Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

Leto (2019)

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is known for criticizing Russian government with his work on stage and screen, putting him high on Putin’s radar. During the final week of wrapping up and editing his most recent film, Leto, Serebrennikov was arrested for “fraud” charges, forcing him to complete his work on the film under house arrest. Many (including myself) believe this arrest was politically motivated, so the fact that Serebrennikov pushed through and completed Leto regardless of his circumstances is so badass. He even did it without being connected to the internet (Russian government took it away as part of his sentence). Leto, a musical film about Russia’s revolutionary rock movement in the early 1980s, has rebellion running through its veins. That alone is enough reason to watch this movie.

Leto (loosely translated from the Russian word for “Summer”) takes place in repressive Leningrad in the early 1980s. Rock music is loved by the Soviet Union’s youth, but older folk view it as music of the enemy because of its Western roots (influenced by Bowie, T. Rex, Lou Reed). The Leningrad Rock Club has recently opened and serves as the heart of the Soviet Union’s rock scene. The problem is that it’s overseen by the KGB and all musicians’ lyrics must be approved prior to performances. During the film’s beginning, the band Zoopark is performing at the Leningrad Rock Club to a seated audience being monitored by police. If anyone does anything beyond light claps for applause, head bobbing, and toe tapping, the police are on their ass. Watching a venue full of people quietly sitting while high-energy music is blaring through the speakers was beyond strange. Zoopark’s front man, Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), is a prominent figure in this new scene. He’s a cool guy who wears sunglasses indoors and keeps things as funky as possible while following the rules of the KGB. He eventually meets Viktor Tsoi (Te Yoo), the singer and songwriter from the band Kino. Viktor is a little more rebellious with his music than Mike, but not enough to get him in jail or kicked out of the rock club. The relationship between Mike and Viktor is an interesting one. It’s hard to tell if Mike views Viktor as competition or if he wants to take Viktor under his wing and guide him through this new, growing music scene. Their relationship becomes even more confusing when Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), Mike’s wife and mother to his child, gets permission from Mike to hook up with Viktor.

Zoopark and Kino are actual bands and Mike and Viktor are real-life members of those bands. However, this film is not considered to be a biopic. It’s more like historical fiction loosely based on two bands considered to be founding fathers of Russian rock music. There are times throughout the film where characters break the fourth wall to say, “This really didn’t happen.” prior to a scene. It’s a quirky way to remind us all that we are not watching a biopic, even though it really feels like we are. I went into this film knowing nothing about Russian rock music, much less Russian rock music from the early 80s, and I didn’t feel like I was ever not in the know. The film sort of jumps into the plot without any background or history, but its in-the-moment style is done so well that there is no need for a newcomer like me to be brought up to speed.

What really made Leto memorable for me was the film’s unique style. The entire film is in black and white (with a few flashbacks in grainy color), and there are musical moments with hand-drawn scribbles floating all over the screen. My favorite musical number was a rendition of the Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer” during a violent train altercation. I’ve watched it multiple times. Let it be known that there aren’t that many musical numbers, so don’t avoid seeing this movie if you’re not a fan of musicals.

-Britnee Lombas

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019)

If you’ve been watching the Cartoon Network fantasy series Steven Universe since its 2013 debut, it’s difficult to think back to when the show was a collection of one-off adventures instead of a complex intergalactic epic with five seasons of mythology guiding its every move. Insular adventures like Steven begging for French-fry bits at the wharf or raising an island of adorable Watermelon Stevens have gradually given way to emotionally tough, intellectually challenging tales of queer love & war across the endless canvas of Space & Time. It would be a total shame to roll back all that careful incremental progress from the canon adventures of Steven & The Crystal Gems at this point in their saga, which is entirely the point of Steven Universe: The Movie. Most “The Movie” addendums to television shows dial the clock back to their respective mythologies’ starting point to welcome in new audiences at a late stage in their run, once they’ve earned that larger platform. Steven Universe: The Movie isn’t screening in cinemas across America or anything, but it does mark the occasion of having gradually earned a sizeable audience by reaching for the grandiose spectacle of a feature-length musical. It also leans into its “The Movie” designation by resetting all character development & plot complications back to a square-one factory default setting. What’s most impressive about the movie is that this reset is treated as a devastating tragedy for longtime fans, not an ingratiating plea for a new audience.

