Blindspotting: West Side Story and 42nd Street



One of the reasons why you may not often hear as much about plot or character when discussing musicals is that they tend to use age old stories at their core. More often than not it’s all about those tunes and performances, so those familiar tales are used to provide a familiar landscape from which to launch the song and dance routines. As I sat down to catch up with a couple of classic musicals with well-worn structures – a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet set in the big city and a backstage look at the lead up to a performance’s premiere with a big break for a young ingenue – I wondered if either of these tales could be given new life via more than just their music and production numbers…While each brought moments of wonderful creativity and sparkling entertainment (in different amounts), the stories were, for the most part, still born.


That’s not enough to dismiss either film though. In particular, West Side Story is a monument to production design and choreography. Just about every shot in the film is packed with colour from mixed pastels to bright primaries to everything in between in just the right combinations. As a series of stills it would make for an incredible photography exhibit. Of course, much of the secret to the film is its motion in the form of Jerome Robbins’ choreography (he’s also credited here as a co-director along with the master of many genres Robert Wise). It feels novel and exciting even 50 years down the road. It’s sharp and quick and powerful – in short, it’s incredibly physical. It’s an expression of the character’s youthful energy and their inability to find a place to put it, and so it ends up working perfectly during the confrontation and fight scenes where the dancing is essentially the fighting itself. If not every tune fully landed with me, the vast majority did and mostly kept me with the 2 and a half hour runtime. Mostly.

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Blindspotting: A Star Is Born and Cabaret


I‘ve likely said a lot of obvious things in my time, but I expect ranking high on that list would be saying something like “Geez, that Judy Garland can sing, eh?”. But I wonder how obvious that is these days? Sure, everyone knows that Judy’s version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz is a classic piece of American music and that she’s been in countless musicals, but I wonder – particularly with a great deal of words being spilled over the darker aspects of her life – how many people really know that she can SING. And I mean soul-bearing, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising, pure unadulterated song emanating from her voice. I can think of no better evidence of this than her version of “The Man Who Got Away” from A Star Is Born – it raised every goosebump on my skin as I listened to a woman attempting to purge all variety of demons from inside her.


It wasn’t just the emotion pouring out that was impressive, it was also a deep command of her voice that she used to shift on a dime, retain her pitch and control power. Oddly enough, traits that she seemed to share with her own offspring Liza. In Cabaret, Liza Minelli’s songs are all worked into the film as part of her night job working in the local cabaret club (both films manage to make all the songs – at least the vocal parts anyway – diegetic) and essentially comment on the progress of the story at each point. Though it’s a fantastic idea to provide some context for each song, they easily stand alone as single performances because of director Bob Fosse’s creative choreography and Liza’s natural ability (and I would guess instinct) to grab the spotlight. There is more artifice in Cabaret‘s musical numbers due to them being confined to the stage, but there is no question about Minelli’s vocal chops. Like her famous mother, Minelli has slowly become known primarily as a persona, but let’s be clear – she could sing with the best of them.

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Review: Nine


Director: Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha)
Screenplay: Michael Tolkin & Anthony Minghella
Based on: “Nine,” a Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, based on 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini
Producers: Rob Marshall, Marc Platt, John DeLuca, Harvey Weinstein
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Fergie
Year: 2009
Country: United States
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 110min.


When you make a movie inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, you’ve already got a lot more to live up to than most filmmakers are willing to take on. When you’re Rob Marshall and only have two other feature films on your directing resume, it takes some guts to embark on a project like Nine, even if you did manage to win a Best Picture Oscar for your directorial debut Chicago (an award that many film critics strongly disagree with, incidentally). On the other hand, Marshall comes from a musical/Broadway/choreography background, which gives him a leg up on Nine, which has a Broadway musical sitting between it and 8 1/2. So this could really have gone either way. But I have to say, with a cast like this one (which includes three of my girlcrushes as well as the always solid Judi Dench and often incredible Daniel Day-Lewis), I was really hoping it would work. And generally, it does, though admittedly with much less subtlety than Fellini’s original.


Film director Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) is known for a string of great successes early in his career, but is just coming off a couple of major flops as he’s supposed to be beginning another film, the one he and his supporters hope will be his comeback. But he’s unable to come with a solid story, much less a script, and shooting starts in ten days. He’s got his producer, his costume designer (Dench), and his leading lady (Nicole Kidman) all after him to get moving, but all he can manage to do is escape to a spa and fantasy versions of all the women in his life – from his mother (Sophia Loren) to the prostitute he remembers paying to dance at age 9 (Fergie) to his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), current mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz), and a fashion reporter (Kate Hudson). As Luisa points out to Guido, it’s “no wonder you’ve got no script, you’re too busy inventing your own life.” These fantasies become the musical numbers in Nine, each of them intercut with what’s going on in real life.

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Summer of Sound Film Festival [Vancouver]

Once Movie Still

I love the Vancouver International Film Centre but if at all possible, I’ve become even more enamoured with the theatre after seeing the latest line-up for a new “festival” which, I believe is their first of this kind.

Running from July 24th through August 18th, “Summer of Sound” features 23 of the best music on film (and music films though I don’t spot too many musicals in the mix) and the line-up is nothing short of spectacular. Here’s the run-down:

Throw Down Your Heart
Maria Bethania: Music is Perfume
Miriam Makeba: Like in Stockholm 1966
Gypsy Caravan
The Blue Angel
Almost Famous
Ziggy Stardust
Velvet Goldmine
Apparition of the Eternal Church
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould
Across the Universe
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
Be Here to Love Me: Townes Van Zandt
True Stories
Stop Making Sense
Csny Deja Vu
Neil Young Heart of Gold
Shine a Light
Gimme Shelter
My Generation

I can already see a few on the list that I’ll have to watch on the big screen and some which I’ve never seen before. Looks like I’ll be busy for a few weeks later this month.

Much more information on the films, show times and ticket costs (including a full series pass for $50 – that’s a deal if I’ve ever seen one) is available at VIFC.

42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933

Most musicals and comedies made during the 1930s were escapist fluff, meant to take audiences’ minds away from the troubles of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl for a couple of hours of music and laughter. Fred and Ginger’s dancing at RKO, Bing Crosby’s singing at Paramount, MGM’s Broadway Melody series, the screwball comedies of Hawks and Leo McCarey, the slapstick stylings of the Marx Brothers – all of them sparkling and calculated to ignore the economic woes of the world outside.

But Warner Bros. as a studio was known for making less glamorous, more hard-hitting films in the 1930s, building their reputation on gangster films and “ripped from the headlines” social commentary pictures. It’s probably not surprising, then, that musicals made at Warner Bros. would have a different tone than most contemporary musicals. Sure enough, both show business classic 42nd Street and lesser-known programmer Gold Diggers of 1933 (which would spawn two sequels) take the Depression itself as a major theme and plot point.

Gold Diggers of 1933

42nd Street (1932)

42nd Street isn’t known as the granddaddy of backstage movies for nothing – it opens with word spreading around Broadway that famed director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a show, continues through auditions and rehearsals, setbacks and last-minute casting changes, and finishes with the opening night extravaganza.

(Click through for the rest of the entry. The video below is a brief bit of amusement from Gold Diggers of 1933.)

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