I’ll start off by making something clear, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for musicals in all their forms – indeed my favourite film from the 90’s was a musical. However this weekend I was subjected to the horror that is Mamma Mia and it’s prompted a closer examination of the horror that is “The Modern Musical”.
Now, let’s be clear here. We’re talking primarily about musicals made post 1980. Technology has finally freed the camera to enable it float around with no apparent weight, allowing it to get closer to the action and more importantly around it. This opens up a bag of tricks previously unavailable to directors. Where once screen musical had to distinguish themselves from their stage counterparts with sheer scale, now the ability to move away from “the film of the stage musical” became the distinction.
So why is it that directors still think “It worked on stage, I won’t change it”?
Sure, Mamma Mia isn’t the worst example of this (Chicago I’m looking at you), but the flat direction, lack of the realization that there is a Z-axis as well that the camera can move through (when it moves) and the lack of anything that cannot be reproduced on a stage make it one of the worst examples. It shows a fundamental lack of imagination on the part of the director. The problem is that pretty much every modern interpretation of a stage musical (distinction made for reasons to follow) has made the same mistake. We’re paying to see cinema people, not a recording or a Broadway performance!
Now before I sound completely negative their are good stage screen transfers – there’s even been one this year. Sweeney Todd succeeded because it was approached as a film that just happened to have musical numbers in it. The director realised that the camera can move (indeed it rarely stays still) and thus freed the characters from being stage-bound. It’s still a distinct musical (indeed it’s even possibly a filmed operetta) but it embraces modern filmic language. Hairspray also worked, but that has the odd history of being a film-with-music that became a stage-musical that became a film-musical, still the director at least gave it a sense of energy by having actual motion in the camera.
However for the last ten years it’s mostly been non-stage musicals that have been more successful (artisticly) because they haven’t had a history attached to them. Moulin Rouge completely jettisoned any pretension’s of being achievable on stage and was all the better for it, whilst Dancer In The Dark (described by a friend as the world’s first feel-shit musical) used the language of documentary filmmakers to create something new. Both were unfortunately flops (Moulin Rouge made less than $200 million worldwide – far less than expectations – so is categorised as a flop) so it’s not a surprise that Hollywood perhaps blamed this lack of success on moving away from formula – shame on you Hollywood!
So what can we expect in the future? Well given the success (financially) of Mamma Mia I suspect that we’ll get even straighter adaptions of other stage musicals. Hollywood is afraid to try and re-invent the wheel.
Oh and the final word? Pierce Brosnan should be served with a court order preventing him from singing in any future films, he really is that bad.