As accustomed as we’ve become to our favorite pop culture institutions extending themselves into perpetuity through reboots, network jumps, and crowd-funded movie sequels, the harsh truth is that Steven Universe pretty much wrapped up the story it needed to tell by the end of its fifth season. This feature-length follow-up to that arc about says as much. All the work of dismantling an intergalactic empire is through; all the characters have reached a personal & communal place of self-acceptance; there’s nowhere left for the show to go. All that can be done at this point is to tread water solely so that we can spend more time with the Crystal Gems whom we love so much, or to dial the clock back and ruin all their progress for the sake of establishing a worthwhile conflict. Steven Universe: The Movie expertly demonstrates the folly of both approaches. It opens with the Crystal Gems on Earth in peaceful communal health and the empirical Gems in space no longer searching to destroy deviants outside their colonial rule. Steven announces that he hopes things never change, aligning himself with the satiated fandom. Then, a Fleicsher cartoon-style villain, Spinel, arrives on Earth to cause havoc by erasing all the memories & personal progress the Gems have earned over the course of the show as vengeance for a past wrong. It’s heartbreaking to lose all that progress at an instant, but at least the challenge of rebuilding the Gems’ memories & personae gives Steven something to do besides reveling in how perfect his life is now and how he never wants anything to change. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Steven saves the day by empathizing with & healing Spinel (as is his usual M.O.), once again resetting the scenario back to normal with characters settled exactly where you’d want them to be. It’s an incredibly smart, concise demonstration of why the show needs to end as soon as it will (after its sixth, final season), as it looks back at all the work it’s already accomplished – work we don’t want or need to see cyclically destroyed & restored.

Unlike most “The Movie” mutations of ongoing television shows, I don’t think this will necessarily win over anyone who hasn’t already converted to the cult of the Crystal Gems. The show has gotten so detailed & insular in its own mythology that even slight changes in costume & character design have massive implications for fans of the show (especially regarding Steven’s physical maturity in this instance), whereas a casual viewer or newcomer would likely shrug those details off or fail to notice them at all. Because this movie resets its characters to their factory-default settings, it does somewhat work as an introduction to its featured players, but the recaps are so compressed that they mean more as a reminder to fans of how far we’ve come than they’d signify to the uninitiated. The best chance a Steven Universe newbie would have of being reeled in by the movie is in director (and series mastermind) Rebecca Sugar’s songwriting. The film’s structure as an Old Hollywood musical (or a Golden Era Disney throwback, depending on its whims) allows for plenty of space to feature Sugar’s emotionally potent songs, which have always been a vital cornerstone for the show. In particular, the fictional band Sadie Killer and The Suspects’ number “Disobedient” is legitimately the best song I’ve heard all year—in a movie or otherwise—and should work just as well for someone who doesn’t know how much personal progress Sadie had to achieve in order to perform it (a lot!). Otherwise, the movie is clearly aimed at an already converted audience. It reminds us of how far the story has progressed, allows us to briefly celebrate that victory, and then demonstrates why continuing the show past this point could only lead to stagnation or heartbreak. It’s apparently possible to love Steven Universe and still be happy that it’s coming to an end.

-Brandon Ledet

Pierrot Lunaire (2014)

Stuck between the sincere emotional devastation of Boys Don’t Cry and the over-the-top camp of Desperate Living, the 2014 adaption of Pierrot Lunaire is the story of a trans man’s tragic romance with a cisgender woman like no other filmmaker except Bruce LaBruce could tell it. The legendarily filthy queercore filmmaker first adapted the opera for the stage in 2011, clips of which are incorporated into this short, energetic feature in harsh collage. Filtering the story through a Guy Maddin-style Silent Era throwback, the text of the opera is not translated into English, but conveyed instead in frequently humorous silent film intertitles. The sounds of the opera itself are also interrupted by the pounding rhythms of gay club music, a stark contrast to the Marianne Faithful-esque vocals of the backing track. Vaudevillian pantomiming complicates the genuine raw emotion of a trans man struggling to be accepted as he is in the ancient past of the late 1970s. The titular “butch dandy” will humorously complain about the “foul indignity” of having to squat to piss in one breath of purple prose, then beat his own bound breasts with genuine, devastating pathos in the next. It’s strange; it’s self-contradictory; it’s both flippant & heartfelt. It’s queer as fuck. For better or worse, Pierrot Lunaire is pure Bruce LaBruce.

