Cinematary Canon #11: 21st Century Musicals
By Zach Dennis, Diana Rogers Ash Baker, Logan Kenny, Michael O’Malley, Nathan Smith and Reid Ramsey.
Note: These films are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) by Lars von Trier
Selma Ježková, an immigrant factory worker with a passion for American musicals, has relocated from Czechoslovakia to Washington State with her son, Gene. Unbeknownst to her friends and co-workers Selma suffers from a degenerative genetic condition that is robbing her of her already poor eyesight. Without medical intervention her son, who has inherited the same condition, will eventually go blind as well. Despite her rapidly deteriorating vision Selma works long hours on the assembly line, setting aside nearly every cent she earns in order for Gene to have an operation on his thirteenth birthday that will save his sight.
The one small indulgence Selma allows herself is an occasional outing to the cinema with her pal Kathy. Though she can barely make out what's happening on the screen, musicals have a tremendous impact on Selma's life. She loves music and hears it everywhere. Any sort of incidental sound - the droning of the machinery while she works, the clanging of a passing train as she walks along the tracks - is transformed, in her head, into music. The musical numbers in Dancer in the Dark are born out of these mundane rhythms, and out of Selma's daydreams. As the plot advances, descending into its tragic but inevitable conclusion, these interludes become increasingly desperate, offering a few moments of catharsis and escapism before violently jolting both Selma and the viewer back into the horror of the story that is unfolding.
Selma might hear music everywhere she goes and occasionally disassociate from reality, but she's no dizzy dreamer. Her inherent decency plays a part in her downfall but that doesn't make her a fool. And though she is taken advantage of by a selfish, cowardly man and failed by a callous, xenophobic justice system she is so much more than their victim. She is hardworking, altruistic, trustworthy, and unapologetically stubborn. What keeps Dancer in the Dark from crumbling under the weight of its melodramatic trappings is a character and a performance that are firmly planted in reality. The movie approaches its subject with a brutal clarity of vision that is both admirable, and worthy of its pragmatic and endearing heroine. Selma doesn't live her life like she's in a musical, she just happens to be in one. — Diana Rogers
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) by Joel and Ethan Coen
Depending on who you ask, the year 2000 is not actually in the 21st century. As a wise George Clooney character once said, though, it’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart, and my heart says that 2000 is the 21st century, technicalities be damned. Besides, whether or not it actually lands in the century, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Joel and Ethan Coen’s oddball Odyssey riff, is absolutely of a piece with the media of the new millennium: on a technical level with its innovative use of digital color correction, on an auteurist level with the Coen Brothers’ increased fascination with the past, the American South, and the nooks of the Southern dialect, and on an aural level with the film’s deployment of music. That last point may ring odd to some, who would rightly point out that the film’s wall-to-wall soundtrack is much more grounded in the early days of the 20th century than in the dawn of the 21st, consisting largely of T Bone Burnett’s arrangements of traditional bluegrass, gospel, and folk tunes from the Great Depression and earlier.
It would not be inaccurate to call O Brother, Where Art Thou? a jukebox musical for the rural corners of the Lost Generation, so thoroughly have the Coens allowed their film to luxuriate in unbroken musical sequences, both diegetic and non-diegetic. A climactic gallows scene pauses for a character to sing a richly baritoned rendition of “Lonesome Valley”; the film-created Soggy Bottom Boys perform their take on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (a real folk song that dates back at least to 1913) multiple times; the opening credits themselves are synchronized to Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” So yes, this movie’s music definitely has a foot in the past. But I think there’s also an argument for O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s music as being one of the major touchstones for the first decade of 21st century pop, particularly the “indie folk” movement. There’s a pretty straight line to be drawn from T Bone Burnett’s re-appropriation of Appalachian folk here to the likes of Iron & Wine, the Decemberists, and Punch Brothers to Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and all those “NPR-core” bands circa 2009 and finally to Mumford & Sons and *shudders* The Lumineers. You could call O Brother the pater familias of The Lumineers and not be incorrect. At just the moment when rock’s position at the pop vanguard slipped (O Brother arrived only a few months after *NSYNC’s megasmash CD No Strings Attached and, of course, “Bye Bye Bye”), this movie’s music gave all the “I only like music with real instruments” people a road forward via a look backward toward a warm, “““authentic””” era of folksmanship. Sounds like death in 2019, right? Admittedly, taken out of the context of the movie, the film’s soundtrack is beautiful but also a little doe-eyed and precious in a way that recalls the bad old days of the early 2010s when you didn’t know if the opening act for your favorite indie band was going to dress up like Okies. But don’t decontextualize the music from the film; the studio recordings of the soundtrack CD (which I own) are good, but they hardly capture the electric way these songs leap across the screen in the movie, or the way that the Coen’s withering irony and playfulness strips these songs of any nostalgic distance.
