Movie musicals are having a moment, but it’s hard to tell what kind of moment it is. Two giant studio adaptations of Broadway mainstays belted their hearts out last Christmas; a third, directed by an American film legend, came out last summer, between a star-studded record-industry fable and a beloved pop band’s passion project. And in February, Anna Kendrick will headline a full-blown modern romance opera.
This resurgence of song and dance may represent one of the final wrenches slowing down Hollywood’s master plan, recently prophesied by Grantland’s Mark Harris, to engulf the populace in nothing but sequels for eternity. There’s little chance of the film industry designing a true new golden era for musicals—the Busby Berkeley days of the 1930s, or the elaborate roadshow productions of the ’60s—but if musicals click with audiences, studios will develop more musicals, which will necessitate flexing some different creative muscles. The sheer variety of musicals in 2014 suggests filmmakers are grappling with modern tastes in strikingly different ways, sometimes aggressively courting them, and in other cases, actively rejecting them, as they try to crack the magic formula for counterbalancing a looming Age of Ultron(s).
In every aspect but actual music, Annie is a solid framework for the modern musical. Director Will Gluck updates the 1977 Broadway rendition of the plucky Depression-era orphan girl who lucks into a new life with a wealthy benefactor. It’s true that modern Hollywood is too infatuated with shiny remakes, but updating Annie for the 21st century made perfect sense in the context of Annie. The original stage and screen musicals were Daddy Warbucks to the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, which would have stayed in the newspaper and away from cross-platform immortality without them. Besides which, dropping a poor, parentless child from the 1920s into 2014 Harlem and swapping her skin color builds a rich new layer of irony onto the property that wouldn’t have been possible with other musicals.
Gluck and producers Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith lampoon modern income inequality, the foster-care system, and omnipresent cell-phone companies. They do all these things with relish, while engaging in playful dialogue with the source material. In the clever opening scene, for instance, a classroom sleeps through a presentation from a pale redhead also named Annie, but cheers when Quvenzhané Wallis’ foster kid, also named Annie, takes over. The white Annie’s preferred rhythm machine (tap-dancing) won’t lift the spirits of today’s kids; for that, they need Wallis’ stomps and hand claps. Touches like this acknowledge the older generation’s love for toe-tapping traditionalism without feeling indebted to it.
But at other moments, Annie’s efforts to convince young people that musicals are cool feel like “@Annie4Realz,” the Twitter account Annie’s handlers make—hipdom as attempted by old squares. (Read: studios.) The music, especially, is @Annie4Realz: the remixed classics like “Tomorrow” are overproduced with slimy AutoTune, and when inserted into the narrative, they feel perfunctory and shallow rather than transcendent. The new songs are weak, particularly what’s meant to be Wallis’ big show-stopper, “Opportunity,” a Sia Furler-composed number whose empty, liberal-guilt lyrics limp under the swelling of orchestra strings. Annie’s songs trudge through the motions necessary to sell soundtracks, their lethargic screen presence a universe away from the playfulness of the rest of the film. The girl tries hard, but it’s the integration of song, dance, and cinematic awe that will determine the future of the movie musical, not merely the presence of all three in roughly the same space.
Still, Annie got scathing reviews it didn’t deserve. The songs were a big target, although some critics also took issue with its consumerism and sentimentality, as though the source material didn’t also have those things in buckets. Consensus has been more united on its holiday competition, Disney’s fairy-tale tossed salad Into The Woods. The original stage musical dates back to 1986, but the timing of this long-gestating adaptation couldn’t be better, considering this decade’s prolonged obsession with magic and folk tales. The fact that Disney, longtime peddler of sanitized fantasy, should be the studio to adapt Steven Sondheim’s dark exploration of wish fulfillment is synergetic bliss. “Are you certain what you wish is what you want?” the spirit of Cinderella’s mother asks when her daughter (Anna Kendrick) expresses her desire to attend the festival where she will meet and marry a handsome, powerful stranger. Stay tuned for Disney’s umpteenth remake of Cinderella this spring, when this lesson will be stricken from the record, and Cinderella will get her prince and like it.
So if any Broadway show had hope of crossover film success right now, it was Into The Woods. The market was primed. And Rob Marshall’s film delivers as a market crossover: colorful enough for kids, mournful enough for Sondheim fans. Marshall makes the craggy branches of the woods setting seductive without overloading the scenery; he also lets the actors, particularly Meryl Streep as the witch, ham when necessary, but dials everything back when the moment counts.
The film could be bolder and less rooted in the woods. Marshall shows a glimmer of possibility when Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) recounts her tumble into the Big Bad Wolf’s impossibly large stomach; it billows and pulsates around her like something out of Suspiria. There’s a mythical quality to that aside that the film struggles to replicate later on. When Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) tells the audience about the “giants in the sky,” but the camera just follows him a few feet up a tree, it’s hard not to want more. Onstage, Sondheim used an act break and a number of reprises to transition his themes from light to dark; Marshall turns down those tools, losing emotional impact as characters die or combat ennui. To be fair to Marshall, an act break wouldn’t play as well onscreen as it does onstage, where the intermission crowd can wonder why they have just seen a technically complete narrative.
Still, Into The Woods is a more faithful adaptation than Annie. It clings to Sondheim’s hyper-detailed 1986 blueprints with minor deviations, taking fewer technical risks. Yet it’s the more successful musical for a 2014 crowd—and to date, the more popular one, with $93 million in domestic grosses to Annie’s $73 million, even though the latter was released a week earlier. That’s because Woods blends the music more seamlessly with the filmmaking. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen stage their hilarious male-bodice-ripping number “Agony” along the side of a tiny waterfall, with the sweeping camerawork and puny crashing waves as a perfect visual mockery of their self-absorption. Annie can’t manage much of the same: When Jamie Foxx performs the original number “The City’s Yours” from inside his private helicopter, for instance, Gluck doesn’t do much with the setting except some generic sweeping shots of skyscrapers, and a straight-ahead medium shot on Foxx. If studios managed an Into The Woods every year, the genre would be in good hands.