If Pierrot Lunaire has one Achilles heel it’s that, even at a mere 50 minutes, its narrative concept is too slight to fully support a feature. This is the exact kind of Guy Maddin-type experimental territory that’s typically relegated to the short film medium. Pierrot’s quest to be seen & treated as a man by his unwitting girlfriend & her “fat capitalist pig” father has a kind of inevitable tragedy to it, both due to the narrative structure of most operas & due to the types of gender transition stories that are most often told onscreen. LaBuce may color within those lines narratively, recalling far too many Oscar-thirsty misery tales to leave much of a storytelling impression, but the aggressively queer, expressionist lens he filters it through feels entirely foreign to the genre. Poetic double exposures of the full moon & projections of how Pierrot sees his true self in the mirror clash with over-the-top line deliveries of zingers like “Marlene Dietrich is more man than you’ll ever be,” & “I’m going to get the bottom of this if it’s the last bottom I get to.” Forever the artful pornographer, LaBruce also fills the screen with modern kink iconography: leather-clad masc strippers, strap-on dildos, burlesque routines, S&M gear, etc. The only element of straight-world prestige filmmaking present is that the film’s costumes were designed by Zaldi (costumer for heavyweights like Lady Gaga and RuPaul). The rest of the film is wild, queer, D.I.Y. punk excess with very little concern with taking the shape of mainstream trans tragedy narratives, defiantly so.

The politics of onscreen trans representation has evolved drastically since LaBruce first staged Pierrot Lunaire in 2011. Casting choices in his most recent film The Misandrists even suggests LaBruce has evolved with it. That means this film’s half-flippant, half-tragic tonal clash isn’t going to sit or age well for all audiences, the same way that Hedwig & The Angry Inch has awkwardly mutated over the past decade. As an experiment in avant-garde, genderfucked theatre, however, Pierrot Lunaire is far bolder & more adventurous than even Hedwig was in its own heyday. It’s a film that only concerns itself with extremes. When adapting a tragic trans story into a musical, it has to be a gut-wrenching opera and a vaudevillian Silent Era pastiche. When taking on notes of vintage horror it has to treat gender dysphoria as a self-endangering form of body horror and include sillier indulgences like Franksentein-style sci-fi, zombies, and glory hole guillotines. LaBruce will settle for no less than being a pornographer and a serious artist, a prankster and an emotive auteur, a radical philosopher and a campy provocateur. Pierrot Lunaire might struggle to keep up with the ever-evolving standard of representation politics or justify a feature length runtime, but it satisfies all of those self-contradictory goals with ease – no small feat.

-Brandon Ledet

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Hunky Dory (2011)

There’s certainly other cinematic comfort food just as laidback & eager to please as the 2011 high school drama Hunk Dory, but rarely does it look this nice. Set in 1970s Wales, the film looks like a sunlit Polaroid dipped in honey, a perfect amber hue to capture the stoney-haze nostalgia of high school summers. This is a slow-moving hang-out picture molded after the Linklater tones established in Dazed & Confused and Slacker, but one that makes little effort to match those films in narrative complexity or character development – instead choosing to find its own distinct voice in the basic pleasures of its sights & sounds. The tendency of most 1970s nostalgia dramas would be to over-indulge in playing dress-up & recreating the era’s lingo. Hunky Dory instead busies itself by capturing mood, searching for the perfect tone of sun-damaged, over-exposed photographs so that it looks like a memory. Even its soundtrack of 1970s glam & stadium rock standards are mutated to feel like nostalgic memory & mood instead of being presented as original-recording needle drops. It’s cinematic comfort food in its deliberate embrace of narrative & thematic simplicity, but also just in the way it feels like an afternoon nap in a hammock.

