Best Weird Musicals to Watch for Fans of Annette - VRGyani News and Media

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Best Weird Musicals to Watch for Fans of Annette

When it comes to the movie musical, people tend to favor the lavish, upbeat entertainments with big dance numbers set to infectiously hummable melodies (i.e. Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocky Horror Picture Show), or they gravitate toward completely grounded musicals, often with mostly or entirely diegetic music (i.e. Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). So, when a film like Annette is released, the English language debut from celebrated art house French filmmaker Leos Carax, many people out there who have very specific ideas of what the form is can feel quite alienated by a film that plays and experiments with the formulas we have come to know so much.

Mostly sung through, Annette’s use of music, written by the band Sparks (composed of the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who also appear in the film), features very little in the way of toe-tapping tunes, something one may expect from the pop rock duo. Instead, the soundscape edges far more in the direction of a recitative pop opera, utilizing the lyrics as conversational pieces or a running stream of consciousness, and if you were expecting some intricate tap dancing or a graceful partner dance from stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, you will undoubtedly be left wanting. Though if you were hoping for a baby to be played by a puppet, this is the movie musical for you.

Of course, plenty of the audience for Annette look for and crave unorthodox and unique approaches to storytelling and were moved and entertained by Carax’s film. On Broadway and off-Broadway stages, this kind of musical storytelling experimentation happens more often, due to being a slightly less financial risk, but on film, they are certainly fewer and far between, perhaps making it challenging for fans of Annette to find other movie musicals taking big swings. In this piece, let’s look at five movie musicals that took those big, unconventional swings with this beloved cinematic form, from an abstract visualization of a concept album to a film with children playing gangsters.

RELATED: 'Annette' Review: Leos Carax Further Explores the Art of Performance in His Bizarre and Enchanting Musical

The Tales of Hoffman (1951)

If stage musical adaptations to film are a nice treat every so often, a film adaptation of an opera exemplifies the phrase “once in a blue moon.” British luminaries Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made one of their most acclaimed films three years prior with the ballet drama The Red Shoes, which features a breathtaking seventeen minute ballet sequence filled with gorgeously designed sets and costumes, outstanding dancing, and shot in glorious three-strip Technicolor. The Archers, as Powell and Pressburger are also known, decided to basically take the stylistic approach to that ballet sequence and make an entire film that way.

The Tales of Hoffman is adapted from the 1881 opera of the same name by Jacques Offenbach, based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffman, who serves as the protagonist of the story by recounting tales of his past loves. Bringing back performers Moira Shearer, Léonide Massine, and Robert Helpmann, along with acclaimed tenor Robert Rounseville as Hoffman, the result is one of the most opulent and bold films ever made, a true example of filmmakers with a ton of clout making something entirely on their own terms because they can. It is a film entirely made of style and color, where artifice is presented as truth and grand theatricality is a baseline.

Perhaps this kind of filmmaking is more effective in a smaller burst like in The Red Shoes, as sometimes that opulence can become completely overwhelming. Powell and Pressburger would follow this up four years later with the musical comedy Oh… Rosalinda!!, but that film dramatically steps back in its attempt to push stylistic boundaries, making what the two were able to do with The Tales of Hoffman a truly singular piece.

Carmen Jones (1954)

As a bridge from opera to the musical, we have this odd experiment from the legendary Broadway figure Oscar Hammerstein II. While some of his work may seem corny today to some, Hammerstein always was looking to take chances, and in 1943, the same year his and Richard Rodgers’ landmark musical Oklahoma! opened on Broadway, he had Carmen Jones open that same year, an adaptation of the extremely popular opera Carmen from Georges Bizet set in contemporary World War II America with an entirely Black cast. Hammerstein used Bizet’s music for the piece, writing translated and new lyrics for the famous melodies people have known for decades.

Eleven years later, Carmen Jones made it to the big screen directed by boundary pushing director Otto Preminger and starring Dorothy Dandridge in the titular role with Harry Belafonte as the soldier who falls for her. Hammerstein is a strange case of someone who wanted to tell stories about people who did not look like him as a way to broaden the scope of theatrical storytelling, be it this, South Pacific, or The King and I, yet he was still a wealthy white man in the first half of the 20th century writing lyrics with incredibly offensive dialects and wading in plenty of stereotypes. Carmen Jones falls prey to this, but it still remains a rare case of a major Hollywood production with an entirely Black cast led by two performers with ultra-watt movie star charisma in Dandridge and Belafonte, even if their already good singing voices are dubbed by opera singers more suited to the material.

