Thursday, April 28, 2011

Musicals: Absolute Beginners, Purple Rain and the 1980s

The addition of Purple Rain to Netflix Watch Instantly made me start thinking about musicals in the 1980s, or at least movies with music if not musicals proper.  With the rise of MTV one would have thought that the 1980s would have been a new golden age for the movie musical, but somehow the MTV aesthetic never really melded with the traditional musical genre.  While soundtrack sales were on the rise, and the synergy between films and music continued to rise (Flashdance, Footloose), musicals made in the package-unit system (one-off films) suffered in comparison to the expertise and specialization required to make musicals in the producer-unit system (like the Freed Unit at MGM).

Still, there are some interesting films worth looking at again that are currently streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, UK, 1986, 107 minutes)
Netflix: Get set for a splashy musical about London teens in the 1950s, when England was really starting to swing (thanks to a preoccupation with American rock 'n' roll). Follow Colin (Eddie O'Connell) and Suzette (Patsy Kensit), two lovers who must choose to live by their idealistic principles or sell out to get to the top of the fashion world. David Bowie co-stars. Netflix link.

Absolute Beginners has the most obvious connections to the world of the music video, helmed by well-respected music video director Julien Temple, but somehow it got lost in the media shuffle at the time of its release. I distinctly remember promotions for Absolute Beginners on MTV well before its release (including some kind of contest, as I recall) but by the time the film was ready to be released its studio, Goldcrest, was nearly in ruin. I only got to see it during a one-week run at the Majestic Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. While I'm not sure if the film is always successful, particularly in the more heavy-handed second half, it does feature several fantastic sequences and always bounces with a great deal of energy. Its opening sequence is typical of its stylistic audacity: a faux long take (with Rope-like hidden cuts) zig-zagging though London's bohemian night life.

Luckily it is possible to see the film in widescreen again; when I revisited the film on VHS, many of the best sequences were ruined in pan-and-scan.  Possibly the best sequence of the film is one that harkens back to the days of the classic musical (as well as Jerry Lewis's The Ladies Man): Ray Davies's "Quiet Life."

Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli, USA, 1984, 111 minutes)
Netflix: In his semi-autobiographical film debut, Prince plays a hip Minneapolis club musician known as The Kid who struggles with a tumultuous home life and his own smoldering anger. He takes refuge in his music and in a budding relationship with a beautiful young singer, Apollonia (Apollonia). Winner of both an Academy Award and a Grammy for Best Original Musical Score, Purple Rain also stars Clarence Williams III and Morris Day. Netflix link. Streaming on Netflix Watch Insantly starting 4/29/11.

You know, this is actually a pretty good film.  I wonder how I'd feel about it revisiting it after all of these years, but in terms of memorable scenes and memorable songs, this holds up reasonably well.  It's possible that Prince played all of his cinematic cards here in one film, and he certainly wasn't able to follow this up with anything that anyone wanted to see (with the exception of the concert film Sign o' the Times).  But certainly in 1984, when one was 14 and a little bit too young to see the film, this was pretty damn cool. 

Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, USA, 1986, 93 minutes)
Netflix: Plant yourself in front of the tube and veg out with Frank Oz's horticultural horror flick. Gawky Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), looking for a way to save his job in a ramshackle, skid row flower shop, purchases a curious exotic plant hoping it will make business bloom. And it does. There's just one problem: The little creeper possesses a rapacious appetite for fresh human plasma … and it's mushrooming out of control! Netflix link.

This example is the most clearly indebted to musical theater, both in terms of style and content.  But it also incidentally points to where movie musicals would go in the 1980s through its lyricist, Howard Ashman.  Shortly after this film was made, Ashman jumped over to a little company named Disney, and worked on the now over-looked Oliver and Company.  But his next film for Disney, The Little Mermaid, transformed both Disney and the movie musical for the next decade, as audiences seemed to accept animated integrated musicals even as they rejected live-action ones. 

I had the strange experience of watching Little Shop of Horrors with my orthodontist, who happened to attend the same screening.  The material here has stood the test of time (I hear "Suddenly Seymour" at karaoke from time to time), though perhaps more for live theatrical revivals rather than the film itself.  I recall at the time of its release Roger Ebert suggested that it might rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the next cult musical.  But there's something too slick here to make it a cult film, as enjoyable as it is.  Incidentally, Netflix Watch Instantly is also streaming the original film, Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, USA, 1960, 71 minutes).

The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1984, 128 minutes)
Netflix: Richard Gere plays his own cornet solos in Francis Ford Coppola's story of a jazz musician at the titular 1930s legendary nightclub. When Dixie Dwyer (Gere) saves the life of mobster Dutch Schultz (James Remar), he finds he must fight for his own life when he falls for the psychotic gangster's moll. Coppola and his Godfather co-writers Mario Puzo and William Kennedy combine musical performances with a classic mobster story. Netflix link.

This was infamous at the time for its overblown budget and production problems (the New York Times opened its review saying that it "may be a tap-dancing Cleopatra for the 1980s").  But the film has always had its defenders, including Roger Ebert who gave it four stars in his initial review in 1984.  As time has passed, the film has found even more defenders as can be seen by its 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This is one that I finally need to catch up with, and I've put it in my queue.

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