Minnie Driver stars as a high school drama teacher struggling to hold her teen students’ behavior together at the tail end of a troublesome semester. She encourages them to examine & process their emotions through a class project that reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a jukebox musical featuring then-modern rock numbers by groups like ELO, Roxy Music, and Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars. There’s a twee tinge to the instrumentation behind those glam rock covers (recalling those early 2010s YouTube clips of grade school choirs taking on acts like Beach House & Tame Impala), but the musical performances are thoughtfully arranged & relevant to the themes of The Tempest in a remarkably rewarding way. Less remarkable is the hangout character drama that fills the languid spaces between performances: teenage runaway crises, minor romantic betrayals, Driver arguing for the academic value of artistic expression to her more narrow-minded colleagues, etc. Anything that’s lacking in those conflicts is easily paved over by its endearing “Let’s put on a show!” dramatic structure, so that when the film concludes with a glam rock, outdoors staging of The Tempest it’s all smiles & warmth. The only frustrating thing is that you can’t watch the stage play in full.

Hunky Dory introduces its characters as if you already know them from a pre-existing television show or stage play, spending way more time on the “Where are they now?” wrap-up in the end credits than in opening minutes’ exposition. It mostly gets away with it too, since its archetypal depictions of 1970s teen behavior feels instantly familiar despite the specificity of its Welsh setting. The frustrated violence, denim-on-denim make-outs, and low-key hedonism of high school brats verging on summer break are so familiar that sketching out individual character traits among this sprawling cast of fresh faces is almost unnecessary. The film easily gets by on capturing the mood of the time without weighing itself down in specifics. This is accomplished mostly through sights & sounds: honey-dipped digital photography & choral arrangements of nostalgia-inducing ear worms. Hunky Dory is marketed as being “from the producers of Billy Elliott,” which should give you an accurate expectation for what you’ll find in its unambitious, but perfectly endearing nostalgia-drama indulgences. Its greatest sin is that the full-length staging of its glam rock Tempest isn’t included as a DVD extra, since the song selection & arrangement of what’s included in the film is thoughtfully planned out enough to indicate that it could be done.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mammas Mia! & Burlesque (2010)

Welcome to Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-first episode, Brandon & Britnee discuss the jukebox musicals that comprise the most recent two film-acting credits from the ever-fabulous Cher: Burlesque (2010) & the Mamma Mia! franchise. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 38: Young at Heart (1954)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Young at Heart(1954) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when Doris Day first falls for Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never properly reviewed the film, but when reminiscing about Frank Sinatra’s legendary career onscreen, he wrote, “The image that lingers is from Young at Heart, when he pushed back his hat, lit a cigarette, sat down at a piano and sang to Doris Day and broke her heart. He never had the looks to be a matinee idol, but he had a voice – the Voice – and he had a screen presence, and for a time in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra was one of the most interesting and successful actors in American movies.”

The Hays Code had a peculiar way of obscuring intent in older Hollywood fare. Films that superficially appear to be wholesome & chaste can sometimes be subversively disguising much darker, less moralistic themes than what that infamous production code permitted. It’s also tempting to read too much into that subversion in attempting to parse out artists’ intent vs. what Major Studios of the one era would allow. The musical romance Young at Heart operates within this historical grey area, concluding a schmaltzy musical reverie with an absurdly handed tragic conclusion that’s incongruous with the film’s overall tone, then immediately reversed. The film either doesn’t have the heart to follow through on its own devastating implications or was obstructed by Studio heads’ demands for a happy conclusion to a generally happy story. Its ending can be read either way, both literally blissful or figuratively tragic, making it only increasingly, frustratingly bizarre the longer you sit with it.

