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Good Musical Movies (1985-90): When Words Fail You – Just Sing
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Good Musical Movies (1985-90): When Words Fail You – Just Sing

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Ren Zelen itcherIt is said that when a character in a movie cannot express their feelings in words, that’s when they break into song and dance – thus, the musical movie was born! I take a look at the musicals that have more recently graced our screens in a genre which was particularly overlooked in the 1980s. ~ Ren Zelen

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

Sadly, by the 1980s, musicals written directly for the screen had become almost obsolete. Most were filmed versions of shows that had been successful on stage. A few musical screenplays managed to slip through, most of them quirky in nature.

The trend then evolved into featuring pop or rock bands of the day on the soundtrack. Musical film remains a slippery topic for observation because it seems synonymous with frivolousness, but this is not always the case.

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Sharp Musical Movie Recommendations

‘A Chorus Line’ (Richard Attenborough, 1985)

“I would always try to find ways to kill myself, but then I realized to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant…”

This was a ground -breaking musical whose storytelling style became a staple of reality TV. We are all familiar with shows like ‘Pop Idol’, ‘The Voice’, ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and similar TV shows that focus on the emotions and background of performers. However, the fictional ‘A Chorus Line’ did it first.

The story goes: hundreds of hopefuls congregate at a casting call for Broadway dancers. A demanding director, Zach (Michael Douglas), and his brusque assistant (Terrence Mann), eliminate dancers down the ranks until only sixteen hopefuls remain.

All the participants then tell their life stories – some funny, some ironic, some heart-breaking – and explain their love of dance. Tension mounts when Cassie (Alyson Reed) auditions. She was once a big star and the director’s lover, but is now down on her luck and desperate for a part. Zach, however, must choose only the best, and whether he’s willing to let professionalism overcome his personal feelings about their past remains to be seen.

No matter what their background, however, all the participants have one thing in common: a passion for dance.

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‘Absolute Beginners’ (Julien Temple, 1986)

“Never things Colin. We don’t sell things. We sell dreams…”

‘Absolute Beginners’ was the first feature by Julien Temple, who began his career producing music videos. It is a musical adaptation of a novel by Colin MacInnes, which takes a vivid look at Britain’s pop culture circa 1958.

Nineteen-year-old Colin (Eddie O’Connell), an aspiring young British photographer and jazz aficionado, falls for the beautiful Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit), a model on the rise. When she leaves him to pursue her dreams of fame, Vendice Partners (David Bowie), a suave advertising executive, takes Colin under his wing and helps him begin his own upward climb toward success.

As Colin and Suzette get caught up in the promotion of youth culture of the late 50s, they brush up against the era’s social issues.

The title song ‘Absolute Beginners’ ranks as one of David Bowie’s great lyrics, although the movie doesn’t quite match the promise of Bowie’s creation. However, the movie is less about plot, and more about dynamic set pieces and colourful production numbers, orchestrated and supervised by jazz specialist, Gil Evans.

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‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (Frank Oz, 1986)

“We’re not talking about one hungry plant here, we’re talking about world conquest…”

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is a horror-comedy rock musical by writer Howard Ashman; the music was composed by Alan Menken in the style of early 1960s rock n’ roll, doo-wop, and Motown. A film version was made in 1986, noted as the only film written by Ashman.

Meek flower shop assistant, Seymour (delightfully played by Rick Moranis), yearns for co-worker Audrey (marvellous musical veteran, Ellen Greene). During a total eclipse, he discovers an unusual plant he names Audrey II which, as it transpires, is of alien origin and can speak and also grant desires. But first, it must feed on human flesh and blood.

The plant begins to grow to a tremendous size and attracts a great deal of business for the previously struggling store. After Seymour feeds Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, Orin (Steve Martin), to the plant, he must come up with more and more bodies for the increasingly hungry and bloodthirsty plant.

Audrey II’s signature song, “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

I can reveal the ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is probably my own personal favourite ‘modern’ film musical.

A recent stage revival cast none other than Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of the nerdy Seymour and allowed Ellen Greene to reprise the role of Audrey, which she had made her own.

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‘Under the Cherry Moon’ (Prince, 1986)

“What makes me a peasant? How much money I got, or what’s in my heart?”

‘Under the Cherry Moon’ is an American musical drama directed by and starring Prince as a gigolo named Christopher Tracy and former Time member, Jerome Benton, as his partner, Tricky. Together, the pair swindle money out of wealthy French women.

The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to con her once he discovers that she receives a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday. Mary’s father, Isaac (Steven Berkoff), disapproves of the romance and provides an excellent adversary for Tracy.

The film was Prince’s first film as a director. With an entire cast and crew in France, artistic differences eventually led to Prince firing the director of the film, leaving him behind the lens in charge of the cinematic creativity of the production (which is a nice way of saying that ‘Prince took over’).

The film is undeniably silly, particularly considering the unlikely paring of Prince with the sophisticated and refined British actress, Kirstin Scott Thomas, as his love interest!

It has a quirky quality, however, that manages to push it into cult status. Prince and Jerome Benton are amusing, which may be due to the fact that they’re friends in real life.

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‘Earth Girls Are Easy’ (Julien Temple, 1988)

“As if things weren’t bad enough, now I’ve been abducted by aliens…”

‘Earth Girls Are Easy’ is a genre-crunching American musical/romantic/science-fiction/comedy film directed by Julien Temple, starring Geena Davis, Julie Brown, Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, and Jim Carrey. The plot is based on the song “Earth Girls Are Easy” from Julie Brown’s 1984 mini-album, ‘Goddess in Progress’.