Musicals about people who make music are a time-honored tradition in the movies, if for no other reason than that they’re easy: No one has to explain why they’re breaking into song. But they still need an aesthetic to work properly, and Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys has none. For a moment, forget the improbability that a film based on the Four Seasons stage smash could have ever worked when the original depends so much on the live band experience, and just consider how discombobulated Eastwood’s attempt is. At various points, the film tries to be novelty nostalgia on a transparent studio backlot, a Walk The Line-style rock biopic, a gritty drama about cussing gangsters who happen to make bubblegum pop, and a jukebox-Broadway pantomime where smiling gentlemen in tuxedos act cool for hordes of screaming extras.
Had Eastwood picked just one of these styles, Jersey Boys would have at least been coherent, if unremarkable; the fact that he shuffles so flippantly between them is lazy. Jersey Boys is an Oldies film, after a different audience than Annie and Into The Woods. This should make its inconsistency even more alarming for the musicals crowd; it’s trying to remind people what this genre used to be like, without having the slightest idea itself. So why should the rest of the film industry bother?
Thankfully, a few weeks after Jersey Boys’s release, John Carney’s Begin Again arrived: a charming work that gets everything right about cinematic portrayals of music-makers that Eastwood’s film bumbles. By Howard Hawks’ definition of “three great scenes, no bad ones,” Begin Again is a firmly great musical. It has three scenes that use music in a clever and exhilarating way unique to the possibilities of the medium: when washed-up record exec Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears Gretta (Keira Knightley) strum solo acoustic in a bar and imagines the instruments playing backup by themselves; when the two set their personal New York soundtrack to Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life,” iPod blissfully unsynced to the live band in front of them; and when they coax Ruffalo’s daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) to join in on a rooftop recording, her reservations at her guitar ability melting away as she’s swept up in the thrill of making music.
Begin Again is often broad and obvious, and Carney played much better music with fewer notes in Once. But the film points to a way forward for movie musicals. Not only do the songs emerge organically from the story, allowing relationships between key characters to develop over the course of their performances, but the compositions provide insight into the modern pop industry. The structural differences between Gretta’s stubborn, non-commercial ballads and the inoffensive hits recorded by her ex, Dave (Adam Levine) are subtler than they initially appear; it isn’t that Gretta’s music is good and Dan’s is bad, it’s that one of them is a lot closer to its author’s inner monologue than the other. Begin Again purports to support an ideal of authenticity in the music business, with its message touting indie labels over sold-out arenas. But the film isn’t really concerned with authenticity; its co-stars include Levine and Cee-Lo Green, after all. Begin Again is interested in messiness, or as close to messiness as an A-list musical about pop songs can get. When Gretta and Dan team up to record an album outdoors, Carney doesn’t present it as an objectively better sound than what she was doing solo before. What’s being celebrated is Knightley’s willingness to embrace chance and imperfection when it counts.
God Help The Girl, a much smaller film than Begin Again, is alive in its glorious imperfection. The film uses the musical format and a music-video aesthetic to tap into the vibrancy of youth culture in ways the big studios haven’t cracked. Based on the music of Belle & Sebastian and directed by the band’s frontman, Stuart Murdoch, the film hands out pastels, twee outfits, and charming two-steps like candy on Halloween. Whether viewers perceive this as a benefit or a defect has entirely to do with their willingness to play along, making God Help The Girl the modern-day equivalent of so many inherently silly movie-musical giants of the past.
The film follows Eve (Emily Browning), an anorexic, mentally frail young woman whose musical talents grant her respite from her personal demons, but can’t save her from them. Murdoch draws a connection between indie rock and teen psychology, exploring the intimacy that can grow between talented, troubled young adults and the right song. It’s best illustrated in the opening scene, with Eve singing a ditty to herself as she flees a psych ward, starring in a music video that she must be cutting inside her head. Murdoch comes at the genre a world away from his veteran peers like Marshall and Eastwood, leaning toward soft lilts when others would unleash their show-stoppers. As such, God Help The Girl understands youthful hesitancy better than the studio efforts, embracing acoustic-pop conventions and imagery as well as the darkness underneath the sunny melodies. It’s the musical for the theater kids who grew up with earbuds, singing the musical of their lives.
All these films leave movie musicals stuck at a promising bridge, with no chorus ready to follow. Missing from last year’s efforts is any sense of a united vision for a once-inescapable subset of the movies: how to talk about 2010s-era musicals in any way other than as a sideshow. Thankfully, there’s a pot-stirrer coming in February 2015, in the form of The Last Five Years, Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s stage show. The modern movie opera will come unapologetically packed with swooning camerawork, montages, and nonstop singing. When it screened in Toronto last fall, according to reports, several festival attendees walked out in the first few minutes after realizing it was going to be nothing but singing. Musicals used to be film-industry comfort food, and now they’re something to run from.
Those walkouts recall Pauline Kael’s “Fear Of Movies” essay from 1978. Discussing what she then perceived as a cultural aversion to violent pictures, Kael ridiculed people who “want to remain in control of their feelings, so they’ve been going to the movies that allow them a distance,” and declared, “If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.” Musicals excite senses and erase distances, and audiences shouldn’t need to be weeded out for them. The walkouts for The Last Five Years could be a blessing in disguise: They’re an excellent opportunity to rid the landscape of such knee-jerk aversion to the form, and start critical dialogue about a place for musicals in today’s cinematic ecosystem. Maybe a few walkouts are just what this genre needs to check in.