Posts Tagged West Side Story
I only saw two films at the cinema in 2021. It took me a while to feel confident in going back, but I’m glad I did, for the delight that was Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman. (I subsequently saw West Side Story, see below) It seemed fitting, as well, given that the last films I saw at the cinema, in March 2020, were her Girlhood, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The second of those was the last film I saw at the cinema with my late husband.
There are plenty of films here, viewed on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and regular TV channels. It’s a different experience, certainly, less immersive (I wouldn’t check my phone during a film at the cinema whereas, I’m afraid, I can’t always help myself when at home). But it’s been invaluable, during the various phases of lockdown, and during the weeks immediately after my husband’s death when some already familiar films provided comfort and distraction.
Anyone who has read my reviews of previous years will expect, and will get, a lot of detective, crime and thriller series, a fair bit of scifi/fantasy, and some serious drama. They might not expect a flurry of reality shows – indeed, neither did I. If anyone had told me that in October/November 2021, I would be binging Married at First Sight Australia, The Bachelor (Australia), and Selling Sunset, I would have scoffed. But there, indeed, I was. They served a very useful purpose – they were ludicrous, and despite featuring ‘real’ people, seemed to have no connection to any reality that I recognised, and that was fine, because (for the most part) nothing that happened on these shows was going to break my heart into little pieces. Rather, I spent a lot of time shaking my head in disbelief…
The following list of TV programmes and films (some with commentary, some not) includes things I watched with him, things we’d watched together but which I continued on my own, things I watched with the kids in the strange weeks following his death, and programmes/films to which they introduced me.
The A Word (series 3) – excellent performances, and very touching. Not the last word on autism (it’s far too complex to be that – as they say, if you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person) but a portrait of one autistic child and his family.
It’s A Sin – this was stunning, and devastating. Superbly played by all of the leads (special mention to Keeley Hawes, who was horrifying as Ritchie’s mother).
Elizabeth R – I rewatched this to see how something that at the time seemed like landmark television held up 50 years later. It was slow by contemporary standards, and the budget constraints were pretty obvious in the crowd scenes, processions, battles, etc, but Glenda Jackson’s performance was as powerful as I remembered it.
Peaky Blinders – My husband never fancied watching this, despite so many people saying how good it was. I started watching it, with my son, after his death – whilst it’s not what you might call comfort watching, it was something that was good in its own right and had no associations with him that might have ambushed me. It’s brilliantly done, the script, the performances, the pacing, the sets are all marvellous, even if the accents are a bit wonky…
Small Axe – What struck me most forcibly was how different each film is from the others in the series. Mangrove is, of necessity, talky, with a fair bit of declaiming in the courtroom scenes, but Lovers’ Rock has only minimal dialogue, with long sequences where we are just watching people dance and sing along to the music. Music is at the heart of all the episodes except the final one, Education where the appalling travesty of education that was all too often SEN schooling was illustrated by a teacher inflicting his rendition of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on his class (and compounding the crime by claiming that the Animals wrote it…). These films were, individually and as a group, powerful and moving, and vital. It was hard to watch and listen to at times, but well worth doing so, whether one was generally familiar with the events and situations described or not.
Passing – Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel is understated, beautifully shot and full of tension. Wonderful performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson.
Petite Maman – a beautiful, magical exploration of loss. The trigger warning referred to ‘mild bereavement references’, and thankfully they were mild, poignant rather than heart wrenching.
The Dig – understated account of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo treasure, during the uneasy days just before the Second World War. Along the way it deals with class and gender prejudices, but with a very gentle touch.
The Harder They Fall – gripping and violent account of black outlaws in the wild west. Not only are most of the characters black, but women play key roles too (Regina King in particular is magnificent). The soundtrack is brilliant – gospel, rap, afrobeat…
1917 – a super-tense account of two young soldiers’ attempt to get an urgent message through to another batallion, across no-man’s land and behind enemy lines. The tension is heightened by the filming which is, for much of the film, a long continuous take
Good Vibrations – warm and funny account of the eponymous record shop in Belfast, and its role in the success of the Undertones.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – fascinating, flawed depiction of the trial of activists for incitement of violence at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. I wanted more, a lot more, about Bobby Seale, originally the eighth man, without legal representation, and at one point bound and gagged in the courtroom, but it wasn’t that film. Very talky (but how could a courtroom drama be otherwise?), and I suspect somewhat romanticised (did that final scene – the reading of the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam during the course of the trial – take place, and did junior prosecutor Richard Schultz stand, out of respect to the fallen?). The word that crops up most often in reviews is ‘portentous’ and I guess that’s fair.
