Musicals confound modern moviemakers

Published: Thursday, June 21 2012 5:13 p.m. MDT

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in New Line Cinema?s rock musical ?Rock of Ages,? a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, David James)

Associated Press

Next month, the musical that many critics and fans consider the best ever made, "Singin' in the Rain," will have one of those one-night-only Turner Classic Movies-sponsored screenings across the country, with an introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne as he interviews Debbie Reynolds.

That's on July 12 in several Cinemark theaters locally; mark your calendars. The following week, "Singin' in the Rain" makes its Blu-ray debut. And all of this coincides with the movie's 60th anniversary.

This is wonderful news for those of us who believe "Singin' in the Rain" to be a film without the slightest misstep during its 103-minute running time, as the story unfolds with clever choreography, toe-tapping songs, hilarious comedy and a romance set against the backdrop of moviemaking history, as silent pictures gave way to "talkies." Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Reynolds have never been better — and all three made a lot of terrific films during their long and diverse careers.

I was aware of the "Singin' in the Rain" event as I entered a theater last weekend to see "Rock of Ages," the latest Hollywood musical, now playing in a theater near you. And when it was over, it struck me that we are a lot less likely to see in 2072 a retrospective of "Rock of Ages" hosted by an enthusiastic film historian as he interviews 70-something Julianne Hough.

While it may seem unfair to compare "Rock of Ages" to a great musical like "Singin' in the Rain," consider these similarities:

"Singin' in the Rain" is a period film released in 1952 and set in 1927, 25 years earlier. "Rock of Ages" is a period film released in 2012 and set in 1987, 25 years earlier.

All of the songs in "Rock of Ages" are recycled '80s rock tunes. All of the songs in "Singin' in the Rain" are recycled show tunes, save two, or maybe one if you consider that "Make 'Em Laugh" obviously cribbed its tune from Cole Porter's "Be a Clown," written for another Gene Kelly musical, "The Pirate" (1948).

"Rock of Ages" began as a stage musical and was adapted as a movie. "Singin' in the Rain" began as a movie and was adapted as a stage musical.

One of "Singin' in the Rain's" primary plot devices concerns Reynolds as a naive young singer with dreams of stardom who is struggling to find work in Los Angeles, and who is ultimately thrust into the limelight at the end of the film. In "Rock of Ages," Hough is a naive young singer with dreams of stardom who is struggling to find work in Los Angeles, and who is ultimately thrust into the limelight at the end of the film. And both plotlines owe a huge debt to the granddaddy of backstage overnight-stardom musicals, "42nd Street" (1933).

There are a lot of things wrong with "Rock of Ages," and if you've read the reviews, you're aware of most of them. But no one seems to have addressed the most elemental problem.

Simply put, the musical genre seems to confound modern moviemakers. In this case, director Adam Shankman (also credited with the choreography) already had one under his belt, the much more successful "Hairspray" (2007). But "Rock of Ages" really got away from him.

We'll set aside the singers who aren't really singers (and I don't mean Tom Cruise; he's actually pretty good), the remixing of '80s rock songs in uncomfortable medleys (a lot of critics are calling this a karaoke movie), the crass script that never met an easy punchline it didn't like, the sleazy sexual moments that make this yet another PG-13 movie that should be rated R (we'll no doubt see a raunchier "unrated director's cut" on DVD), the underdeveloped characters whose motivations are difficult to assess, and Utah native Hough in the lead role, whose acting is good enough, and she can sing, but whose voice seems miscast for the power ballads she's been given.

But the biggest problems here are by far the fidgety camera work, which puts the audience at arm's length, and the truly dreadful choreography during the dance sequences, which looks more like '80s aerobics. (I half expected Jane Fonda to show up in her workout duds.)

On the other hand, maybe the camera is moving so much during those moments to prevent us from noticing how bad the dancing is.

The pole dancers in the strip club scenes are supposed to be working out, I guess, but there's no excuse for the juvenile dance moves in a church as the (supposedly) prudish mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) leads a band of anti-rock 'n' rollers in a sequence set to Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," pointing their fingers as if they are firing pistols.

There was a time when dance sequences were among the most memorable moments in a musical, and "Singin' in the Rain" has many of them, from the comic "Fit as a Fiddle" to the hilarious "Make 'Em Laugh" to the balletic Broadway sequence with Cyd Charisse to the iconic solo dance of Gene Kelly on a city street in a rainstorm.

I couldn't help but think of Kelly's most famous singing performance when, in "Rock of Ages," Hough struts out of a club, walks along the boulevard and bursts into song — in the pouring rain!

By the way, Hough is a first-class dancer and choreographer. If you're going to cast someone like that in your musical, shouldn't you show off what she does best?

My advice is that if you are interested in watching a great musical on the big screen, skip "Rock of Ages" and save your movie money for a couple of weeks, then gather all your friends and pack the house for "Singin' in the Rain."

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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