24 posts categorized "Musical"

August 04, 2012


West-side-story-posterIndisputably the greatest musical ever made, “West Side Story” (1961) has sadly proven socially timeless regarding America’s eternally troubled immigrant experience. After becoming a Broadway hit in 1957, and winning over London theater audiences in 1958, it was inevitable that “West Side Story” would get the big-budget Hollywood film treatment. Leonard Bernstein’s powerful orchestral music swells under Stephen Sondheim’s impeccable narrative-driving lyrics in order to transform Arthur Laruents’s “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired tale of doomed love on Manhattan’s city streets into a film that transcends the musical genre.

A haunting line graphic dares the viewer to guess at its oddly familiar design while the film’s opening medley plays for several minutes. Color light filters switch with changes in tempo. When the outline eventually transitions into a north-facing aerial view of ’60s era Manhattan, the effect is surprising for the modern setting that appears. The bird’s-eye vantage point settles on an Upper West Side neighborhood ruled by a gang of white hoodlums called the Jets. A rival gang of Puerto Rican boys who call themselves the Sharks pose an imagined threat. It’s a time when every skinny urban teen male dresses like James Dean’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause.” The spot-on casting of triple-threat actors whose brilliant execution of Jerome Robbins’s modern dance moves sweeps you up into the stylized action filmed on actual New York City streets. The actual area underwent a radical urban renewal project for Lincoln Center that wiped away all evidence of the battleground where the story takes place.


Russ Tamblyn’s charismatic Riff leads the Jets though Richard Beymeymer’s Tony is the gang’s aging governor. Tony has romance on the brain when the rival gangs attend a Saturday night dance where Natalie Woods’s Puerto Rican Maria is in attendance. Love-at-first-sight puts Maria and Tony on cloud nine. Naturally, Maria is sister to the Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris). Just as the young lovers dream of a future together, the Sharks and the Jets are planning a rumble.


“West Side Story’s” magnificent blend of modern dance and Caribbean music, with Shakespearian underpinnings, provides an ideal platform for its dynamic dancing actors to shine. Natalie Wood singing with a Puerto Rican accent is every bit as captivating as Rita Moreno’s feisty mambo dance moves as Maria’s sister Anita. Although Jerome Robbins was pulled off the film in order for Robert Wise to take over directing duties, Robbins’s choreography is stunning. The film’s Technicolor treatment delivers a richness of color and depth of image that thrills. As the winner of more Oscars than any other musical film, “West Side Story” is the standard that all others must be judged by.

Not Rated. 152 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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June 15, 2012


‘80s Hair Band Fiesta
Broadway Musical Adaptation Leaves a Wet Spot
By Cole Smithey

Rock-of-ages-movie-poster-2Based on Chris D’Arienzo’s campy Broadway musical, “Rock of Ages” is a gaudy, spirited exhumation of music that many would prefer to forget ever existed. Famously described by Elvis Costello as the “decade that music forgot,” this version of the '80s are distilled into a collection of hard rock anthems by the likes of Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Journey, Twisted Sister, and Poison. Even within the realm of hair metal, tastes differ. D’Arienzo could have at least included a song or two from Hanoi Rocks or The Lords of the New Church for their accredited punk glam appeal.

A Sunset Strip-based musical—circa 1987—constructed around songs like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Any Way You Want It” isn’t a recipe for a great story. The movie version is left to inject a clumsy narrative with some much-needed kitsch via a litany of stunt casting choices. Contributing screenwriters Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb seem to have polished up the source material with a dose of witty throwaway lines in an attempt to juice up the humor.

Nonetheless, the overlong movie frequently stalls in mid-song as during Mary J. Blige’s set piece, which suffers the misfortune of arriving just when the movie should be wrapping up.

Most of the action is contained in a raucous Sunset Strip bar called The Bourbon Room (clearly modeled on LA’s Whiskey a Go Go). A less-paunchy-than-usual Alec Baldwin plays aging hippie club owner Dennis Dupree with a goofy twinkle in his eye. Baldwin earns some well-deserved chuckles during comical character-revealing scenes played opposite bar manager Lonny (exquisitely played by the suitably cast Russell Brand). Dennis and Lonny share a special secret. Paul Giamatti does a deft turn as Paul Gill, the slimy music biz manager to Tom Cruise’s slothful heavy metal rock-god Stacee Jaxx. Cruise is easily ten years too old for the part. You can see his once youthful looks cracking around the edges of his face as he goes defiantly over the hill right before your eyes.

Catherine Zeta-Jones turns up the heat in her fired-up role as Patricia Whitmore, a Bible-thumping wife to LA’s newly elected mayor (played by an underused Bryan Cranston). Patricia has personal reasons for wanting to take Stacee Jaxx down a few rungs from his towering ladder of fame and sex appeal. As the site of Stacee’s last band appearance on his way to going solo, the Bourbon Room is Patricia’s prime target for immediate closure.

Vapid romance ensues between Detroit transplant/Bourbon Room barback Drew Boley (charmingly played by teen heartthrob Diego Boneta) and Kansas-escapee Sherie Christian (Julianne Hough). Both are aspiring singers, and Drew is the songwriter of the couple. An acoustic version of the first bars of “Don’t Stop Believin,’” that Drew sings to Sherie under LA’s iconic HOLLYWOOD sign, segues into a joke as he explains that the song goes “on and on and on and on.” Boneta and Hough don’t share enough screen chemistry to raise audience expectations. The fickle condition could be chalked up to the structure of a musical theatrical piece unfriendly to filmic adaptation.

Choreographer-turned-director Adam Shankman (“Hairspray)” is unable to prevent the film’s domino-cascade of two dozen musical set pieces from turning into a visual and aural drone. Still, “Rock of Ages” has enough panache and chutzpah from its well-oiled cast to make for an entertaining good time. Sure, the structure is off and the music is bland, but a centerpiece pool-table sex scene between Stacee Jaxx and Malin Akerman’s sultry Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack leaves a wet spot.

Rated PG-13. 123 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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November 22, 2010


Burlesque At nearly two-hours long, "Burlesque" has a decent 90-minute musical hiding somewhere in it. Born of every campy musical cliché, the story follows singer/dancer Ali (Christina Aguilera) from her truck-stop-diner existence in Iowa to Los Angeles where she stumbles across a dance club called the Burlesque Lounge. It's a swanky place owned and operated by a serious force of nature named Tess (well played by Cher). Although it's a far toss from the mid-20th-century style of "burlesque" it pretends to represent, Ali makes herself a permanent fixture as a self-appointed cocktail waitress chomping at the bit for a chance to prove her abilities. Aguilera performs eight of the film's ten set-piece songs, leaving Cher to take honors with two bang-up anthems "Welcome to Burlesque" and "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me." When either performer is on the cabaret stage, the movie transforms into a brilliant showcase for their overflowing talent. Then it evaporates quick as roller blinds with meandering subplots about things like the threat of Tess having to sell the club, and Ali's romantic connection to two disposable male characters. The biggest gyp is the lack of a duet between Cher and Aguilera, whose naturally compatible voices seem to promise just such a harmonic resolution. "Burlesque" never approaches the naughty complexity of "Cabaret" or the precision of "Chicago." For director/screenwriter Steve Antin to approach such musical high-stakes without his A-game is unforgivable.

Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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