Battlestar Galactica – the 2004 series, and very different to the original 1970s show. This is gritty and hard-hitting – blood, sweat and tears all in copious supply. The plot was complex and intelligent, and rarely predictable (even when one is very familiar with the genre). The political/religious threads were fascinating, and the ending didn’t tie them all up neatly, leaving viewers to decide, or to wonder.
His Dark Materials – series 2 of the Philip Pullman adaptation was even better than the first. I knew the plot, but still got goosebumps
The Last Wave – ludicrous French fantasy which failed to make any sense at all. We’d watched in hope of something more like The Returned, but it wasn’t even close.
The Mandalorian – very engaging Star Wars spin-off which I managed to comprehend despite not being entirely au fait with that world.
Agents of Shield – the last ever series, and it went out with impeccable style, lots of heart, and a final episode that eschewed high drama and tragedy for a poignant glimpse of something resembling real life.
Loki – wonderfully entertaining, and the double act between Hiddleston and Owen Wilson was a joy to watch.
Wandavision – this was outstanding television. We had no idea what was going on, for quite a while, and the darkness crept up on us. Ultimately, it’s about grief. ‘What is grief, if not love, persevering?’.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – more like the Avengers films than the previous two spin-offs, this marked out new territory with its recognition of race, a tough look at the realities rather than just cheering the notion of a black Captain America.
Hawkeye pairs the supposedly low-key Avenger with an Avenger wannabe, played by Hailee Steinfeld. This works extremely well – she’s desperate to be a super hero, and to be the partner of a super hero, he just wants to get home for Christmas with his kids. There are also obviously bad guys and conspiracies and some jolly good archery.
Black Widow – about bloody time. But also a bit late, in that Natasha died in Endgame. But it fills in her story very satisfyingly, with a good dash of humour and lots of fighting and exploding. Loved Florence Pugh as Yelena.
Shang Chi & the Legend of the Ten Rings – a cracking addition to the MCU, with a predominantly Asian cast, this is visually stunning, and I love the cast, particularly Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh.
The Walking Dead – on to the final stretch now (disregarding any future spinoffs). Since the Whisperers storyline it has been back to full strength, with inventive approaches to storytelling forced on them by the pandemic.
Doctor Who – a New Year’s special and the final series for Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor.The Special was OK, the series was much better – it threw any number of elements into the mix and then stirred them up furiously, and it was genuinely exhilarating. The ‘Village of the Angels’ ep was also genuinely chilling. A couple more specials and then a new (old) showrunner and a new Doc…
Deadpool 2 – very funny, very rude
Fantastic Beasts 2 – completely baffling. Did I nod off partway through? What was all that about? And why?
Happy Deathday – a Halloween choice, and a good one. I do love a time loop.
28 Weeks Later – I saw 28 Days later years ago, but had never got round to the sequel. It may not live up to that, and there were some dodgy elements of the plot that were never explained (e.g., given that the zombies are driven by mindless rage, how does the zombified father have the mental control to stalk and pursue his children?), but it was thoroughly entertaining.
Justice League – this was long. Entertaining enough (once we’d worked out that the reason we seemed to have been pitched right into the middle of the action without any explanation as to what was going on was that we’d mistakenly selected the recording of part 2, thus pitching us right into the middle of the action). I can’t get along with this Batman though – the dark broodiness seems comical.
Kingsman – very silly, very violent, quite rude, very diverting.
Lucy – started off brilliantly, got dafter, if more visually exciting, as it went along.
The Shape of Water – beautiful, magical, strange and moving. It will also always be to me the last thing that I watched with my husband, the night before he died.
Shazam – post-bereavement fun watch
Starship Troopers – violent political satire on militaristic nationalism, based on a Heinlein novel which celebrated militaristic nationalism (and which director Verhoeven described as ‘a very bad book’ and so right wing he could not bear to read it all).
Zombieland Double Tap – not as good as the first film, but entertaining
NB – the adjective ‘grim’ crops up a number of times below. This is not necessarily a criticism, more of a warning that in this particular drama we are a long way from Midsomer, Mallorca or Paradise.
All the Sins (Finland, series 1 & 2) – grim. Lots of religious repression.
Darkness (Those That Kill) (Denmark, series 2) – serial killer series focusing on a profiler, who is so bad at her job that she sleeps with the perp (sorry if I’ve spoilered it, but actually I’ve saved you some time…)
Deutschland 89 (Germany, series 3) – a fine finale to the series, as we’ve followed Martin through the last six years of the GDR. Whereas much of the history invoked in ’83 and ’86 wasn’t too familiar to us, this one of course was, and it was fascinating to see if from such a different perspective.
