Monday, June 13, 2005

Beyond the Sea and the future of the Meta-Musical

I just rented Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey’s take on Bobby Darin. Beyond the Sea is the latest installment in a genre best described as the “Meta-Musical”. As most people know, the musical and the western were staples of the Hollywood studio period. With the introduction of both sound and color, the musical was perhaps the fullest expression of the power of the new technology at a time when movie theaters were still pushing asside nightclubs and theater shows as venues for the downtown entertainment dollar.

The formula was simple enough. You combined a sentimental plot, usually a love story involving attractive people, with lavish production numbers built around multiple costume changes, surreal sets, and more activity than the eye or ear could handle. When it worked, audiences would leave theaters singing to themselves, dancing with streetlights, and traipsing up and down stairs.

As the 60’s approached, the formula wore down. TV was a more immediate medium for singing and dancing and “sentimental” gave way to “realistic”. There were still great musicals, but movies like West Side Story and My Fair Lady, both adaptations of Broadway Shows, had a darker more class conscious edge. Even the Sound of Music had Nazis in it. Musicals, in general though, stopped justifying their production costs and the studios had a hard time figuring out ways to adapt the medium to a more modern audience. Paint Your Wagon a western musical more or less about wife/husband swapping and starring the strangest musical cast ever of Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg probably marked the apotheosis of Hollywood’s confusion about where to take the genre.

The notion of the complete movie star who could act, sing, dance, and kiss convincingly on screen gave way to “method” stars who acted and made no pretense to any of the other skills. In other words, no more Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, though the decade did produce Susan Sarandon and Tim Currie in Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the 70’s America and the movies became more introspective. In 1977, Annie Hall won best picture by taking cinematic self-consciousness in Hollywood to new levels (fwiw in 1997, Woody Allen made his own version of a musical Everyone Says I Love You).

In 1979, Bob Fosse made the first and maybe only great Meta-Musical, All That Jazz. All That Jazz combined some of the best dance routines on film with a dark self-referential plot based on Fosse himself that turned musical conventions on their head. The movie’s plot was basically this. Fosse’s devotion to creating song and dance routines had rendered him personally incapable of living out his own life as a Hollywood ever after musical plotline. He smoked too much, was tyrannically demanding, couldn’t be sexually faithful, and he was being inexorably drawn to Jessica Lange, the angel of death. In other words, making musicals caused coronaries. The movie was generally well reviewed, but for some time, there were few followers possibly because of a vision that could jump from its romantic vision of dancers at work inGeorge Benson’s On Broadway to the satirizing the significance of the song and dance way in Bye Bye Life set the bar at a daunting height.

For some time, the tradition of the Hollywood musical was left to two unlikely heirs. First, Disney studios began to reinvigorate its production of full length animated features with movies like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the Lion King, which in a reversal of tradition then got transformed into Broadway musicals. Second, the world’s most prolific movie making country, India, found a way to marry their traditional imagery and sentimental plots with the Hollywood musical in a mix now known as “Bollywood,” which I would argue stays truest to the spirit of the original Hollywood musical by remembering ther "feel good" ethos of the genre.

After Win2k and 9/11, two movies brought the meta-musical forward into an era that is both haunted by the disasters possible in this new century and in desperate need of escape. Moulin Rouge was a recreation of Lautrec’s Paris that took the bold step of setting its numbers to pop music from the late twentieth century. It was about music halls and musicals but through the funhouse mirror of an MTV consciousness. Nicole Kidman and Ewan Macgregor not generally known as actors sang and danced credibly, but the whole point of Moulin Rouge seems to be the post card flatness of both the music hall and the movie musical and how a whole generation of music had missed being brought to life by the musical. The second was Chicago, which not coincidentally was based on a Fosse vehicle, that combined vaudeville with barely disguised commentary on the tabloid now mainstream press culture that today's America substitutes for informed thought. Both movies managed to extend the life of the Hollywood musical while apparently promising a possible new way forward.

Since that time, Hollywood has sought to explore the possibilities of the meta-musical further. The Singing Detective brought together a debilitating skin disease with choreography straight out of Steve Martin’s Pennies from Heaven. De Lovely deconstructed Cole Porter’s bi-homosexuality through elaborate musical numbers that offered new contexts for songs like Love for Sale and Easy to Love. Now, Beyond the Sea, attempts a similar deconstruction of Bobby Darin’s relatively short but oddly complex life.

Kevin Spacey who is several years older than Darin ever lived to be (37 when he died) insisted on playing Darin at all adult ages. In addition, he sings all the songs, unlike Jamie Fox’s Ray in which Fox mixed his own versions of Charles’s songs with lipsynching. For the first 30 minutes of the movie, the effect can only be described as strange.
Even though I understood that this was supposed to be Darin’s spirit, looking at his own past and seeing himself, Kevin Spacey as a 20 year old was just too distracting. Spacey actually sings and dances quite well, but I kept wondering if this was supposed to be a movie about a Bobby Darin impression or about Bobby Darin.

Making matters worse, there was only one aspect of the plot, story, that got told with any sense of pacing or build, the relationship between Darin and his older “sister”. Jack Nicholson brought a similar scene to life with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown by exploiting the resonance from his experience of having discovered that his sister was really his mother, Beyond the Sea never quite breaks the surface. As a result, it uses montages to show Darin’s rise, his political awakening, and the shifts in his relationship with Sandra Dee. “But”, you quickly point out, “that’s the way musical plots have ever worked. They're always shallow.”

That’s exactly the problem with Beyond the Sea, it wheels out the heavy emotional artillery, the thing that distinguishes meta-musicals from the sentimentality of the traditional musical, without scoring any direct hits. Bobby Darin the human still eludes us and we are left with little more than “Gee, that Kevin Spacey sings pretty good.” It's interesting that Darin's life had some parallels to Fosse in that both were driven showmen. While Darin's personal and polticial growth may have continued away from his music, Fosse found effective ways to bring serious subjects to the musical medium. If we are to believe, Beyond the Sea, Darin brought gospel singers to his nightclub act.

I do have to mention though, for whatever reason the movie stays quite watchable. Even as all the faults emerge, there is something compelling about the music itself and its intriguing picture of Sandra Dee (I’ve wondered how it might have been had they gone really imaginative and let Kate Bosworth sing back to Darin)

If the meta-musical is to continue to grow as a genre, it’s going to have to find ways to match All That Jazz’s ability to illuminate Fosse, the human being and creator. It’s much more than simply having main characters reflect on themselves between musical numbers and making double-edged comments about what they see.


At 6/15/2005 03:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I learned a lot & was entertained. I'll see musicals more vividly thru both ends of the telescope now. Thanks.

(What does fwiw mean?)


At 6/15/2005 08:39:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

fwiw is For What It's Worth

Pogblog, many thanks for your kind comments. Maybe they'll make a musical about talking lizards who want to destroy the world. They already did one with muppets trying to mate frogs and pigs.


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