The return of musicals

Two or three years ago, I read about a film history professor who screened Singin’ in the Rain to his students. They laughed at the wrong places. The students thought it was ridiculous that people would break into song and dance.

A generation weaned on superhero movies had little or no experience with movie musicals. It wasn’t always that way. Of the ten Best Picture winners of the 1960s, four of them were musicals (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver!). Since then, only Chicago (2002) won the big prize.

Singin’ in the Rain

But musicals are coming back. I don’t know why, but I like it. Perhaps people want something snappy and happy during a pandemic.

Let’s look at the surprising number of movie musicals that have popped up at the end of 2020 and throughout 2021. I’m not talking about concert documentaries like Summer of Soul, or biographical dramas about famous musicians, like Respect. I’m talking about old-fashioned musicals where people just start singing and dancing because they want to.

A Cyrano

This film hasn’t opened yet.
This is easily the most tragic version of Cyrano I’ve ever seen, and my favorite film of 2021. Peter Dinklage plays the title character as a man certain to know he will never find love. The too-short Cyrano desperately loves Roxanne (Haley Bennet), who loves the handsome but not too smart Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). This celibate triangle can only end in disaster. The songs will never hit top 40, but they fit the story so perfectly you might not even notice that the characters are singing. I have written more about Cyrano.

A In the Heights

What makes this movie worth watching is the music, the singing, and the spectacular dancing! There’s a big production number in a swimming pool that outdoes Busby Berkeley, and a duet on the side of building. The thin story shows us life in NYC’s Washington Heights neighborhood, or at least a musical, fictional version of it. People struggle on thin incomes. A couple doesn’t realize they love each other. What do you expect in a musical?

A- The Prom
The earliest of these new musicals never got to the big screen, and few people caught it. Too bad. It’s an upbeat, happy, big-budget, unrealistic, singing and dancing musical. And yet, it’s very modern. Four narcissistic Broadway performers, including Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, set out to prove they’re not totally self-absorbed. Their plan: help a small-town lesbian teenager battle homophobia. You know from the start how it will end, but the songs, dancing, and comedy makes this the most entertaining movie of 2020. The cast also includes James Corden, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Tracey Ullman, Mary Kay Place, plus Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose as the young lesbians.

B+ Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Now we have another LGBTQ musical, but this time from Britain. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s funny, entertaining, and good-hearted. Jamie just turned 16, and he wants to become a drag queen. Not everyone likes the idea, although his mother and best friend – a Muslim girl – think it’s just fine. Even the class bully isn’t all that bad. The songs get better throughout the movie. Read my full review.

? West Side Story

This film hasn’t opened yet. I have not yet seen Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 Oscar winner. The original version was a deeply flawed masterpiece, with brilliant music and dancing. The supporting cast was terrific, but the romantic leads were horrible. Let’s hope Spielberg will fix that. We won’t know until the film opens next month. You can read my comments on the original.