DNA (Denmark) – entertaining, but plot holes aplenty
Ice Cold Murders – Rocco Schiavone (Italy) – the plots are ok, and the maverick detective is ok if a bit of a cliché, but the ‘comedic’ elements haven’t travelled very well and sit poorly with the darker elements of the plot
Monster (Norway) – grim. Lots of religious repression.
Nordic Murders (Germany) – not really Nordic, as we understand it. Set on an island that is part Polish, part German. Series 1 (I haven’t followed up subsequent series) started off well enough with the release of a former prosecutor after serving a prison sentence for murder, but then every episode seemed to feature said former prosecutor somehow getting involved in, and miraculously solving, the crimes.
Paris Police 1900 (France) – fascinating, set in the days when the Dreyfus affair was tearing France apart, and antisemitic conspiracy theories were rife.
Rebecka Martinsson (Sweden) – we watched series 1 some time ago so were slightly thrown when the eponymous detective looked entirely different in series 2 thanks to a change of actor. Having got used to that, it was entertaining, even if the lead characters were quite annoying.
Spiral (France) – our final encounter with Laure, Gilou and Josephine. They will be sorely missed.
The Twelve (Belgium) – a courtroom drama with two strands, a murder trial, and the personal lives of some of the jurors. There were some holes in the former plot line, and the second was a bit soapy, but overall it was enjoyable enough.
21 Bridges – v. enjoyable cop thriller with Chadwick Boseman in the lead.
The Valhalla Murders (Iceland) – Grim.
Bloodlands – convoluted plot, not entirely convincing. A second series is apparently in the works but I may not bother.
Inspector George Gently – I do love a period detective drama, if it’s done well and thoughtfully uses the period setting rather than just tapping into some vague nostalgia for the old days when there were bobbies on the beat. Gently is an excellent example of the genre – the 60s setting brings out, in early episodes, the fact that murderers faced the death penalty, the way in which the war was still so present in the minds of those who fought in it, and a barrier to understanding between the generations, the racism, sexism, homophobia and so on that were taken for granted…
WPC 56 – the tone of this is all over the place. Quite serious stuff about racism and sexism and heavy-handed policing, mingled with rather heavy-handed comedy/slapstick involving a bumbling spiv, or a clumsy copper. The lead character (in series 1 and 2) is also an unconvincing mixture of forthright and gutsy, with naïve and romantic (not an impossible combination, I do realise, but neither the script nor the performance is good enough to make it work).
Endeavour (season 6) – yes, this is period detective drama. But it’s so much more. The quality of the writing is consistently high, and the performances, particularly from the core team of Evans, Allam and Lesser, are subtle and convincing – and often very moving. And of course, whilst we are enjoying the 60s/70s setting, we are always conscious that this is the ‘origin story’ of Morse and there’s a fascination in seeing Evans’ portrayal, and the scripts, gradually connecting with the original series.
Grace – didn’t quite work, despite John Simm, who I really like. It’s quite a cracker of a plot (based on, though its ending departs from, Peter James’ Dead Simple) but the eponymous DI’s dabbling in the supernatural (he consults a medium, despite having nearly lost his job over doing so in a previous case) was odd – I think we were meant to believe that the medium was the real deal and his input valuable to the case, but it wasn’t very convincing.
Innocent – series 2, but with an entirely different cast and plot from series 1. The link is that both feature people who have done time but then had their convictions overturned, and focus both on the difficulty of reintegrating with their previous lives, and their desire to expose the real murderer.
Killing Eve – season 3. OK, I know it’s not quite as brilliant as the first two, but even slightly less good Killing Eve is a cut above the average.
Line of Duty – I did not share the disappointment that some felt about the big reveal which turned out not to be such a big reveal. Yes, our household did let out an incredulous shout as we realised who was being led into the interrogation suite, but it was obvious immediately that this was no criminal mastermind but someone obeying orders from much higher up, so we are still waiting for the actual Big Reveal (series 7?)
Mystery Road – gritty Australian crime series (series 2). Excellent, and featuring a significant number of indigenous Australian actors, including the lead, Aaron Pederson. He’s incredibly dour – the character was described by the Guardian’s reviewer as ‘caught between traditions, between worldviews, between laws and lores’. The history and racial politics of Australia are always present here, whether as a troubling undercurrent or in the foreground of the plot.
Shetland – the series has long since parted company with Ann Cleeves’ novels, but stands on its own two feet very well.
