Thursday, January 20, 2011

There's Only One Other Person Who Can Do All That. Barbra Streisand: A Few Great Musical Numbers


Musicals don't have to suck. They aren't always tediously annoying crap. Now, that backhanded compliment may seem obvious to anyone living in Manhattan. But for those of us who grew up far from The Great White Way, it's a worthy reminder that musical theater has the ability to exceed the dregs of amateur hour.

It's my instinct to hate musical numbers. Whether in a play or a movie, or a movie about a play, they usually fall short for me. And I don't think it's because I'm too macho for musicals. It's not like I think they're gay. Unless they're actually gay. Not there's anything wrong with that. It just seems like the singing and dancing is either shoved into a scene where it just doesn't fit or there is some ironic wink to the audience. Now, even as I typed that, I thought of a million Simpson episodes, Flight of Conchords numbers and even Family Guy musical scenes that are pure awesomeness. But those are comedies. It's easy to sing and dance when you're really just joking around. But it's tough to sell a musical number when you're trying to convey any real emotion. Instead of feeling stylized and theatric, too often it feels fake and distracting.

Let me take you through the event from my childhood that is largely responsible for my resistance to enjoy musical numbers. This is a remarkably common experience amongst us Mormons. I speak of the Roadshow. I'm not sure why we as a people feel compelled to write, produce and preform squeaky clean, original plays (often with a Pioneer theme or a moral message about choosing good friends) but it's a pretty common event throughout the many Stakes of Zion. Perhaps it's because most LDS Church Houses have a stage built into the Cultural Hall (aka the basketball court). And why have a stage if you're not gonna use the thing?

It was 1990. I know that, because one of the other Ward's Roadshow that year was entitled, "Bart Simpson Gets A Mission Call" and that was the hot new show. How many times do you think they said "Cowabunga"? At the time, I was an ill-tempered, 12 year old little shit head. Well, I wasn't that all the time but throughout the events of this story, I pretty much was. So I'm sticking with that description.

Now, I hesitate to go into too much detail here, because the lady who birthed this particular creation worked her freaking guts out on it. She wrote it, and directed it and probably made most of the sets and costumes. She's a really nice person and I would feel terrible if she were to somehow find this post on the interwebs, read this rendition and had her feelings hurt. So, if you happened to find this, please realize that it is simply the two decade old, inaccurate memories of an ill-tempered little shit head. Everyone besides me had a wonderful time.

That said, my part in this play was pretty brutal. The play was an original creation about a fictionalized America where milk had been banned because pasteurization had yet to be discovered. You know, that old comedy chestnut. It was a prohibition themed vaudeville act with lots of cow puns ("Moooove over, Angus! That's utterly ridiculous!") and old songs with cow themed lyrics replacing the original words. This was a major production. Set designs, costumes, dance numbers, a cast of a few dozen people. There was a huge amount of work put into this thing. And it seemed at the time (again, the unreliable memories of a shit head) that it was a massive pain in everyone's butt. "Let's just grind through this thing and get it over with."

My part was that of Mr. Pickle. If I remember right, this whole thing was set up to be an old radio show and in the middle of the action, they paused for a word from their sponsor. That sponsor? Mr. Pickle. There was a few girls dressed as clocks that came on stage and sang a little jingle that ended with "It's tiiiiiiiiime for Mr. Pickle." I then ran through the audience from the back of the room, dressed in green tights and freaking Pickle costume and recited a pickle themed tongue twister.

I'm not sure if you can tell by my facial expression, but I did not want to do this. Not so much because it was embarrassing but because it was just dumb. It doesn't look like the clock on the right was too thrilled about the whole thing either. I especially like the two brothers at the bottom, looking at each other, as if to say, "What the f*ck are we doing here?" Or maybe they were just trying to remember their next line. I'm projecting.

We did three different performances of this play and the reception was appreciative and polite. But it wasn't a raving hit. Most jokes (and there were tons of them) were met with a kindest chuckle any cow pun could expect. I think I was a pretty good sport about it all. In fact, I don't know if I have ever complained about this moment until just now. Of course now that I have decided to complain, I've done it in front of the world, so I probably shouldn't claim to be a good sport. But again, this wasn't some traumatic nightmare by any means. It was just kinda dumb. And it built into me a justifiably skeptical attitude about musical theater.