There is so much life in O Brother’s musical performances, life in a way that recalls the great diegetic musicals of Nashville or John Waters’s Hairspray, where the plot weaves and bobs around live performances and occasionally even intersects them. Despite what the track listing indicates, this is not time capsule music. It’s music that, like the movie itself, becomes its own little crooked world of strange mythologies and goofy performers. That indie music of the following decade harvested its aesthetic for decidedly less interesting ends is probably a fate the movie deserves for the way that it plunders the early-20th-century underclass songbook, but don’t let that fate fool you into complacency or dismissal of the movie. O Brother is bona fide. — Michael O’Malley
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) by John Cameron Mitchell
The temptation with this movie in 2019 is to make it a movie about the trans experience, something that doesn’t really work because: 1. The movie is eighteen years old and pretty out-of-step with the standards of the modern discourse surrounding trans experiences; 2. It’s written/directed not by a trans person but by a gay man, who also plays the central character; 3. It involves an unsuccessful sex reassignment surgery that renders the protagonist intersex and complicates the gender identity of what initially seems like a trans character. For a lot of people, this renders the movie distastefully problematic, and of course especially I (a cishet dude) have no place in telling them not to feel that way. But taking it as a riff on the kamikaze-hedonist genderqueer Glam culture of the 1970s in which the film is set, I find John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of his own Off-Broadway musical deeply affecting in the same way that I do the music/stage personas of Ziggy-Stardust-era David Bowie and Night at the Opera-era Queen and Transformers-era Lou Reed and T. Rex and Mott the Hoople and Elton John (many of whom are often problematic figures in their own right, let’s not be nostalgic about this)--a beautiful tightrope of camp and hard rock and middle-fingers-up sneers and furious, relentless compassion for anyone who won’t (or can’t) be part of the oppressive hegemony of gender norms that order our society.
A lot of this probably depends on how much you dig the real-life artists I just named, but for my money, this movie is vying only with Disney’s Tangled and Moana as the best movie musical soundtrack of the 21st century (though of course, I’m fudging this a little, given that the play was first performed in ’98), and in-film, it’s animated by an absolutely go-for-broke starring performance by Mitchell that delivers each song with such urgency that it’s hard not to be swept up in the spirit of the thing. Plus, it’s one of these great archetypal sex/drugs/rock-n-roll stories of dueling creative talent and bands breaking up and reuniting and people burning out and all that. It’s all very classic rock, but, you know, the good parts of classic rock. It’s a good movie, y’all. — Michael O’Malley
Moulin Rouge! (2001) by Baz Luhrmann
The fact that there's an exclamation mark built into the title of Moulin Rouge! is telling. It's big, bright, boisterous explosion of music and dancing, tragedy, comedy, and romance. Like a kaleidoscopic cabinet of curiosities, this movie has everything: A doomed heroine! A penniless hero! A mustache-twirling villain! An ill-fated love affair! Cancan girls dancing to "Smells Like Teen Spirit!" A boudoir inside a giant elephant! Jim Broadbent singing "Like a Virgin!" Kylie Minogue as an absinthe-induced green fairy hallucination! A cartoon man in the moon who sings with the voice of Placido Domingo! And that barely scratches the surface when it comes to the dazzling, peculiar delights Moulin Rouge! has to offer.
I have watched this movie many times, and I'm sure I'll watch it many more, but I know it's a lot to take in. The first time I saw it I was put off by the frenetic pacing and the overall rowdiness of the first several scenes. There's so much happening in Moulin Rouge! and, quite often, it's all happening at the same time. There's so much razzle dazzle it would be easy to assume that's all the movie has to offer. And the story itself is hardly groundbreaking, borrowing elements from the Orpheus myth, La Bohème, La Traviata, and probably countless others, to tell a tale of woe about a fallen woman made to suffer . . . so that the leading man can emote all over the place and make it all about himself.
Honestly, Moulin Rouge! shouldn't work, and yet, somehow, Baz Luhrmann and his charming cast manage to hold it all together. Because I think, deep down, buried beneath all those pounds of glitter, there's also something more. It's a movie that revels in its excesses but is sincere in its emotional transparency. It's got a lotta heart, this one. So when Luhrmann's characters declare their devotion to "Freedom! Beauty! Truth! and Love!" I believe them, because I need to believe this movie is as guileless as it seems to be. I need to believe that artifice and authenticity are not mutually exclusive.