The film begins with three furry aliens: the blue Mac (Goldblum), the yellow Zeebo (Wayans), and the red Wiploc (Carrey), traveling in a space ship. They are starved of female companionship, but suddenly, they receive a broadcast showing human females. They are titillated by these ‘hairless’, shapely creatures and discover that the broadcast came from Earth, so they set off, planning to land in Southern California.

Valley Girl Valerie Gail (Davis) is a manicurist at the ‘Curl Up & Dye’ hair salon. She feels her fiancé, Dr. Ted Gallagher (Charles Rocket), is becoming distant and slipping away, and then catches him cheating on her with his nurse. She kicks him out and refuses to see him again.

The next day, she’s sunbathing when the aliens’ spaceship crash-lands in her pool. She befriends them and calls her friend Woody (Michael McKean) to come and drain the pool so the aliens can fix their ship and get it flying again.

Meanwhile, she brings them into her home; though there is a language barrier at first, the aliens prove to be quick learners and absorb American pop culture and language by watching television.

To help them fit in, Valerie takes them to the salon to shave off all their fur. Once shaved and hairless, the three aliens look remarkably human and even attractive, or so Valerie begins to think.

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‘School Daze’ (Spike Lee, 1988)

“Learn to articulate, you juvenile delinquent!”

‘School Daze’ is a 1988 American musical comedy- drama film, written and directed by Spike Lee, and starring Larry Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tisha Campbell-Martin.

Based in part on Spike Lee’s own experiences at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, it is a story about fraternity and sorority members clashing with other students at a historically black college during homecoming weekend. It also touches upon issues of real and perceived racism related to skin tone bias and hair texture within the African-American community.

Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Fishburne) is a politically conscious black American student at Mission College, whose motto is “Uplift the Race”. Dunlap leads anti-apartheid demonstrations encouraging students and school administrators to divest from South Africa. When his buddies go into town, they find the local boys are not impressed with their activities, but think of them as privileged college boys. Open conflict breaks out between the groups.

Dunlap feuds with Julian Eaves (Esposito) aka Dean Big Brother Almighty of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, Incorporated. This group is characterized as “wannabees”, as in “wannabe better than me”. The fraternity brothers are preparing for a big college football weekend and Homecoming parties. Meanwhile, Dap’s younger cousin, Darrell (Lee), aka “Half-Pint”, is a Gamma pledge.

The Gamma women’s auxiliary, the Gamma Rays, who are sleek and light-skinned, confront non-Greek black co-eds, particularly over skin colour and the nature of their hair.

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‘Hairspray’ (John Waters, 1988)

“But Tracy ain’t no First Lady, are you Tracy? No siree. She’s a hair hopper, that’s what she is!”

‘Hairspray’ is perhaps John Waters’ most accessible film, and as such, is a gently subversive slice of retro amusement. The film is as artificial as any of Waters’ prior movies, imitating and satirizing the visual style of television and trashy melodramas. However, it also attempts to be a little bit real, as it reputedly reflects Waters’ own boyhood experiences.

‘Hairspray’ takes place in 1962 in Baltimore, where a TV show known as ‘The Corny Collins Show’ is at the centre of local teenage fantasies. The kids on the show are great dancers with hair piled in elaborate mounds atop photogenic faces and many teens dream of being participants.

One kid who yearns to be on the show is Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), an overweight teen. Tracy dances in front of her TV set and knows all the right moves. Her fantasies are tolerated by her parents (played by Jerry Stiller and Divine).

When Tracy auditions for a spot on ‘The Corny Collins Show’, she beats out the slender but spiteful Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick), winning over Amber’s boyfriend (Michael St. Gerard) in the process.

After meeting some black students at her school, Tracy begins to push for more racial integration on the dance show. This gets her into trouble, especially with Amber’s pushy parents (Sonny Bono, Deborah Harry).

The movie is a series of teenage crises and crushes, alternating with historically accurate choreography of forgotten dances like the Madison and the Roach. ‘Hairspray’ also aims to ackowledge and even tackle the various kinds of prejudice circa 1963, and how youthful optimism and music made a difference, if only to those kids hoping for a more diverse, progressive community.

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‘Moonwalker’ (Colin Chilvers, Jim Blashfield, Jerry Kramer & Will Vinton, 1988)

“You wanna know why I’m doing this, do you? I just wanna get everybody high, Man. You know, some good drugs. That’s all…”

‘Moonwalker’ is an example of another form of musical movie that became popular during the 1980s. It is a video portrait of pop superstar Michael Jackson featuring concert footage, concept videos and a career retrospective.

Rather than featuring one continuous narrative, the film is a collection of short films about Jackson, several of which are long-form music videos from Jackson’s ‘Bad’ album. The film is named after the dance technique known as the moonwalk, which Jackson first popularized in the 1980s. The name of the dance move was dubbed by the media, not by Jackson himself; however, he did choose the title of the film.

It is also interesting in that the movie provides a good example of popular culture recycling itself. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video owes an obvious debt to the golden era of Hollywood as it pays tribute to the street dancing of the well-known musical, ‘West Side Story’.

Featured songs include ‘Man in the Mirror’, ‘Speed Demon’, ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘Come Together’, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘We Are the World’, ‘Human Nature’, ‘Thriller’, ‘Beat It’ and many others.

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The Song Remains the Same

The 1980’s made a contribution to the visual interpretation of song. Post-1980s musical/dance movies may be seen as a transformation of the Hollywood Musical and may also have initiated another generation of music videos also often indebted to the style of musicals films. Television parodies of film musicals continue the genre’s tradition of self-reflexivity.

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