ego as your subject can net you quite a few gains. In Puff’s case, I sorta knew him from the scene, just cause we were both 20-something kats running around the hiphop world of 1990s NYC. We went to the same parties, fashion shows, openings and restaurants. And as a result he, luckily, sorta thought we were on similar trajectories (you see how that turned out). So even while the interview was going on, there was still that little bit of territorial wariness that came from us being popular peers on the scene. Funny moment: In a cab, my pager (pager! whoa! dating m’self!) goes off again. Puff says: “Damn, nigga, you get as many pages as me!” Surprise went to respect went to trust. I didn’t get all his secrets, but I got enough. And I was able to be the first one to get the info about his “firing” from Uptown Records, literally having to stop the VIBE presses to get it into the story.

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