Sunday, May 11, 2014

How Hollywood Has Failed Broadway, and How to Fix That

Quick, name the last great movie adapted from a Broadway musical (if you said Les Miserables, there's really no reason for us to continue our relationship).  I don't mean a good, faithful adaptation, I mean a genuinely great piece of filmmaking, one that stands on its own as an exemplary work of art.  You'd pretty much have to go all the way back to Cabaret (made in 1972, before I was born) to find one that's still generally held in high regard, and that one just barely qualifies as an adaptation, having essentially gutted and stripped the Broadway show for spare parts.

Honestly, I can't think of a single one.  And the reason for this is that no one has ever made one.  I would know it if they had.  Oh, sure, there have been some very good ones, mostly in the '60s and early '70s-- The Sound of Music, Oliver!, My Fair Lady, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sweet Charity, Fiddler on the Roof, the aforementioned Cabaret; some might add West Side Story, but I've never been a particular fan (although I don't think I've seen it since junior high, so just ignore me on this one).  But are any of these really masterpieces?

You may think so, and that's fine, because it doesn't change my principal point, which is that all of the really good Broadway adaptations were made more than 40 years ago.  And even those pale in comparison to original movie musicals like Singin' in the Rain.

The reason for this seems pretty clear: musicals, for whatever reason, don't attract the top directing talents.  When a top-notch director does deign to dabble in the genre, it's always with an original work: Martin Scorsese with New York, New York, or Lars von Trier with Dancer in the Dark.  But a Scorsese or a von Trier doesn't do Broadway (exception: Spike Lee with Passing Strange, but since that was just a filmed performance of the stage show, it hardly counts), leaving the job to Hollywood hacks like Rob Marshall, Adam Shankman, Joel Schumacher, or Chris Columbus (or, worse, theater directors who don't really know what they're doing behind a camera, like Phyllida Lloyd; technically Marshall is a theater director, as well, but he's at least competent as a filmmaker).  And that's how we end up with, for instance, a cinematic take on Rent that omits "Christmas Bells" (the big show-stopping number) out of sheer laziness, and has Mark, Angel, and Collins walk around the corner during "Another Day" and start singing along with Mimi even though they have no idea who she is or what's going on (seriously, the movie's terrible; just watch the stage show, it's freaking amazing).

But I ask you: why don't great filmmakers tackle Broadway musicals?  Why must the genre be shunned and ghettoized and tossed to mediocrities?  Are we never to discover what a master auteur could do with our favorite shows?  Are we to forever see them being butchered by talentless rent-a-directors?

The following list of pairings of musicals and directors is pure fantasy on my part, but indulge me.  Because, to me, there is literally nothing in the world that's better than a great musical number, and frankly I'm tired of great musical numbers happening everywhere but in film, my favorite medium.  I think these guys could change that:

Les Miserables, directed by Steven Spielberg
Really, who would have been a more perfect choice to direct this most hallowed of musicals?  His penchant for idealized pathos was practically made for this tear jerker, and his romantic style would have injected the sense of grandeur and gravitas that this particular musical requires.  Instead, we got Wolverine and Catwoman doing karaoke.  But hey, he could always remake it, couldn't he?  Nobody ever remakes musicals, but why the hell not?

Rent, directed by Wong Kar-Wai
This is even more of a long shot, but just think what Wong could do with something like Rent.  He's got that perfect blend of operatic sensibility and rock 'n roll energy that is precisely what this musical is all about, and he's also got the artistic talent to translate the more abstract elements of the show to the screen (which Columbus didn't even attempt).

In the Heights, directed by Spike Lee
This one's a no-brainer, since Lee has basically already made this movie twice before.  New York City, "the summer's hottest day"... sound familiar?  This story of a hot summer day in a Manhattan barrio would make the perfect completion to the trilogy begun by Do the Right Thing (hot summer day in an African-American Brooklyn neighborhood) and Summer of Sam (hot summer in an Italian Bronx neighborhood).  Nobody gets that New York urban vibe like Spike.  Just don't let Michel Gondry get his hands on it, because this is exactly the sort of thing that would attract him, and which he would inevitably screw up.

Avenue Q, directed by Spike Jonze
Avenue Q, for those who haven't seen it, is brilliant.  I'm not kidding when I say it's one of the most important works of art of the 21st century.  I'm not even sure a screen version would work.  But if anyone should be allowed to attempt it, it's Jonze.  The tone of his films -- a kind of comic absurdity grounded in realism -- is perfect for this send-up of Sesame Street, and at the same time his delicate directorial style is subtle enough to avoid interfering with the very particular look that such a parody requires.

Chess, directed by Martin Scorsese
Chess is not a great musical, but it could be.  The original concept album is a masterpiece of '80s synth pop and Rodgers and Hammerstein fusion, and if they had just stuck with that template for the stage version, it would have been the greatest musical ever made.  Unfortunately, they added a host of mediocre songs, turning it into a messy, lopsided rock opera that constantly attempts to over-explain its complicated plot with absurdly moronic lyrics.  When it moved to Broadway, they tried to "fix" the problem by removing the extraneous material and turning it into a simpler, more traditional book musical -- a worthy endeavor, except for the fact that they drastically changed the plot and somehow made it even worse.  Only a return to its concept album roots could save this musical, and Scorsese would bring the artistry and majesty it deserves -- just thinking about the climactic, astonishing "Endgame" filmed with Scorsese's gorgeous camera swoops brings tears to my eyes.

Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Lars von Trier
This has already been made into a movie, by Norman Jewison, and it's actually pretty good; but it's also very dated, very '70s, and it could definitely use an update.  Von Trier's mastery of complex emotions and his fearlessness in exploring the darker sides of mankind are just what this rock opera needs.  It would make a fitting companion to Antichrist, anyway.

American Idiot, directed by Terry Gilliam
I realize rock musicals are taking up an inordinate amount of space here, but, hey, that's what I like.  I think it's the most underrepresented of all art forms, and so on the rare occasion when a good one comes along, we need to cherish and celebrate it as much as possible.  This musical is actually already in development, with Michael Mayer, director of the stage version, at the helm.  But I'm not sure I trust a film newcomer, and anyway, the idea of Terry Gilliam making it is too insane not to fantasize about.

Of course, my real response to the question of who should make these movies is: me.  These are my seven favorite musicals of all time, and, well, you know what they say about wanting something done right.  Just putting that out there, Hollywood producers.