Too Close – a psychological drama with a number of glaring plot holes, but great performances from Emily Watson and Denise Gough.
Traces – excellent crime drama written by Val McDermid, set in Dundee, and featuring Martin Compston (Line of Duty).
Unforgotten (Season 4) – this series is always emotionally hard-hitting. The ‘reveal’ scene at the end of Season 3 still haunts me, and the focus on the way in which the impact of the crime continues to devastate long afterwards is powerfully done. This series was no exception. Apparently some viewers were cross about the ending, which I don’t really understand – I thought it was, yes, heartbreaking but handled with subtlety and humanity.
Vera (Season 10) – we do love Vera. And I have a very soft spot for her DS, especially (I may have mentioned this in previous years’ reviews) the way he kneels down to put her crime scene shoe covers on.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the 1979 series, with Alec Guinness as (surely) the definitive Smiley. I remember watching it at the time and being enthralled. The opening sequence was slow, and almost dialogue-free, but told us an awful lot regardless – subtle atmosphere building and character development. Everything was slightly sepia, as if nicotine stained. The 2011 film was excellent, but I was surprised how closely they followed the series.
Gosford Park – easy to get distracted by the star cast, but one did have to concentrate to follow the plot. Thoroughly entertaining, great script, splendid performances, no depth or nuance but that didn’t stop it being most enjoyable.
Death in Paradise/The Mallorca Files/McDonald & Dodds/Midsomer Murders – murder in a beautiful setting and/or with a slightly tongue in cheek approach, nothing too heavy or emotionally engaging. There are times when that’s just what one needs.
Brooklyn 99 – having been urged for several years to watch this by my son, I finally started to watch it, with him, in the days following Martyn’s death. Very funny, very well written.
Community (Season 6) – They got six seasons, but no sign of a movie… Continued to be super-meta and bonkers to the very end.
Good Girls – this one was my daughter’s contribution to post-bereavement watching. Whilst some (many) plot developments could be seen coming, the script and the performances make it immensely enjoyable.
Modern Family (Season 9) – it tends to re-tread the same ground repeatedly, but Phil makes me laugh such a lot that all is forgiven.
Parks & Recreation (Season 1) – I gather that Season 1 is simply an intro to when it gets really good, from Season 2 onwards. I intend to check that out soon. Meantime, we rather enjoyed Season 1.
What We Do in the Shadows – mad, silly, rude and gory
This Way Up – Aisling Bea’s comedy has so much heart. It’s full of people who aren’t horrible, just human and who make mistakes and hurt people without particularly intending to, and people who are trying really hard to cope with life. It made me laugh and cry.
Ted Lasso (Season 1) – a warm hug of a show. But not as cosy as that suggests, it doesn’t shy away from unhappiness and unkindness, and Ted isn’t a Forrest Gump, as I feared, but a very intelligent person who’s found a way of living and relating to people that merely seems simple. I loved it. And it’s about football.
Films we watched, huddled together on the sofa, in the aftermath: Bridesmaids, Hitch, Lovebirds, Murder Mystery. All enjoyable and silly, and just what we needed.
Strictly Come Dancing – I had never watched this before. I can’t imagine how I could have sold it to Martyn, TBH. But I am now so invested, having wept my way through Rose’s silent dance, and John and Johannes talking about coming out, and Rhys’s Dad and AJ’s Mum… The dancing is so joyous and life affirming, and for all the clichés about ‘journeys’ we are watching people grow and flourish in a most extraordinary way. I’m hooked.
The Great British Bake-off – another bit of joyful telly. These people are competing against one another, but they seem to care about each other too. As the final three waited for the announcement of the winner, they were all holding hands, which was rather sweet. Baking, like dancing, is something I cannot comprehend or imagine ever doing, even incompetently, so it does all feel rather like magic.
Taskmaster – it does depend a bit on who the competitors are, but generally it’s engaging, funny, and bonkers.
Get Back – this was glorious. I remember watching the Let it Be documentary, way way back, with Martyn, and the selection of material made everything seem sour, and sad. Seeing all these hours of footage, what comes across is the joy that they still found in making music, the laughter, the sweet moments, the magical process where we hear the song we know emerging from what seemed to be an aimless jam. There’s friction, sure, but ‘you know, lads, the band!’ as Paul says. And I’ve always loved that rooftop performance. Favourite moments – the ‘Get Back’ moment, John and Yoko waltzing to ‘I Me Mine’, Heather mimicking Yoko’s primal screamy vocals, Paul saying, very early on, that it would be really cool if the gig were to be interrupted by the cops. Paul mocking the idea that future generations might think the band broke up because Yoko sat on an amp. Mal. And Glyn. Everyone trying to stall the cops as they head for the roof. I know some people (probably quite a few) found its running time too long. All I can say is that it never outstayed its welcome for me. My apprenticeship was 47 years of listening to musicians jamming, trying things out, allowing tunes to emerge. Listening as it happened, and then listening to recordings of it happening… So every minute of this was tinged with sadness, that Martyn wasn’t there to watch it with me, and memories of listening to this music with him, and listening to him making his own music.
