Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Top Three Best Musicals on Film

3. Fiddler on the Roof
When we are trying to play a simple little tune like a fiddler on a roof, what keeps us from falling? Traditions! Our traditions help us to know who we are and what God expects of us.

It amuses me that when I searched for the precise quote I found it on a Texan Baptist website which was trying to emphasise the importance of tradition, totally missing the irony in Tevya’s quote; by the end of the film all Tevya’s precious traditions have been turned on their head and yet he still keeps from falling, because he has found something else. The Fiddler on the Roof, like all good musicals, is about passion. But in particular, the rather domestic (but nevertheless deep) passions of an individual for their God, a father for his daughters, a husband for his wife and a man living in a changing world for the traditions he thought would be around forever.

Tevya is a Russian Jewish peasant living at the time of the Pogroms. He has three daughters approaching marriageable age who he expects to find husbands for through the local Matchmaker – this is the way it has always been done. However, each daughter in turn defies tradition and picks an entirely unsuitable husband for herself; an impoverished young tailor, a student revolutionary and finally, unforgivably, a Christian. As Tevya struggles with the gradual erosion of the ideas he took for granted, he is in constant conversation with God, with whom he has a very honest, if not always straight-forward relationship.

The music is quite unique for musicals, the best tunes dominated by an eastern European/ Jewish influence in minor keys which helps spin out the various tensions and conflict, both internal and external that the characters are subject to. And Tevya played by the great Topol is such a thoroughly believable and sympathetic character, perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a father in film ever.

What keeps us from falling from the roof is not tradition, but love. Tevya can gradually come to terms with his daughter’s defiance because he loves them more than he loves history, and they quite obviously love the men they chose. They can even cope with the entire community being evicted because it is really love which helps us to know who we are and what God expects of us, whatever God means to us individually.

2. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Six inches forward, five inches back;
I’ve got an angry inch.

The synopsis to this film is going to sound really weird, rather crude and probably rather rubbish. A young East Berlin man named Hansel meets and falls in love with a US army officer who wants to marry him and take him home to Kansas. For this, Hansel needs to become a Hedwig, but the operation goes horribly wrong, leaving her with an angry inch, so to speak. Shortly after her arrival in America, she is deserted by her husband and she begins a musical career. She discovers, fall in love with and embarks on the musical education of Jonny Gnosis, who then steals her songs, sours to stardom and pretends he never met her. This story is told, largely in song, as Hedwig and her band of Slavonic musicians (The Angry Inch) play in cheap restaurants close to the arena venues of Gnosis’ national tour. Okay? Hmm…

When we rented this film, we fully expected it to be very silly, which it is. But believe it or not it’s also very moving, not nearly as outrageous or pantomimic as it might have been and the songs are really very good; great lyrics, great tunes, real rock/ pop songs as opposed to the sort of rock and pop songs often written for musicals by those who have no real interest in popular music. They stuck in my head after the first watching but not in the annoying “Follow the yellow brick road” sense (sorry if I’ve now put that song in your head, but you know what I mean). If Hedwig and the Angry Inch were a real band, I would have all their albums.

Despite the outlandish premise, the film rarely relies on shock for humour (although given the subject matter, it’s far from universally inoffensive) and somewhere in the mix the film does make some serious points about gender and identity, fantasy and denial.

The Moulin Rouge
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.

People who don’t like the Moulin Rouge usually have very rigid ideas about the form; about musicals, about films and about the way stories should be told. In fact, the makers of this film are expert story-tellers; they break the rules and use a lot of narrative short-hand but in doing so they manage to make a rather mediocre, clichéed story into a dazzling and deeply moving masterpiece.

The biggest short-cut they use is by only writing one original song in the entire score. They rework pop songs, stick lyrics onto Offenbach, and mix the chorus form Nirvana’s Smells like teen spirit into Lady Marmalade. This way, the love story in particular, the pace in which two people fall in love, the intensity of it and the tragedy of its conclusion is effortless absorbed. It may be cheating using other people’s words and music but in a way it is ingenius. You feel for these characters after two hours as you would feel for characters in a book you were reading for eight.

Other short-cuts include the Shakespearean trick of letting us know that it’s all going to end in tears before the two lovers have even got it together, then teasing us with the fact throughout. Then there’s the rather dubious yet entirely loveable characterisation of Toulouse Latrec, who is almost in love with both the lovers and willing as desperately as we are for it all to turn out all right. Which it won’t. But the greatest thing you’ll ever learn…

Christian (Ewan McGregor) comes to Montmarte to live La Vie de Boheme and write his novel in a garret. Pretty soon he is roped into writing a musical with a motley crew including Toulouse La Trec. They want to put the show on at The Moulin Rouge; a night club, dance hall and bordello rolled into one. Christian meets and falls madly in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star of the show. But unfortunately she has also caught the eye of The Duke, a possessive, inadequate but rather comic fellow on whom everybody is relying for funding. To cut a long story short, love prevails but it all ends in tragedy. It is like Orpheus in the Underworld meets La Boheme meets Summer Holiday. Perhaps.

I have spoken to some people who seem to have expected it to be about the Moulin Rouge in Montmarte at the end of the nineteen century. But when did you last see a production of Romeo and Juliet that went to great lengths to recreate fifteenth century Verona? Neither Verona nor life in fifteenth century Italy is not what Romeo and Juliet is about, right? Exactly.

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