I believe in this movie's complete lack of cynicism, and I cherish it. — Diana Rogers
School of Rock (2003) by Richard Linklater
At the start of Richard Linklater’s School of Rock, Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black) stage dives face-first onto the floor. This depiction is basically a visual representation of how his musical career is going at the start of the film, and somehow, it gets worse.
Dewey gets kicked out of the band he started—his absurd showmanship is too flashy and too over-the-top for the other members. They want to be serious. Dewey is jobless, bandless, and his roommate Ned (Mike White) is being pushed by his girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) to collect Dewey’s overdue rent money.
Instead of getting an honest job, Dewey decides to pose as Ned and take a job subbing at one of the more prestigious elementary schools in the area. When he overhears his students in music class, he decides that they should be his band, and he teaches them the ways of rocking and rolling.
Cinematary’s own Andrew Swafford wrote and created a video essay that takes an in-depth look at what we can learn from Dewey Finn as a teacher figure. I would argue that one of the big ways Dewey himself learns is through the act of collaboration that he finds in teaching.
At the start, his intentions are just plain wrong. He’s there to make money off the talent of children, not to mention to use them as an audience to boost his ego. In the process, though, he learns to give up some of the creative control, which at the start he had made the students vow they would not take from him. He sees the talent in the students and learns to pass the baton. He asks permission to have room in their space.
It’s easy for creative-types to fall into the artistic place Dewey was in at the start of the film—the fear of giving into “the man” and working some mundane job. But Dewey’s narrative makes teaching such a logical alternative for creatives. He’s contributing to society, and he finds an environment where his passion and animated presence is conducive to learning rather than “an embarrassment.” — Ash Baker
Once (2007) by John Carney
While not carrying the classical leading man physique, there is something quite traditional about Glen Hansard as “Guy” in Once. As if pulled from a lost French New Wave musical such as Lola, Hansard oozes the melancholy and blind drive for art that Roland Cassard has in pursuit of the lovely Lola in Jacques Demy’s 1961 classic.
But where a more traditional musical would lead to the tender embrace towards love of its two lead characters, John Carney subverts the trope — leaning towards more of Demy’s work in Umbrellas of Cherbourg where the star-crossed lovers are separated and unable to culminate their affection.
It is much less dressed up in Once as Guy breaks himself from his arrested development to reconcile with the woman he left and give his artistic career a much more driven attempt. While the Girl (Marketa Irglova) must also find reconciliation with the man she is supposed to be with. Because the strength of Once is less in how it falls deeply into the tropes of a more traditional Hollywood romantic musical, and instead, feeds us a bit of reality with our dreams.
Not to say both of these characters are going to be left with nothing. There’s something much more touching and resonating about how they leave their relationship — the ships passing in the sea approach to something much like Brief Encounter or In the Mood for Love. That and the soothing tones of “Falling Slowly” make this a wonderful companion for both those — and the more traditionalists. — Zach Dennis
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) by Jake Kasdan
I wouldn’t categorize the music as much the draw for Walk Hard as its pitch-perfect deconstruction of the biopic — especially the musical one.
The songs are effective. Each one mimicking an important note in the progression of American rock in a way that both lampoons but also lovingly tributes the myths of its origins from a studio moment like Elvis in Jailhouse Rock to “Guilty as Charged” as the titular singer rolls down his toughest road yet to the climactic “Beautiful Ride” that ends in the (off-screen) death of our singer as he truly gives his all much like Joe Gideon would take us away in All That Jazz.
But where Walk Hard finds its most memorable moments are in the way it deconstructs the concept of American myth making — or at least how we feel our legendary singers are expected to be constructed. Only pain and drugs can lead the path to glory and even though Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is told time and time again that he “don’t want no part of this shit,” he still follows the path.
Walk Hard captures the shifting American musical landscape unlike other “biopics” because it uses the satirical facade to portray the changes in popular preference and how the culture approached music. A remarkable achievement, especially when you realize that the wrong kid died to kick off the movie. — Zach Dennis
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) by Joel and Ethan Coen
At risk of dating my opinions as quite young, in 2013, when the Coen Brothers released Inside Llewyn Davis, I was in the middle of discovering my love of movies. The Coen Brothers were my first major director crush and seeing their new movie was one of the purest experiences of my early film education. Transfixing and elliptical, their New York City-set musical stirred within me for weeks after first watching it, and it prompted me to do something I had actually not done before: buy the soundtrack on CD. That CD rode around in my first car for years with the opening, nihilistic track “Hang me, Oh hang me,” fitting whichever mood necessary.