A remake of a popular 1930s musical titled Four Daughters, Young at Heart functions on the surface as a well-behaved Technicolor romance. Doris Day stars as an eligible bachelorette at the center of a musical family mostly made up of daughters desperate to be married off. With an alarming focus on anxieties of weight loss & living single, the desperately lonely girls (adult women, really) are all awestruck by the arrival of a handsome, overconfident songwriter played by Gig Young. As he’s employed to write songs for the family, the girls all separately pine for his affection, something that’s awarded to Doris Day’s lead, to her sisters’ jealousy. Much of this early stretch of the film is dependent on the simple joy of watching Doris Day sing, a talent that’s dedicated to culturally toxic, marriage-obsessed diddies like “Til My Love Comes for Me,” “Ready, Willing, and Able,” “Hold Me in Your Arms,” and “Make it Soon.” Thankfully this nauseous love fest is disrupted by the arrival of Frank Sinatra as a troubled, dangerous piano player and friend to the songwriter beau. For her sisters’ sake and because she’s genuinely turned on by his talent, Doris Day’s protagonist leaves her dream man for this sad puppy dog of a romantic rival. This much-needed interjection of danger & sexuality opens the film up to an increasingly tense conflict of hurt feelings, romantic betrayals, and declining mental health. This all culminates in a climactic suicide that feels miles & miles away from the sunny, romantic (even if unhealthily marriage & weight obsessed) disposition of the film’s opening stretch.

Or does it? In an incredibly bizarre denouement, the tragic suicide that tears this family apart is undone with an idyllic Easter morning get-together, the attempted death being retconned as a failure. The 1930s version, Four Daughters, stuck to the implications of the suicide while Young at Heart tacks on a happy ending so artificially saccharine it can almost be read as dream of Heaven. As Four Daughter was also produced under the Hays Code, it’s unclear whether the suicide was not allowed by the studio for moral reasons, its actor‘s vanity, or a general preference for romantic musicals to end on a happy note. What’s even more unclear is what director Gordon Douglas (who helmed the horror classic Them! this same year) intended to convey in its ending. Is the final scene supposed to be taken as a literal happy conclusion to a dark chapter in these sisters’ lives or is it a subversive workaround that concludes the story on a more logical beat, subtly indicating that its image of peace & romantic calm is actually a vision of Heaven? I honestly have no idea what to make of it, thanks to more notorious Hays Code & Studio System shenanigans, which almost makes for a more intriguing conclusion than the straightforward approach of Four Daughters.

If you read Young at Heart as a straight, well-behaved Technicolor romance, it’s a kind of unremarkable, modest pleasure. Doris Day & Frank Sinatra are compelling performers, but most of the material is a cookie cutter approach to movie magic. The in-the-moment intensity & absurdly incongruous fallout of the film’s climactic suicide scene is what really makes it interesting as a Studio System relic. It’s impossible to know what Studio Notes or Hays Code adherence might have steered Young at Heart to such a bizarrely artificial conclusion., but it created an interesting tension in the process. Just as Sinatra’s arrival earlier in the film disrupted its chaste, serene romance, Gordon’s return to that chastity after such a tensely bleak suicide sequence feels like just as much of an intrusion, so much so that the scene can be comfortably read as a supernatural broadcast from Heaven above. The censorship of the Hays Code era encourages that kind of skeptical, overreaching reading of what movies are doing on the surface vs. what they’re getting away with beneath it, whether or not that kind of interpretation is warranted here specifically.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Dogfight (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

The Greatest Showman (2017)

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”

One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.

Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).

There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.

The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 35: Royal Wedding (1951)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Royal Wedding (1951) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially reviewed Royal Wedding, but in a 1997 “Movie Answer Man” column he did address a series of Dirt Devil television commercials that appropriated imagery from the movie to sell vacuum cleaners. He complains, “Special effects were used to remove Astaire from Royal Wedding (1951), where he danced with a coat rack, and insert him in a TV commercial, where he danced with a Broom Vac. Rights to use Astaire’s image were sold by his estate. I was reminded that when the late Ginger Rogers was honored at the Kennedy Center, Astaire’s widow refused permission to use any clips of Astaire in the tribute. What would Astaire have thought about those two decisions? A man who could dance on the ceiling would have no difficulty spinning in his grave.”

