Every week in /Answers, we attempt to respond to a new pop culture-related question. This week’s edition asks “What is your favorite movie musical?”
As always, we have submissions from the /Film writing crew and podcast team alongside a special guest. This week, we are joined by Bill Condon, director of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, as well as Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. Find out our favorite movie musicals of all time below!
Jacob Hall: 1776
There are more dynamic musicals than 1776. Compared to most of the movies we’ve collected here, Peter H. Hunt‘s adaptation of the 1969 Broadway show of the same name feels stage-bound – the wide master shots and broad blocking suggest a filmed play rather than an actual movie. The bulk of the cast reprises their roles from the stage version, and their performances are heightened, playing to the back row of the auditorium.
Fortunately, none of that matters because 1776 is awesome. Set in the weeks leading up the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the first years of the American Revolution, this is one of the greatest pieces of historical entertainment ever made. Liberties (some quite extreme) are taken with all of the finer points, and certain characters have been exaggerated or tweaked from their real-life counterparts, but the basic gist is right: America was founded by proud, intelligent, flawed, brittle, and all-too-human men who were forced to compromise or face annihilation.
Everyone may break into song ever 15-20 minutes, but 1776 is fearless enough to confront the dirty business of this era. In the chilling “Molasses to Rum,” the congressman from South Carolina sings of his colony’s reliance on the slave trade. It’s grandiose and horrifying, a reminder that the founding fathers weren’t all saintly figures. Even the central characters, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, ultimately buckle in the face of pressure. Their document is compromised, torn apart, and re-assembled. It’s imperfect. It allows for evils that will shame the nation for the rest of its existence. But it’ll have to do. There’s no more time.
The songs in 1776 run the gamut from hilarious and silly to moving and tragic. They move the plot forward and tell us more about the characters doing the singing. No number feels unnecessary – people break into song when their passions rise, and everyone on screen has a great deal to be passionate about. It’s unapologetic as a musical and unapologetic in how it infuses patriotism with cynicism, and how the former is only pure when you have a little bit of the latter. You can be proud of your country and fascinated by its history while also acknowledging how profoundly screwed it can all be. 1776 gets this, and it has great songs. Total package.
Jack Giroux: All That Jazz
Bob Fosse‘s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz is completely hypnotic. For starters, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider). Scheider’s magnetism as the chain-smoking, womanizing, workaholic artist is undeniable. The actor is bursting with life in almost every frame of this movie, even when Gideon is stuck in a hospital bed and flirting with death. Always the showman.
Gideon’s final performance for the world, singing “Bye Bye Love,” doesn’t disappoint. The character delivers a spectacular finale, singing about life and death in a funny, emotional, and surreal finishing number. It’s a dazzlingly exuberant 10-minute sequence followed and contrasted by one cold and unshakeable final shot. All That Jazz is a passionate and dreamy thrill every bit as lively as the extraordinary and flawed Joe Gideon.
Bill Condon: Cabaret
There’s just something about the breakthrough in playing off songs with dramatic scenes that [director Bob Fosse] invented in Cabaret. Kind of the concept musical, taking it from the stage and putting it on the screen that still stands to me as kind of breathtaking. [As an influence in Beauty and the Beast], it’s a culinary cabaret – Lumiere sings in “Be Our Guest,” and we do a little da, da-da-da, da-da-da for those who know it from “Willkommen” from that movie. But actually, the crucial thing is that, more than almost any musical, Cabret kept a story going through numbers, dance, singing and things like that. And I think that’s a principle I really try to stick to. These characters move in a direction so that they’re in a different place at the end of a song from where they started.