At risk of being sentimental over one of the most melancholy films I’ve ever seen, hearing Llewyn’s voice over the soft picking of his acoustic guitar never ceases to fill me with a warmth and comfort. I saw this at an intersection of my life. It ushered me from one section to the next. It made friendships. When I tell people that, of all movies, Inside Llewyn Davis is the one that fills me with warmth and joy, I’m met with puzzled looks as most people see a cold, detached entry from the Coens. Yet from the cold New York winter captured by the wonderful photography of Bruno Delbonnel, all the way to Oscar Issac’s warm voice echoing through the microphone and Carey Mulligan’s infamous and hilarious condom monologue, I experience a satisfaction and contentment dislodged from my own accomplishments the same way Llewyn experiences his satisfaction only when humming the words to an always-old folk song and indulging the audience in their most illogical sentimentalities. — Reid Ramsey
Jersey Boys (2014) by Clint Eastwood
It took almost a decade for an adaptation of the Tony award-winning jukebox musical Jersey Boys to reach the screen, and by that point interest in the story of how Frankie Valli found his Four Seasons had pretty much dried up. Many blamed the musical’s mixed reception and middling box office returns on Eastwood’s odd visual approach to the material, but for the sworn few who hold Jersey Boys as one of the century’s best song-and-dance pictures, the movie’s corpse-like pallor is part of the appeal. Eastwood ignores the tried-and-true visual tropes of the genre; elaborate choreography, bright colors, and expressionistic montage are mostly absent. Instead, he goes for something closer to an uncanny realism for this story of small-town, hard scrabble boys who found success but struggled to maintain it. The Garden State is no lush, nostalgic paradise, but the big city lights aren’t much brighter either. What makes Jersey Boys even more unusual, and what probably ensured its failure, is that Eastwood insisted on casting his leads from the stage play—they’re not “non-professional actors,” like the guys Eastwood would cast in The 15:17 to Paris, but they are nobodies, at least relative to the types the film’s producers would have probably preferred. This tilts Eastwood’s curious genre experiment even closer to neo-realism, injecting the pop sheen of Frankie Valli’s music and the musical format with an additional dose of real-life tragedy and trauma. — Nathan Smith
Magic Mike XXL (2015) by Gregory Jacobs
There’s a persuasive melancholy to Magic Mike XXL. Many have raved about its joyous qualities, the overwhelming surge of pleasure that it sends through the endorphins of the majority of its audience, and that’s undeniably true. Seeing these huge muscular Adonises of the mortal world gyrate and move their bodies out of the pure desire to make a few women have a good night never fails to put a smile on my face, especially with how sincere it is. There is never a moment in this film where you don’t believe that these men love to make people’s lives better for a few fragments of time, even if that requires them to lather themselves in body oil and flex their abs in neon lighting. The melancholy comes in from the acknowledgement that these moments are finite, that time is running out for their way of life. Mike and his crew are like old cowboys, riding for one last glorious adventure, that’s destined to end in burning out in a blaze of glory. These men struggle to accept normal life, even when they’re passionate about it, dancing and the infectious desires of a crowd is what they understand. The body doesn’t last forever, as much as you might want to. The real beauty of this film is watching as the protagonists’ journey from despair that everything is coming to an end, to being overwhelmed by joy that any of this ever happened. XXL rejects conventional tropes, it spends most of its runtime ambling about in Atlanta strip clubs, drag bars and a mansion filled with raucous middle aged women. It subverts the expectations of a love interest by having Amber Heard’s character be bisexual, not looking for a man right now, and having Mike accept that and desire her as a good friend to have in his life. Finally, it defies all expectations of what a musical is, there’s no spontaneous singing, there’s only a few diegetic musical performances by Donald Glover and Matt Bomer and even they are in service to the body. This is a tribute to flesh and love and music and the way that people find each other in the strangest ways. It’s Magic Mike XXL, something that’s unlike any other movie that’s ever been made, or ever will be again. — Logan Kenny
Shoot The Moon Right Between The Eyes (2018) by Graham L. Carter
When discussing favorite musicals, color must be a major talking point. In Graham L. Carter’s musical Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes, color and music go hand-in-hand. To call the film nostalgic would be to downplay it’s true power, but it is reminiscent of a type of movie that indulged neons and pastels less for the pure aesthetic and more for the atmosphere ushered in by these colors. The flickering sign leading into the bar, even the pastel title cards, it all points to a contentment at the heart of the movie. After all, this is the type of movie where the two lead characters stop in their tracks to listen to a man strum his guitar on his porch. They hear his words and they move on.
The intoxicating glow of Shoot the Moon reaches its zenith as two lovers, Jerry and Maureen (Sonny Carl Davis and Morgan’s Shaw), hold each other in their arms, sway back and forth, and bare their souls to each other. There’s no complicated choreography or cinematography. It’s just elegant, colorful, and romantic. Plain and simple. — Reid Ramsey