However, in the years since, I have seen several renditions of a number of plays and have enjoyed the majority of them. I once saw BYU's music/dance/theater group preform Sweeny Todd at an outdoor amphitheater in Provo. This venue is made from stone and it looks like a haunted castle. And it's located right behind a mental institution. The perfect place for an October production of Sweeny Todd. It was great. I have cousins that very involved in the local theater scene and have always been very entertained by the many plays they have been in. Aida, Treasure Island and a few originals that were fantastic and thought provoking. But no matter how high the production value is, I always have to account for the "Pickle Factor". I end up asking myself, "Is this theatric and fun? Or just stupid?"

So, in defense of musical numbers everywhere, I present a list of excellent musical scenes from well known movies. You'll note that there are 6 examples instead of my normal 5. I just couldn't decide which one to cut. In fact I had a hard time narrowing the list to 6.

Some honorable mentions include Ferris Bueller's Twist and Shout, Joseph Gordon Levitt's "I got some!" celebration dance from 500 Days of Summer, The KKK dance scene in O Brother, Blue Shadows from Three Amigos, the closing credits of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Stone Henge.

On with the list:

Down In the Willow Garden - Raising Arizona 1987

Holly Hunter has a great voice. I would buy an album of her singing a cappella versions of old timey songs and listen to it every night as I curl up in the fetal position to sleep.

The song that Ed (short for Edwina) is singing to Nathan Jr (he's awful, damn good) is an old Bluegrass standard. This haunting and downright gruesome songs tells the point of view of a man who is about to be hanged for killing his love. Here's a full version of it. In typical Bluegrass fashion, it features lyrics that border on despair, contrasting with the peaceful, soothing tone of the music. He is a condemned man who has no hope for salvation. His sins are too great and he realizes the consequences of his actions are both unavoidable and just. But when sung to such a calm, almost maternal tune, it's clear that he accepts his fate of the gallows.

Ed's singing of this lullaby wakes HI from his dream of the lone biker of the apocalypse and the screaming mother of the child they just kidnapped. He then stares into the merciless sun of the Arizona desert and laments, "Sometimes it's a hard world for the little things."

Raising Arizona is a perfect movie. Let me say that again. It is a PERFECT movie. (Man, caps are obnoxious.) The slapstick silliness and the lightning witted dialog never fail to amuse and entertain. But those characteristics hide the fact that this is a brutal movie about desperate people trying to scratch out their own piece of happiness by any means possible and in the process they secure their own destruction. If the Coens wanted to, they could have made this into a film every bit as intense, heart wrenching and morally ambiguous as No Country For Old Men. (Of course, if they went that route, the movie would end with Smalls strangling HI with a pair of handcuffs and Nathan Arizona murdering Ed with an air powered cattle gun.) But, like the featured song, they disguise the tortured conflict of the protagonists with a pleasant, enjoyable tone.

As well as the greatest rendition of Ode to Joy in the history of time. (Skip to 1:35 for it.)

HI and Ed's attempt to overcome their own self destructive tendencies (which ain't easy to do with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House), their poverty (Guvment do take a bite!), evil influences (Keep your g*ddamn hands of my wife!), the Federal B.I. (microbes and shit), the forces of fate and justice (My friends call me Lenny. But I don't have any friends.) as well as biology and the prejudices of others is ultimately futile. It's hopeless. The moment HI takes that baby (Iiiiihhiii loohoove hiiim sooohooo muuuch!), the fate of the McDonough family is sealed.* "My race is run, beneath the sun. The scaffold waits for me."

And all they ever wanted was a young sportsman that don't know a cuss word from Shinola. You know. The salad days.

Song of the Roustabouts - Dumbo 1941

So, if I'm doing a list a of awesome musical numbers from well known movies, and I am featuring a song from Dumbo, you'd think I'd go with Pink Elephants on Parade. Which could be the finest example of an inexplicably evil looking acid trip aimed at children in the history of film. (A close second would be my next entry.) But I'm going with the Roustabouts because this song illustrates the depth of Dumbo.

You heard me. Dumbo is deep.

A few years ago I got it in my head that I needed to rewatch Dumbo, so I could snicker and laugh at the racist crows. I planned to point my finger and mock the politically incorrect lack of cultural sophistication that Disney and America in general displayed so unapologetically in 1941 from my lofty an enlightened perch of one who had grown up in the post Civil Rights Era. One who knew better than to defame a people with hackneyed caricatures of Jazz musicians and minstrel singers. After all, we in the 21st century have all these racial issues and cultural tensions figured out. Right? But my preconceived notions of a silly little cartoon that featured dated and offensive stereotypes was shot down. Not only does Dumbo have substance, the message of that substance is remarkably enlightened.

