The lack of ability in movie musicals is lamentable
Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story may be the director’s first musical, but look back at his 32 feature films and it’s obvious that many of his most accomplished set pieces have been musical-adjacent. If you’ve never seen the jitterbug contest degenerating into a dance hall brawl in 1941, or Kate Capshaw singing “Anything Goes” in Mandarin at the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then hie thee to YouTube and watch the clips forthwith. Spielberg’s command of framing, editing and choreography must surely bode well for his all-singing, all-dancing update of Romeo and Juliet.
Let us hope it also portends a shift away from the dismaying recent trend for musicals that incline towards, shall we say, inclusivity. By this I don’t mean diversity; embracing alternative origins or genders is always a welcome way of jiffing up old genres. I mean inclusivity in terms of ability, or the absence of it. Too many of today’s film musicals seem to be celebrations of incompetence. If I wanted to see an amateur I would look in the mirror at my tap dancing class.
When I go to a musical, I don’t want to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone galumphing around like pit ponies in La La Land. I would rather marvel at the micro-movements of Gwen Verdon’s hips in Damn Yankees, perfected by a lifetime of training and choreographed by her soon-to-be-husband, Bob Fosse. Why would you subject yourself to Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth mangling ABBA tunes in Mamma Mia!, in which the dance numbers resemble drunken Club Med hoedowns, when you can groove to professional singers like John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John belting out “You’re the One That I Want” in Grease?
It’s true that, even in the Golden Age of the Musical, Hollywood would often dub photogenic stars who didn’t have the pipes of the Broadway performers who originated their roles. So however Spielberg’s West Side Story remake turns out, at least his Maria (Rachel Zegler) is of Hispanic descent and does her own singing, which is more than can be said for lovely Natalie Wood, “browned up” to look Puerto Rican and dubbed by Marni Nixon in the 1961 version.
By the 1980s, the stars of a new generation of pop musicals – let’s call them “bopsicals” – didn’t just have their singing voices dubbed, they had dance stand-ins as well. It wasn’t Jennifer Beals doing twirlies in her loin-revealing leotard in Flashdance, but uncredited Marine Jahan. And it wasn’t Kevin Bacon doing the “angry dance” in Footloose – it was his “stunt dancer”, Peter Tramm. Somehow, it takes a lot of fun out of the films once you know that.
Meanwhile the half-baked musicals drone on endlessly. The Greatest Showman and Les Misérables have loyal followings, but I couldn’t hum you one of the tunes if my life depended on it, even if Anne Hathaway did win an Oscar for snivelling-while-singing in the latter
But I lay the blame for today’s lame state of affairs at the feet of Rob Marshall, Hollywood’s go-to director for screen musicals since his film of Chicago won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Picture. Fosse choreographed the original Broadway production in 1975, but died before he could get a film of it off the ground. In All That Jazz, his penultimate picture, he experimented with non-linear editing, so that his dance-of-death narrative jumped between past and present, fantasy and reality. But however much he jump-cutted around, he always took care to frame the singing and dancing to its best advantage.
Not so Marshall, whose method is to impose rhythm in the editing suite, chopping the dancing into impressionistic chunks instead of giving the choreography room to speak for itself. Of the film’s three leads, Richard Gere and Renée Zellweger look like game amateurs next to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who had acquired genuine musical comedy chops on the London stage. But even here Marshall snips away at her performance, inserting redundant angles and cutaways, often not even bothering to show her feet.
Meanwhile the half-baked musicals drone on endlessly. The Greatest Showman and Les Misérables have loyal followings, but I couldn’t hum you one of the tunes if my life depended on it, even if Anne Hathaway did win an Oscar for snivelling-while-singing in the latter. Annette, directed by French auteur Leos Carax, with music and an embarrassing libretto by Sparks, relies too much on Adam Driver taking his shirt off. In the Heights is West Side Story without teeth. Don’t get me started on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim (whose musicals are, people keep assuring me, more thrilling live on stage than on film). Worst of all, James Corden keeps turning up in everything: Cats, Into the Woods, Yesterday, The Prom, Cinderella…
People are hailing this as a new Golden Age of Musicals, but with added social awareness, which suggests they’ve forgotten about 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, which tackled The Great Depression, or Show Boat, which took on racial prejudice. But I don’t mind escapist musicals either. I’m simply asking for actors who can sing and dance properly, as opposed to having been put through a pre-production crash course so they can pass muster. I just want tunes you can sing along to, and a director who isn’t suffering from artistic ADD, and knows how to film the choreography head-on instead of editing it into chopped liver. All I ask is for a little musical expertise.
Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist