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Movie musicals are finally getting over their fear of singing

About a half hour into Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Amazon’s wobbly screen adaptation of the West End hit about a young boy from Sheffield who wants to be a drag queen, the movie finally gives us something to talk about. Richard E. Grant, playing ex-drag queen Hugo, mentor to young Jamie New, pops an old home video into his VCR. Onscreen is revealed a younger Hugo, dragged up as the fabulous “Loco Chanelle” and stomping around Britain like a bewigged warrior, belting out a song that could easily be mistaken as a Boy George B-side.

Hugo and Jamie are transported into a VHS-aestheticized flashback like Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Britain of this memory is one ravaged by the AIDS crisis, and the accompanying song is a mournful but defiant tribute to a generation lost. Not only is the number a welcome dollop of grit on a confectionary film, it’s also an inspired blending of the cinematic and the theatrical, a magical transition from speech to song that stands out in the stacked lineup of 2021 screen tuners. With the already released In the Heights and Annette, and the highly anticipated promise of Tick… Tick… Boom and West Side Story later this year, filmmakers seem to be embracing the fantasy and showiness of the musical genre. Movie musicals, it seems, are finally unafraid of singing.

That might sound strange given the literal definition of the form, but the anxiety of selling movie musicals on the back of showtunes can be traced back to the film that heralded the 21st century return of the genre: Chicago. Rob Marshall, a dyed-in-the-wool Broadway baby who parlayed a career as a theater choreographer into a directing career, turned the show into a 2002 box-office juggernaut and the first musical to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since 1968’s Oliver. The effect of Chicago on the industry, and on the musical films that followed, can’t be understated. But as much of an out-and-out embrace of musical theater as Chicago is, it’s also an adaptation which spends a significant amount of shoe leather on justifying why its characters are singing.

The conceit, developed by Marshall and his screenwriter Bill Condon, is that Roxie Hart wants to be a star so badly that she visualizes everyday life as elaborate production numbers. Her introductions to her block mates in the Cook County Jail transforms into “Cell Block Tango,” her lawyer’s courtroom spiel becomes a virtuosic tap dance. The clever gimmick allowed Marshall to choreograph the numbers as he would for a Broadway stage, relying on fast cutting and theatrical lighting to give it a cinematic flair. At the same time, it transforms all the characters into de facto stage performers, singing in a context we’re used to seeing stage performers sing in, making the film digestible to movie audiences unaccustomed to seeing everyday people regularly burst into song. Dreamgirls, which Condon wrote and directed, followed the same path, and even replaced the stage show’s “interstitial” music with dialogue to avoid offstage singing.

The logic that made Chicago a blockbuster transformed movie productions of the sung-through Rent and The Phantom of the Opera. To quote Rent producer Michael Barnathan, who explained in the documentary No Day But Today: The Story of “Rent” the approach taken when adapting the piece for the screen: “Chris [Columbus] took some of the sing-through pieces and turned them into dialogue. They talk … and then they sing.” Steven Chbosky, credited screenwriter on Rent, doubled down on this methodology. “It’s the old lesson artistically of less is more,” he says. “If you have less singing, then the singing that exists is going to come alive.”

That’s not really the effect of the Rent film, nor of Phantom. If a significant part of the textual vocabulary of those works is the largely uninterrupted presence of music, there’s probably a reason for it. To maintain the “greatest hits” numbers, chop out the “in-between” and consistently interrupt the flow with as foreign an element as regular screen dialogue is to break the spell of the form. It’s more conventionally cinematic, sure, but it also consistently reminds an audience that it’s weird that people are starting to sing, rather than allowing them to accept songs as part of the language of the film. Providing the audience comfort becomes actively uncomfortable.

Celebrated musical theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim remarked on this on the DVD for the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd. “How speech goes into song and song goes into speech […] that’s a convention that everybody accepts in musical theater,” he says. “But they’re not exposed to it very often in musical movies because musical movies are about songs, not about sung speech.”

Interestingly enough, the Sweeney film is actually, for my money, one of the only successes of the century at translating the full muscularity of a musical to the screen. For years, people have chalked up the success or failure of movie musicals to the improper casting of movie stars as opposed to great singers. But the thin vocals of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter work wonders under the assured hand of Tim Burton, who (despite his current resume), actually lets the music guide the way rather than trying to justify its existence.

Similarly, I’d argue that the cast of 2012’s Les Miserables isn’t so much the problem as Tom Hooper’s insatiable desire to shove his camera into the muddy faces of his stars, his heavy-handed direction to whisper-sing every note of the iconic score, wring every tear, sniffle, and wail from its lyrics — to try and fit the fantasy of people expressing their emotions through song into the ill-fitting box of reality.

In one of his deliciously acidic memoirs, Mainly on Directing, the late theatrical writer-director Arthur Laurents talks about having a musical “in the bones.” In context, he’s using the phrase to perhaps unfairly dig at Sam Mendes’ direction of a revival of Gypsy, for which Laurents wrote the book. But bitchiness aside, he’s really talking about a director’s proficiency at figuring out how to make a musical tick.

“The expression (‘in the bones’) encompasses a feeling for the musical as a whole,” he writes, “as well as of the scenes and numbers within it, for why and when and how to highlight a moment and make it musical without actual song or dance, for how and when to implant the emotional reality that makes a performance musical theater.”

He goes on to explain that this skill can’t be taught. Quoting the lead character from Gypsy, he says, “You either got it, or you ain’t.”

Burton somehow had it “in the bones.” Hooper didn’t.

But then again, neither did Chris Columbus, director of Rent, or Joel Schumacher, who helmed Phantom. Taking into account Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, and Rob Marshall’s remarkably uninspired trip Into the Woods, it begins to look like Chicago was less the dawning of a movie musical renaissance than a blip in the radar.

In actuality, hiring an Eastwood or a Columbus or a Schumacher is, in many ways, more similar to the model of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s than the hiring of a Broadway baby like Rob Marshall. This was a time after New Hollywood had crashed the party, replacing Oliver with Bonnie and Clyde, the sunny optimism of Oklahoma with the knowing cynicism of Nashville, hills that were alive with the sound of music with mean streets and midnight cowboys.

That boom of creativity and growth helped just about every genre of film … except for the musical. And soon producers were making bizarre matchups: Sidney Lumet wound up with The Wiz; Richard Attenborough got A Chorus Line; John Huston directed Annie. They were all directors with phenomenal filmographies, but not ones who had the musical “in the bones.”

What that period created was an ever-widening gap between contemporary film directors and the Old Hollywood greats who intrinsically understood how to make a movie sing and dance right off the screen. That movie musicals were so inseparable from the advent of sound in the ‘30s and ‘40s only helped matters; that their spectacle was needed to get asses in seats in an ever-changing marketplace made them as necessary to the Hollywood infrastructure as superhero movies are now.

That necessity bolstered skill, and it’s there on the screen in all those great old movies. Busby Berkeley’s expansive production numbers, the unabashed theatricality of Meet Me in St. Louis director Vincente Minnelli, the seamless integration of song and scene typified by Stanley Donen in films like Singin’ in the Rain — these were masters of a genre who understood that to make a musical sing one has to be unafraid of song, to let the music lead and the rest follow, from the production design to the camerawork. In a movie like Singin’ in the Rain, that means doing as much fancy footwork as Gene Kelly.

Genre fans owe a debt of gratitude to 2016’s La La Land, then, not necessarily for being the culturally defining work it was initially over-praised for, but for reaching back to those masters to remind audiences and filmmakers that musicals are, at their core, supposed to be fun. Emma Stone’s and Ryan Gosling’s vocals may be lackluster, their hoofing C-grade. But their pas de deux overlooking the San Fernando Valley, with Linus Sandgren’s gliding camerawork and the magic hour purple providing a fantastical backdrop that all but demands a dance number, is as much a regressive throwback as it is an urgent reminder of how transporting musicals can be when they lean into their inherent musicality.

That banner of full-blooded commitment has been carried in the intervening years, for better or worse, by the maddening excess of The Greatest Showman, by the “good vibes only” karaoke party that is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and by the biopic-meets-jukebox-musical exercise of Rocketman. Critics can debate the merits of each, but the box office returns were more than positive, proving that the only inhibitions on the ambitions of movie musicals were ones imposed by filmmakers not trusting their audience.

Which brings us to 2021, when the eschewing of New Hollywood restrictions on film musicals, the influence of La La Land’s lauded throwback-ness, the refocused emphasis on embracing rather than justifying that moment when speech turns to song is really paying off. It’s not just the incredible abundance of musical properties coming to the screen this year; it’s also that many of them are being brought to us by filmmakers who really and truly seem to have the musical “in their bones.”

I’m speaking, of course, of Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, which for most of its running time dives joyously and effortlessly into all that is excessive and extraordinary about the genre. Manhole covers spin like records, bewigged mannequin heads bop to salon shop gossip, and stars are born as frequently as the fireworks that pop off in the film’s mid-movie blackout sequence. Chu creates an environment where these songs can not only exist, but thrive, and he does it while stretching back through film history to pay homage to those original masters, to the Busby Berkeleys, the Gene Kellys, the Esther Williamses.

I’m also speaking of Leos Carax’s Annette, a remarkable tribute to the simultaneous stupidity and beauty of the rock opera, a genre which has to this date gifted us a G5-belting Jesus Christ and the epic saga of a Pinball Wizard. We can add the extraordinary tale of Baby Annette and her battle for agency with her sociopathic stage-dad Henry McHenry canon, and Carax to the ranks of Ken Russell and Brian De Palma, directors who in films like Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise (respectively) let music lead their vision and gifted audiences with singular works of eminently watchable strangeness.

Annette and In the Heights are about as different as they come, but they share a love of cinema and an “in the bones” understanding of the musical form that makes films like Rent, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miz feel timid in comparison. Bizarrely enough, both films open with characters singing right down the barrel of the camera, directly to us, an old-fashioned no-brainer of a move that not even the theatricality of Chicago or Dreamgirls was brave enough to embrace.

It’s a convention shared in the opening number of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, though that film’s most striking and inspired moment is still the aforementioned VHS flashback sequence. Much of Jamie is, honestly, mediocre. But that one moment is enough to keep up the welcome trend of movies realizing that bursting into song and dance need only be ridiculous if the filmmakers think it is.

There are still many musical films to come this year, and only time will tell if they’ll continue that trend. We do not speak of the Camila Cabello Cinderella, and well, who knows if Twitter’s latest punching bag, Dear Evan Hansen, deserves the pre-release notoriety. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Tick… Tick… Boom and Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated take on West Side Story, for which Arthur Laurents wrote the book, already feel poised to round out a year featuring directors leaning into the fantasy of the movie musical and reasserting the genre’s ultimate power.

With the latest West Side Story trailer receiving an overwhelmingly positive response, “Something’s Coming” might wind up as more than just a beloved song’s title, but the promise of the genre renaissance that never quite arrived post-Chicago.

Could be … who knows?

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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