Put simply; Dumbo illustrates the plight of the African American. Just go with me on this one. And ignore his blue eyes, for a second. I don't know, maybe he's biracial.

The Roustabouts song sets this connection up pretty clearly. Casey Jr pulls into town on a cold, rainy night and it's the poor, black laborers and the elephants that have to work all night in the mud to set up the tent. Meanwhile the lazy tigers and the Ringmaster sleep through the storm. In the tradition of Negro Spirituals, the workers sing the opposite of how they feel, since they can't honestly speak their minds. "We're Happy, Happy Roustabouts!" They are exploited and abused. "Keep on working, stop that shirking! Grab that rope, you hairy ape!" And they are ultimately ignored. In the morning, the tent is pitched and the people who enjoy it are oblivious to price paid by the elephants and laborers that made it happen.

Dumbo is then violently taken away from his mother after she acted upon her maternal instinct to protect her son. She is chained and imprisoned. By the way, if you haven't seen Dumbo since you were a kid, you'll be amazed at how brutal that scene is. Walt Disney rips your freaking guts out with that scene. Dumbo is then dehumanized (deelephantized?) because of the physical features that make him different, his big ears. Or his blackness. (Still with me?) "Elephants don't have feelings. They're made of rubber." The gawking perpetrators of this cruelty (appropriately portrayed as clowns) paint his face and humiliate him in front of a laughing crowd night after night.

But with the help of his friends, Timothy and the crows (the leader of whom is unfortunately named Jim), Dumbo realizes that the object of his scorn is also what makes him special. "The very thing keeping you down, is gonna carry you up and up and up!" His uniqueness is the key to his ultimate success. He harnesses the power of his big ears and overcomes the cruelty of the clowns, the stupidity of the crowd and the Ringmaster and the nasty jealousy of the other elephants and flies off into glory. It's like the story of Jackie Robinson told six years before he broke the color barrier.

And when he finally hits it big, Dumbo buys a house for his moms.

There's still plenty of legitimate criticism to be had for the movie. The black crows were voiced by white actors a la "Amos and Andy". And even though they are complimentary characters, I wouldn't second guess anyone who felt offended by them. But Dumbo is a fine movie that deserves a little bit of love for its handling of an issue that is still far from being resolved 70 years after it was made.

That Freaky Deaky Boat Ride Scene - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory 1971

Gene Wilder is a freaking king! He's so good as the maniacal nice guy. Totally calm, with just a hint of crazy in his eye. But you know it's just a matter of time before he snaps.

Here's a little secret about books and movies and cartoons aimed at entertaining kids. The overwhelming majority** of them are evil to the bone. Every single fairy tale, every single Disney movie, every single Roald Dahl book, The Wizard of Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, Harry Potter not to mention the Bible all have moments of terrifying conflict. Children being eaten, witches burning people alive, flying monkeys coming from the sky and carrying you away. I mean, do you remember The Dark Crystal? That thing came straight from the depths of hell. Even Thomas the Tank has some weirdly dark villainy going on.

But don't misread this observation as some sort of condemnation. I think it's badass. Kids can handle scary. Kids like scary. They do. Even when it gives them nightmares. There's some encoded fascination we all have with a fictionalized version of horror. No little kid wants to look at crime scene photos of actual dead bodies. But we were all captivated by disturbing yet safe portrayals of evil. I was at my brother's house a week or so ago and his three year old little girl was sitting at the kitchen table completely immersed in an illustrated book of the Brother's Grimm Fairy Tales. She grabbed my attention and pointed to the picture she was studying. Pointing to a tiny skull and cross bones ring that a witch was wearing she chirped in her cartoonish little voice, "Bwian, this witch is very spooty." For some reason she pronounces her K's like T's. I'm not sure why, but it's the cutest damn thing on the planet. She was frightened yet fascinated. In thirty years, she'll still have some vague recollection of that picture. I was scared of Cylons from Battlestar Gallactica when I was a kid. Those glowing red pulses moving back and forth on their heads. Freaked me the hell out. But I still watched the show.

