January 9, 2007


From my upcoming review in the American Conservative:

Broadway musical composers can't seem to come up with catchy tunes anymore, so Hollywood has turned instead to singers' biopics, such as recent Oscar-winners "Walk the Line" (Johnny Cash) and "Ray" (Ray Charles), so audiences can still leave the theatre humming the hits.

Unfortunately, musical career arcs generally lack fresh drama. The genre's standard plot sees the struggling young prodigy get a quick lesson in how to sell a song from a veteran Svengali, after which he ascends to superstardom during a montage. In Act II, the singer struggles with his "inner demons," which predictably turn out to be drugs or drink.

It doesn't help that filmmakers have been oddly averse to honesty about why we idolize outstanding singers. "Walk the Line," for example, implied that Cash became a legend because of the emotional trauma of his younger brother's death. Likewise, when Hollywood finally makes "The Shaquille O'Neal Story," we'll no doubt learn that Shaq grew up to be a 7'1" NBA center because his beloved pet dog got run over.

What made Cash unique, however, was that bass-baritone voice with which he would thrillingly rumble, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Joaquin Phoenix, a fine actor but a mere baritone, couldn't match it.

In contrast, "Dreamgirls," the deservedly crowd-pleasing film version of the 1981 Broadway musical, demonstrates how making stuff up can be more truthful. A highly fictionalized account of Motown's Supremes (renamed the Dreams), it refreshingly puts conflicts over voices and looks at the center of this story of three Detroit high school friends who become the biggest American pop group of the 1960s.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

THe more I think about it, the lack of melody and structure in Broadway "musicals" of recent times is as much a matter of lack of demand from the people putting them on, as from a lack of ability-although that's probably a factor too.

Yesterday, I watched my second favorite musical,Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,as I do once a year or so. It's my second favorite, despite its superb Howard Hawks finesse and solid Leo Robin/Jule Styne tunes (and being the signature role of the greatest movie star in history) only because of the sheer perfection of "Guys and Dolls", which defines the Hollywood musical. This reminded me of Sammy Cahn's answer as to which came first, the music or the lyrics: "the phone call". The phone quit ringing for Cahn and his primary composer, Jimmy Van Heusen, twenty years before either man died, while there was no question they could have written songs as strong as ever.

Cahn himself was a modest man of magnificent ability,and his Rhyming Dictionary contains a rather large exegesis on the mechanics of songwriting that has been abandoned in the rock era.

The success of modern rock, and the notion that any other way to look at pop music is quaint, unhip, and for old people-ideas I believed myself for twenty years or so-has a lot to do with continually allowing people like Andrew Lloyd Webber-a man with no discernible musical talent whatever-to write numerous scores for unmelodious and awkward musicals.

Almost all rock, and most country and non-rap R&B, is I-IV-V progressions over twelve bars in 4/4 time. There's just so much you can do that way, and when you eschew pure rhymes-in the standards era, "girl/world" would have been a clam, very much less "home/alone" or, to pick on my favorite iMMitator,"fifty-nine/alive".

Cahn's book, along with Gene Lees' mildly dyspeptic but valid Johnny Mercer biography/musical analysis, "Portrait of Johnny",are excellent resources for those wanting a good overview.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen "High School Musical?" Now, granted it's on TV, and Disney no less, but if you have a chance, it's worth a look. It has a traditional score, and does the old movie musical thing of having the cast break into song at odd moments, including one beautiful number called, I think, "Status Quo," where the various tables in the cafeteria -- you know, the "jock" table, the "brain" table, the "skateboard" or "stoner" table -- all start singing and dancing. Because no one in the thing is past 20 and because, again, it's on TV and Disney at that, apparently no actual adult publications have done a review. Heck, I wouldn't have seen it had my sons not become obsessed. Now, my sons are eight and five, and for them to want to watch this, it has to have something. Maybe "High School Musical" will inspire today's third-graders to grow up and revive the Great American Song tradition. Hey, at least it's not rap.

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