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Before La La Land: 5 Great Modern Movie Musicals

The Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone vehicle might usher in a new era of song and dance. Here are a few other films that will put a spring in your step

Abdul AhadAbdul Ahad

December 12, 2016 | 05:12 PM

chicago, dreamgirls, la la land, les misérables, moulin rouge!, sweeney todd: the demon barber of fleet street, hollywood

Even in India, where music is integral to many movies, flashy song and dance sequences are not enough anymore. Don’t get me wrong; this tradition still exists, but cinema has changed since the advent of the 21st century: gritty and realistic films or blown-out CGI spectacles click with the average cinemagoer, especially in Hollywood. If I had a dollar for every film with big-budget CGI in the past decade I’d be able to spend a month at the Taj. However, we may be about to witness the revitalization of a classic Hollywood genre: the musical.

After wowing audiences on the film festival circuit, and racking up numerous award nominations Damien Chazelle’s La La Land hits theatres on December 16. Following his sophomore effort Whiplash two years ago, which is one of the most thrilling films in recent memory (boasting an unforgettably terrifying performance from J.K Simmons), he seems to have stepped up his game this time around, boasting a bigger cast and setting: the showbiz world in Los Angeles. Early reviews suggest we have a frontrunner for the 2017 Oscars and that Chazelle is a force to be reckoned with.

However, let’s not jump the gun and consider Chazelle as the only one who revived the musical. La La Land owes its resurgence to a handful of films released over the past couple of years; films that kept the genre alive. Let’s take a look at some of these movies.

Les Misérables (2012)

Tom Hooper’s follow up to the The King’s Speech was an adaptation of the Broadway musical Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s book. Featuring an all-star cast led by Hugh Jackman, in his career-best performance I might add, the film has Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne among others. The film may seem long and overdrawn but the performances and the sheer scale of the set design make for an engrossing watch.

You will temporarily forget whatever images you may have of Jackman running around cutting people with his claws as you witness the Tony Award winner sing his way to an Oscar Nomination. Anne Hathaway’s heart-wrenching rendition of the song “I Dreamed A Dream” stands out as it will make even the toughest of you shed a tear; it’s probably why she won an Oscar for her role.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

When thinking of cinematic eccentricity, Tim Burton’s name always comes first to mind. About a violent singing barber and his wife who exact revenge on a judge who wronged him, this musical is as outlandish and endearingly weird as you’d expect a Tim Burton film to be: bordering on the macabre, with a spectacular ensemble cast featuring the usual suspects Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Depp’s sinister rendition of the song “Epiphany” fetched him an Oscar nomination the following year.

 

Dreamgirls (2006)

The film deals with the struggles faced by a trio of black soul singers (played by Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose) in the 1960s as they attempt to make it big. The movie captures the cutthroat nature of show business and how time and tide wait for no one, especially if you don’t fit into the “conventional idea of beauty”.

The songs and the set design capture the essence of the music industry and the plot is carried forward with grace by the convincing performances of the ensemble cast. Jennifer Hudson’s delivery of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is powerful as she desperately tries to cling on to the life she knows is slipping away from her grasp. She walked away with a supporting actress Oscar the next year. Remember, this woman lost at American Idol the year before.

Chicago (2002)

The only Best Picture winner on this list is also the only musical to win Best Picture in the last 50 years. The film follows Roxie Hart and her idol, the singer Velma Kelly (Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones) as they end up on death row after committing murders. Both enlist the help of a smarmy lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to fight their cases. The film follows Roxie as the fame gets to her head and she dials up the drama surrounding her case with Flynn’s help because nothing like swaying public opinion in your favour to get off murder charges, right?

The film is an interesting character study on how some people, will do anything to be in the spotlight regardless of the consequences. This is especially highlighted in the song “Roxie”. My personal favourite? The song “Cell Block Tango” where Velma recounts on how she ended up in prison. It is raw, aggressive and a treat to watch.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

The film follows a budding romance between Christian (Ewan McGregor), a writer who works for a troupe that performs at the local cabaret named Moulin Rouge! and Satine (Nicole Kidman), the head courtesan. This oddball yet somehow graceful film is one of the best romances to grace the silver screen in years; probably Baz Luhrmann’s best work ever.

The film is a jukebox musical: it uses renditions of previously existing songs as the soundtrack for the film. Particularly entertaining is a take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” titled “Zidler’s Rap Medley” performed by Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the owner of the cabaret. A prime example of how Broadway plays can make for great cinema, this is probably the most fun entry on this list.