The film’s legacy probably is most famous for starting the affair between Preminger and Dandridge, a relationship which she credits as really hampering her career to his demanding naturese, but limiting her work on this film simply to the off-camera tabloid stories does such a disservice to what a lightning rod she was in front of that camera, with this performance making her the first Black woman ever nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. The film has its many issues, ones that would justifiably turn some viewers off, but remains an important document.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

The filmography of French master Jacques Demy has several big swing movie musicals. On the more traditional side is The Young Girls of Rochefort, an effervescent, joyous homage to the great dance musicals of Old Hollywood. For something a bit more whimsical and strange, there is the fairy tale Donkey Skin, which features the greatest song of all time about baking a cake. Then there is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy’s sung-through romantic drama jazz musical scored by the great Michel Legrand (who composed the music for the other two films as well).

Like Annette, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg uses music to lift everyday conversation into the emotional sublime. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, dubbed by Danielle Licari and José Bartel respectively, star as a pair of young lovers ultimately fated not to be together due to societal pressures and him going off to fight in the Algerian War in the late 1950s. Much of the film’s music is done in a recitative style, but when the major, memorable love theme hits, all your heart can do is burst. Eighteen years later, Demy would make another sung-through musical with Une chambre de ville (A Room in Town), a film more politically minded and arguably bolder than Cherbourg, but that film clearly builds upon the foundation set by his first outing into the form.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has garnered mass amounts of admiration in the nearly sixty years since its release, particularly in the last few years as it was a major inspiration for the Oscar winning film La La Land, and rightfully so. It serves as a wonderful entry point to the unconventional movie musical, and seeing all of the movie musicals Demy would create subsequently shows why he was perhaps the greatest filmmaker at creating them.

Tommy (1975)

If a musician or band gets big enough, they are sometimes allotted the resources to not just record an ambitious concept album, but also create a film to visualize the stories and themes woven throughout the record, such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade. While at a first glance, this looks like what happened with Tommy, the seminal 1969 rock opera concept album by the lauded British rock band The Who, but guitarist/songwriter Pete Townsend and director Ken Russell (The Devils, Altered States) instead adapted this album into an all out musical, as opposed to an extended music video, with a complete story and an ensemble of characters performing these rock songs as they would if it was Rodgers and Hammerstein.

However, the content and style are about as far as you get from those two. Russell’s film stars The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey as the eponymous Tommy, a “deaf, dumb, and blind” man who sets England in frenzy as a master pinball player eventually looked at as a messionic figure. Reading that sentence may make little to no sense, but through the abstract visuals of Ken Russell, which includes everything from a church worshipping Marilyn Monroe to Tommy’s mother (an Oscar nominated Ann-Margret) being drenched in foam, baked beans, and chocolate shooting out of her television, everything feels totally of a piece with one another. Throughout the film, we are treated to cameos from some of music’s biggest stars in Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Tina Turner, who particularly shines in her show stopping number “The Acid Queen.” Even Jack Nicholson shows up to showcase a surprisingly nice singing voice for a number.

Tommy has the same artistic impulse as The Tales of Hoffman, where the ambition is to maximize every frame with scale as possible. Where the two diverge is that Powell and Pressberger steer in the direction of having an enormously specific style and Russell throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Tommy eventually made it to a Broadway stage in 1993 and won five of its eleven Tony Award nominations.

Bugsy Malone (1976)

Director Alan Parker brought to the big screen an adaptation of arguably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best show Evita in the mid-1990s, which takes plenty of swings of its own and uses ensemble performers in a fairly similar fashion to Annette. Nevertheless, Parker’s first theatrical feature could not have had a stranger conceit. Bugsy Malone is a prohibition era gangster musical comedy featuring a cast entirely made up of children, who are dubbed over by adults when they sing. It often plays as the highest budgeted school play of all time, where you know these kids really have no business performing this material but you just go along with it because you like seeing your kid on stage.

While at first you may have a furrowed brow and a cocked head attempting to decipher why this film was made, eventually you start to lock into place, completely charmed by the child performers that include Scott Baio and Jodie Foster, and you can’t help but giggle when they start shooting each other with guns filled with whipped cream instead of bullets. Also, the music is written by Paul Williams (Phantom of the Paradise, The Muppet Movie), one of the greats in terms of getting melodies lodged in your brain.

Plenty of movies aimed at children bring to life many of the fantasies they have playing in their backyards, with superheroes being the dominant outlet for that now, but rarely does one literalize those fantasies to the extent of Bugsy Malone by actually having them live them out. To have a film this out of the box be your first time out with a major motion picture is a true rarity in the film business.

Quite frankly, having the ability to make an unorthodox film of any kind, particularly if it requires more than a budget of a couple cents, remains incredibly rare. The production demands of movie musicals, in particular, often cause there to be even less opportunity for risk taking. So, when films like Leos Carax’s Annette or the others mentioned in this article take chances with the form, you need to take a chance on them as well. They do not come along that often and should be admired for their swings, even if they sometimes miss.

Annette is currently in theaters and will drop on Amazon Prime Video on August 20th. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is available on HBO Max and Criterion Channel. Carmen Jones, Tommy, and Bugsy Malone are available on VOD. The Tales of Hoffman currently is not streaming but is available on a Region B Blu-ray.



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