The New Age of the Movie Musical


The Dreams – Anika Noni Rose (“Caroline or Change”) as Lorrell, Beyonce Knowles (“Pink Panther”) as Deena and Jennifer Hudson (“American Idol”) as Effie in Dreamgirls


When was the last time you busted out into song to explain your emotions?


I mean, let’s face it, when you’re in a deep heated fight with your friend, do you really get so fed up that words fail you and you have nothing left to do but to just hit that high b flat and belt “AND I AM TELLLLING YOOOUUU!!! IAAAM NOT GOOOING!”


Movie musicals have always been a hard sell.


Long consider passe on all accounts, due to the unrealistic nature of busting out into song, film musicals tend to be a laborious experience – melodramatic and cheap, with melody and lyric sucking the reality that cinema tries to portray.


Hollywood’s trying their best to create a new golden age of film musicals starting with Moulin Rouge!, a movie that faithfully reminded us that MTV’s real roots came from movie musicals and that music videos are condensed, high-content, coma-inducing versions of just that: The McMusical. Then came 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, reinventing the genre and taking a near-flawless stage show and turning it into a near-flawless motion picture event. It didn’t hurt to have Oscar-caliber performances (especially Catherine Zeta-Jones who stole the damn show and won supporting actress for Velma Kelly, a role that only a handful of women can portray) and the glorious music of Kander & Ebb didn’t hurt either (not like the cheesy AM Gold collection Moulin Rouge! decided to peruse).


After the success of Chicago, it seems that movie musicals have found a place in film once again. TV networks have started producing acclaimed stage classics such as The Music Man and Once Upon a Mattress, and it didn’t take long for MTV to finally realize the connection between music videos and movie musicals with their foray into the genre. Since then we’ve been treated with at least one or two film musicals a year, with Phantom of the Opera, The Producers and Rent, three classic Tony-winning shows with wonderful ideals but handled by the wrong filmmakers. This year promises an even bigger leap into the genre. So far, Disney Channel has produced High School Musical, which has the distinction of being the number one soundtrack of the year so far and Disney Channel’s most watched original made-for-tv-movie.


Yet the biggest news to come out of this year as far as movie musicals are concerned is the film adaptation of the beloved stage show Dreamgirls. Loosely based on real life singing group, the Supremes, the show follows the rise and fall of a girl group through the decades, their trials and tribulations. Effie (Jennifer Hudson) is the original lead singer of the Dreamettes, who is slowly pushed into the background (and eventually out of the group) by the group’s manager Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) and replaced by the prettier Deena (Beyonce Knowles) as the group gains celebrity by selling out.


The great thing about Dreamgirls is that I’ve always thought the show lends itself to a cinematic adaptation – not as a musical per se, but almost like a biopic, along the lines of Coal Miner’s Daughter, That Thing You Do!, Ray, or more recently, Walk the Line.


Musical biopics are a hot commodity in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that Rent‘s Jesse L. Martin will be starring in a biopic of Marvin Gaye (talk about casting of the century!) So if director Bill Condon is as wise as he’s been with a track record that includes Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, he’ll fashion the show along those lines. Dreamgirls is essentially a biographical musical and the tumultous pace of the show only lend itself to a strong cinematic adaptation. The characters are fascinating, the music is intoxicating, and the commentary the show has on the music industry is timely.


The music is also very accessible and radio-friendly to modern audiences. The show has produced now standard hits, particularly the R&B showstopper “I’m Not Going” which every diva knows the lyrics to and every Idol hopeful has probably sung to the disdain of prissy Simon Cowell. It’s a smart move to promote the music first before the movie and push it to the radios as early as two months prior to its holiday release. The soundtrack is being produced by today’s hottest producers in the music industry handling such talents as Alicia Keys, and Kelly Clarkson, and Condon has requested to update the sound to appeal to a younger audience.


It seems that Dreamgirls is poised to be a hit but that remains to be seen. The genre’s recent track record isn’t a strong one. Yet it doesn’t mean the movie musical is going to disappear anytime soon. Stephen Sondheim’s gothic tale of Sweeney Todd has been announced, attaching Sondheim’s first choices (and wise ones at that) with Tim Burton as director and Johnny Depp as ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street.’ There is rumor flying around of Into the Woods with a seriously interested Spielberg. There is OutKast’s hip-hop musical Idyllwild and the film version of Hairspray: The Musical.


The movie musical just might be back. Perhaps not at its height, but like Effie in Dreamgirls, they’re singing the same tune: “and I am telling you, I’m not going.”

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