A Penny For Your Thoughts - Waiting For Guffman 1997

In my last post I mentioned the glory of Guffman and decided to rewatch it for the first time in a few years. In fact, watching this scene is what reminded me of the stupid Mr Pickle crap and prompted this entire post. There is no better illustration of the unfulfilled ambitions of amateur theater better than Corky St Clair's original production of "Red White and Blaine". It's shooting for Broadway and missing by about 2,000 miles. Or however far away Blaine, Missoura is from Broadway.

Corky's heartfelt and deadly sincere delivery of the nonsensical lyrics cracks me the hell up every time I hear it. "I have offered a million. I have done it for none." What? When I get married, my bride and I will dance to this song at our wedding. And I'm gonna end it with the toe pointing thing. Of course, the fact I bring up this plan on every first I have may be a reason why I remain single. Perhaps. I just need to find my own Libby Mae Brown. So I've decided to go the DQ more often. You know. Just drive in and get a coke.

Tonight, You Belong To Me - The Jerk 1979

The Jerk has an innocent absurdity to it that never fails to hit home. It's not just that Navin Johnson is an idiot. It's that he's an idiot who is good down to his core. And Navin deserves a woman just as good. And Marie is that woman. Even if she can't throw knives very well. This song is dripping with sweetness. But the characters singing it are so pure, I can't help but buy into it. And just when my heart is melting into butter, Marie pulls out a Cornet and defuses the sentimentality. And I giggle like a drunken baby.

Tiny Dancer - Almost Famous 2000

Almost Famous is somewhat of an anomaly for me. Kate Hudson is pretty unbearable. Yet she's the perfect Penny Lane. I'm skeptical of Zooey Deschanel. Mostly because of that stupid cotton commercial she did a year ago. But here she portrays a great "cool, older sister". And as a general rule, I can't stand Cameron Crowe's movies. Say Anything is beyond overrated. Jerry Maguire needs to burn in hell for eternity. Vanilla Sky? Let's just say if a movie ends with a character we've never seen before explaining the entire plot straight to the audience, it's a poorly made film. Show me, don't tell me. Especially when the twist ending is, "It was all a dream!" I would tell Tom Cruise to kiss my nutsack for wasting two hours of my life, but he just might take me up on that offer. (I've been told I have a handsome nutsack.***)

But Almost Famous is gold. With only a few exceptions, (what the hell is Jimmy Fallon doing in this movie?) Almost Famous hits every note with a perfect balance of restrained emotion. In fact, if I were to encapsulate my own personality with a single movie, I just might have to choose Almost Famous to do it. Easily one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time.

The featured scene has become quite famous in the decade since this movie was released. There's a good reason this musical moment has resonated so well. Sometimes, great music really is the answer to all of life's problems. Sometimes, it's the only answer. At least it's the answer for as long as the song plays.

At this moment of the story, everything is going wrong. The band hates each other, the grind of the road is taking its toll, the kid was due home weeks ago, the groupies are feeling neglected, the agent is getting pushed to the side and their idiot lead singer just crashed some teenagers party. They are all pissed off and exhausted. But then the right song comes on the radio and breaks the silent tension. One by one they join in and sing along. By the second chorus, they are united, singing with an enthusiasm that defies their circumstance. Right here, right now, this moment is perfect. That's the power of a great song. As cheesy as I just made that sound, it's true. And that's the value of effective film making, or any kind of expression. It makes the cheesy things in life that are true feel true. Even for us ill-tempered shit heads.

But Jerry Maguire still sucks.

* Don't be fooled by that happy ending. It was just a dream. A hope for the future. But HI and Ed still remained childless. They lost.

** This doesn't include Dora The Explorer, Blues Clues, or any of that pinko, "educational", PBS crap. If there isn't some sort of satanic, homicidal villain, kids shouldn't waste their time.

***Smooth as eggs.


Gregg said...

Another great post, but I liked Vanilla Sky.

Spencer said...

Brian Westenskow is a great man. How do I know? He introduced me to Waiting For Guffman. Sometimes I miss that house.

BusterBluth52 said...

Thanks Gregg. I figure we hate enough of the same movies that I don't feel the need to change your mind on Vanilla Sky.

Spencer. Guffman, Punch Out, Shock and Awe and rug that really tied the room together. That was a good house.

Gregg said...

Don't forget our landlord, The Dude.

Ramsey said...

I lived there too you assholes!