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The Musical, or Something Like It
By Jerry Flattum - 09/30/2003 - 12:56 PM EDT

Mamma Mia! sent the message that a storyline can work on the Strip. And then, the Strip doesn’t want to be another Broadway. The rock era long ago crippled if not killed the Hollywood/Broadway musical, where stadium concerts by the likes of Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper and others took the musical stage show to new levels. MTV in particular, became the new musical, albeit short and sweet.

In Moulin Rouge (2001), well-known pop tunes carried the risk where an original score feared to go. Of course, the film's producers and writers might say it was an artistic decision to include pop tunes, as though it were some grand experiment in merging film and music. But still, it would be most interesting to know how Moulin Rouge would have faired had the score been all original songs.

Chicago (2002) must have caused serious marketing anxiety at the thought of the commerciality of a Kander and Ebb score.

Just saying the word "musical" sends shivers of chorus girls up and down Hollywood's spine. Masquerading as romantic comedies, action flicks, or a number of other genre skins, numerous films are really musicals in disguise.

Martin Lawrence led a rousing rendition of Sly Stone's, "Dance to the Music" in Black Knight (2001). Could an original song have worked here? The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), The Mask (1994), and Sister Act (1992) were never called musicals, but featured major musical numbers. The Commitments (1991) was a musical, as well as The Cotton Club, going back to 1984. Dick Tracy (1990) was full of musical numbers, almost all featuring Madonna. Animation films, like Shrek (2001), are an acceptable outlet for musicals. In the movie Blaze (1989), certain songs are critical to the storyline.

Some numbers are filmed completely, while other numbers are paced through a film, interwoven with story and score...much in the same way musicals with stories were filmed in the days when musical was not a dirty word.

Movie theme songs carry the weight in a single song, like “My Heart will Go On” from Titanic (1997), “Theme from the Godfather” (1972), and dozens more. The movie, Stand By Me (1986), is named after a song and the Sea of Love (1989) storyline is based on a song.

The musical surreptitiously appears in the score. The reasons are obvious: the songs are background, not foreground, and a musical number would seemingly detract from the storyline. However, music supervisors would vehemently disagree. Songs are chosen to enhance the story line, when done right.

Some films are so song-loaded that perhaps the movie should be called a musical. Many of these song-laden scores have gone on to become best-selling soundtracks, with Saturday Night Fever (1977), Urban Cowboy (1980), Dirty Dancing (1987) as featured standouts. Most recently, the Lizzy McGuire soundtrack peaked at #6 on Billboard's Top 100 (near the end of September, 2003).

Blues Brothers (1980; 1998) would never be called a musical. It just wouldn't be cool. Like Moulin Rouge, none of the songs in Blues Brothers were original, that is, written for the film (to the best of this writer's knowledge). They were R&B/rock classics, with the movie featuring a smattering of artists that made the songs classics, i.e., Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and Cab Calloway's, "Minnie the Moocher."

Jim Carey proves to be an excellent "musical" performer, although no one would ever dub him so. Like Nicole Kidman's unexpected appearance in Moulin Rouge, Carey is not thought of as a musical artist, or even dancer. When Michael Jackson's “Thriller” appeared on MTV, it was touted as revolutionary. But only the most "dumbed-down" members of MTV's audience at the time would buy such hype. Was the length revolutionary? Not really. Most film shorts are under 15 minutes; just take a look at or

The “Thriller” video was taken right out of Hollywood. But in another masqueraded twist, it featured a performer from "today's" music performing "today's" sound. At least the song was original.

No one would've expected Madonna to sing the kinds of songs she sang in Dick Tracy, based on her “Material Girl” video. The “Material Girl” video, by the way, is no different than Jackson's “Thriller”: It's taken right out of the golden age of the musical. For those Madonna fans who have no sense of music or film history, they had no idea they are watching a new twist on Ziegfield.

What’s next? A rap musical? What will Britney do?

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