Summer of Soul (or – when the revolution could not be televised) – 2021 documentary, mixing footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival with commentary from some of the artists, and some members of the audience. It features performances from (amongst others), Mahalia Jackson, Staple Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder… An extraordinary record of an extraordinary event.
Hamilton – a real treat. The conceit (rapping about 18th century American history) is audacious, and carried off with such flair and style. As the Guardian reviewer put it, it offers us ‘history de-wigged’, it captures ‘the fervour and excitement of revolution’, and celebrates the ways in which immigrants shaped America by casting almost entirely non-white performers. Stunning, and I will be re-watching this soon.
Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace – wonderful footage from the recording of the Amazing Grace album, Aretha paying her gospel dues. That voice, oh lord. And she sang her mash-up of ‘You’ve got a friend’ with ‘Precious Lord’.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool – brilliant doc on one of my absolute favourite musicians, a most remarkable and fascinating man with an extraordinary life.
Once were Brothers – another excellent doc, this one on The Band, largely through Robbie Robertson’s reminiscences, which are very articulate and thoughtful.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes – a labour of love from writer/director and actor Caroline Catz, exploring the life and work of this innovator in electronic music, someone who undoubtedly should be better known.
West Side Story – Spielberg was never going to diss the original movie, so my fear was that it might be just a bit too reverential, rather than that he would ditch any of the things that are most vital about it. The music, the lyrics, the choreography, are all there, and any changes are contextual – the setting for some of the big dance numbers, who some of the songs are given to, for example. There’s additional dialogue which allows for a fleshing out of the social issues touched upon in ‘Gee Officer Krupke’, and the context of a neighbourhood that’s not only disputed territory between the rival gangs, but scheduled for demolition and future gentrification. Lovely as Natalie Wood was, I much prefer Rachel Zegler, and whilst Ariana Debose can’t eclipse Rita Moreno (who could), she matches the vibrancy of that performance and, of course, we get Moreno anyway, in an added role as Doc’s widow. She gets to sing ‘Somewhere’, which broke me, that song, in her still lovely but more fragile voice, reflecting her own attempts to find a place for her and the man she loved. I loved it, and I cried, quite a lot, as I always do, but I also smiled in sheer delight, as I always do.
Carousel/South Pacific – first time for the former, the second (my Mum’s favourite musical) I have watched many, many times. I really disliked Carousel. Most of the music didn’t really move me (apart from it’s one really big wonderful tune), and I loathed Billy Bigelow, at best a charmless yob, at worst a violent bully, and so I hated him being given another chance to show Julie that he loved her (by hitting their daughter, apparently – but it’s OK because it felt like a kiss…). This stuff is seriously toxic and that one really big wonderful tune cannot redeem it. South Pacific, on the other hand, only a couple of years later from the same team, is wonderful. Now I know they dodge the issue of racial prejudice by having lovely Joe Cable die before he can keep his promise to Liat, but that song, ‘You Have to be Carefully Taught’ is brilliant, and pretty radical. Just to have Nellie and Joe acknowledging the irrationality of their prejudices, and their feeling of helplessness in the face of those irrational responses, is pretty radical. The tunes are great, the performances are great, and the use of coloured filters (a lot more extreme than the director had intended) is still startling and strange.
A mixed bag of musical biogs on Billie, Ella, Fela Kuti and Betty Davis (this last one rather undermined by the dearth of performance footage)
It’s impossible to think back over this year without constantly labelling the memories as ‘before’ or ‘after’. There are things I’d never have watched if he’d still been here, and things it seems awful that he missed because he would have loved them (Get Back, the latest series of Endeavour, to name but two). I don’t want to get maudlin but melancholy is inevitable. We had 44 years of watching telly on the sofa together, and we shared a love for Doctor Who for the last 47 years (starting with Pertwee, ending with Whitaker – I go on alone to the next regeneration). This time next year that before/after feeling will be less acute. I will have a whole 12 months of watching on my own, with family, with friends. I’ll still wish he was here though.
A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)