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the earliest memory I have of watching Fred Astaire dance onscreen was in a series of television commercials from the 1990s, where his image was posthumously altered to advertise Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners. As a child, watching Old Hollywood footage of a man dancing on the ceiling was a potently memorable novelty even with the vacuum cleaner added in, but I assume that same novelty was horrifying for older folks. Evoking one of the world’s most beloved movie stars to peddle digitally-inserted, CGI vacuums was a boldly blasphemous choice from Dirt Devil’s advertising team that I’m sure earned the company at least a decade of cultural side eye. The ugly truth about this transgression, however, is that the ground they were trampling on was far from hallowed. I have since learn to respect Mr. Astaire tremendously for the “Fred & Ginger” musicals he churned out with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s, but, as it turns out, the time the legend danced on the ceiling was far from his creative pinnacle. The majority of Dirt Devil’s digitally-altered Fred Astaire footage pulled from the 1951 musical comedy Royal Wedding. Featuring a . . . seasoned Astaire, the film is at best an entertaining mediocrity, not at all a sacred cow to be protected from the dirty hands of 15-second Superbowl ads.

Fred Astaire & Jane Powell star as a sibling dance team who’re invited across the pond to perform for British royalty at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth & Prince Philip. Besides the complications of maintaining their various bachelor life romances in the pair’s travels to this historic event, Royal Wedding doesn’t have much of a plot beyond that basic premise. Loosely based on Astaire’s relationship with his real life dance partner (and real life sister) Adele Astaire, the film has a kind of rambling, anecdotal quality to it. The dramatic scenes connecting its dance numbers feel like a total waste of time outside providing Jane Powell an excuse to make 10,000 costume changes & proving to the audience that the siblings are not engaged in an incestuous romance. From scene one, it’s uncomfortable that the pair are so closely related, since their dance routines often require them to intimately woo each other with nonverbal body language. The opening dance number, for instance, features Astaire as an idle king ogling Powell as the maid, who tidies up his chamber while flirtatiously revealing her frilly underwear. They eventually dance together in a traditional romantic waltz, only for their sibling relationship to be revealed to the audience as soon as the number is through. To overcompensate for this awkward reveal, Royal Wedding immediately makes it apparent that the two dancers are fucking everyone in the world but each other and most of the movie concerns them juggling potential love interests between dance routines.

As lifeless & belabored as Royal Wedding feels as a 90min comedy, it functions fairly well as an excuse to feature Fred Astaire’s signature footwork. As sullied in the Dirt Devil ads, Astaire dances on the ceiling in one number, Jamiroquai style, as the room rotates but the camera remains fixed. In another sequence, a real life incident of a Fred & Adelle Astaire performance on a cruise ship is recreated with a tilting floor in turbulent waters– the dancers, audience, furniture, and loose objects sliding around the room during the routine as the ship tilts side to side. Astaire also proves he can entertain without those fancy movie magic shenanigans, wowing the audience by performing with a lifeless coat rack for a dance partner (later to be digitally replaced with a much more lively vacuum cleaner). My favorite routine in the film is a vaudeville throwback that “comically” features domestic abuse among impoverished scum. Titled “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?,” the song features the longest title in any MGM musical and has nothing to do with the plot, but does have a dangerous-feeling mean streak to its scrappiness that I found oddly endearing.

Any of Royal Wedding’s individual dance numbers could be worth seeking out in isolation, especially the ones that have Astaire perform metaphysical, gravity-defying wonders. However, their cumulative effect is only moderately pleasant. I’m not saying it’s right for giant companies to retroactively employ dead movie stars to shill for their products as if we were living in some real world bastardization of The Congress (spoiler: we are). I’m just glad that if Dirt Devil was going to tarnish the memory of a classic MGM musical, at least they picked one that’s so mediocre as an overall product. For every few seconds of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, there’s endless minutes of his character rhythmically rubbing bodies with his sister & wasting time between gigs. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Royal Wedding‘s good name is more tarnished by its incestuous body language and total narrative lack of creative energy than it is by digitally-inserted vacuum cleaners. The only reason the movie is at all entertaining is because Astaire really is that great of a dancer.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: True Grit (1969)

-Brandon Ledet