Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Dance Like Everyone's Watching: Hollywood's Best Choreographed Musicals

About a year or so ago, I did a piece on my favorite musical numbers for any movie. It could be a drama, contemporary, anything. I mean I even put Burlesque on that bill. If you've been following my IG, you know that I have an unhealthy obsession with dance, kind of Zelda Fitzerald style, and it's freaking hard! The whole point is to make it look easy. Also, as someone obsessed with musical theater, and the recent success of Hamilton, I'd like to pay tribute to choreography on FILM rather than the stage. A little bit of history first: Choreography for film started with Busby Berkley and the addition of sound. Trained dancers like Joan Crawford got their start playing chorus girls in the line-up of circular kaleidoscopic shots or one of the girls dancing in a swimming pool around Esther Williams. This transitioned to the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers era, whom I don't think made a bad film, and could dance on air. Fred Astaire's protégé was also his contemporary, the incomparable Gene Kelly who fused his own unique brand of ballet and jazz with ballroom and took the movie musical to new heights. Let's not forget the guy tapped as well. He really was the whole package. I honestly don't think anyone's better. He ruled the movie musical landscape with Astaire until like every dancer, he got a bit old, and tired and before you know it, it was the 70's, and former Broadway boy-wonder choreographer Bob Fosse was making movies. His approach totally revolutionized the genre and indirectly gave birth to all that dancing you see in music videos. Whereas back in the day, the musical numbers were shot on a singular presidium arch, where the camera followed the dancer, Fosse would shoot his numbers from about 20 angles and in a frenzy edited them to free his dancers from gravity. You can call it 'montage dance'. Also, his style was unlike anything done before. Even the most experienced dancers said that he was by far the hardest choreographer to work with and would come home from shooting covered in bruises. Ironically, his numbers look effortless, and his contribution to cinema (though he only made 4 films) cannot be overlooked. Without getting any deeper, here are my favorite musical numbers from movie musicals, in order this time. 

Red Light from Fame (1980) choreographer: Debbie Allen
I love this film, because I went to art school, it was very close to my heart. This film takes place in the 80's, in what would become the Laguardia school for Dramatic Arts. Shot in perhaps the worst time in New York's history when the whole city was filthy and in turmoil, it centers around a bunch of misfit kids who find their calling in a high school that allows them to express themselves through art. In this particular sequence, a rather ammeter and awkward wannabe dancer named Shirley auditions with a friend of hers, Leroy, who just happens to dance like a motherfucker, he ends up stealing her audition and getting in whilst she is left rejected. 'Who wants to go to a fucking school of learnin' dance anyway?' she shouts. 
Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra from An American in Paris (1951) choreographer: Gene Kelly
Our story concerns...you guessed it; an American in Paris who falls in love with a mousy but beautiful ballet dancer played by stunning French actress Leslie Caron. Story goes is that she was a classically trained prima whom Gene Kelly had to teach to dance more 'contemporary', except for this one sequence when they each dance in their own style introducing themselves and their cultures to each other. 
Ain't There Anyone Here for Love? from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) choreographer: Don't Know
Forget the whole Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend number that's too iconic for its own good. This particular number is so deep in the closet it's hilarious. Jane Russell is bored at a gym amongst a plethora of male athletes at the gym who are all training for the olympics that they are all on their way to on a yacht. Oh and Marilyn is in the movie too. While they work out in their peach vintage skivvies, Jane is singing about why no one wants to hang out with her, I wonder why. The beauty of this sequence is how en pointe all of the male athletes/dancers are with their exercise. And Jane's not too bad either. 
Simon Zealotes from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) choreographer: Don't Know
I saw this live in San Francisco and could not have been more disappointed because the beautiful songs from the rock opera penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are totally lost without dynamic choreography. A bunch of obviously trained dancers in hippie garb create beautiful scenes of dance married with music, none more memorable than the Simon Zealotes sequence, when ...Simon Zealot sings the praises of Jesus Christ with a huge chorus of hippies/disciples. 
Cheek to Cheek from Top Hat (1935) choreographer: Fred Astaire
I have to throw at least one Fred and Ginger movie into here and this is by far my favorite. Never has there been a more brilliant dance couple than Fred and Ginger. They are literally built to dance with each other. It's a lovely little romantic comedy, with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor and was made quite early so it put Fred Astaire on the map. 
Cell Block Tango from Chicago (2002) choreographer: Rob Marshall
Rob Marshall worships at the alter of Bob Fosse who originally put up this play on Broadway in the 70's, and it shows. A lot of people were nervous if he could deliver, but fusing the Fosse essence with his cinematic skill really made for a great musical in an age where no one cared about musicals anymore. Every single number is brilliant, but the one that is most dynamic, eye-catching, and Fosse-esque is the violently colorful and fierce Cell Block Tango. 
Everything Old is New Again from All That Jazz (1979) choreographer: Bob Fosse
Yay! Now to the Fosse part, and this is just the first. Prior to this film, Fosse had had a heart attack, and after he recovered, Shirley McLaine suggested that he write a film about that experience. Roy Scheider plays Fosse, and Fosse's own girlfriend Ann Reinking plays...his girlfriend. There are amazing numbers in this sequence but one that truly stands out is when he goes back home and his girlfriend and daughter Michelle perform a surprise 'welcome back' dance to Everything Old is New Again. It's minimalist, but very heart-warming. 
Moses Supposes from Singin' in the Rain (1952) choreographers: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
This could be the greatest movie musical of all time; scratch that, to me, it always will be. Every single number is absolutely fabulous and you're probably wondering why I chose this number instead of the iconic Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly dancing around with an umbrella in the rain. Moses Supposes is a number that includes hoofer Donald O'Connor who plays best friend to Gene Kelly's movie star who now has to learn how to talk considering the movie concerns the advent of sound to film. During a lesson, the two decide to take over and just have some amazing tap dancing, high jumping fun in their teacher's office. They're dancing style is so different that it compliments each other much like Fred and Ginger, and overall, it's just really really fun. 
Mein Herr from Cabaret (1971) choreographer: Bob Fosse
This is probably one of my favorite movies; not just musicals, movies. I think last time I did an all time best list it was #3. The movie concerns a showgirl played brilliantly by Liza Minelli in Weimar Republic Germany right at the onset of looming Nazism. She has high hopes of becoming a grand actress, but has to face a lot of harsh realities, and despite this bleak exterior, she always escapes to her place of work the Kit Kat Club, where she headlines. The last song says it all. 'What good is sitting alone in your room? Life is a cabaret ol' chum, come to the cabaret'. This particular dance sequence, where all of the Cabaret's performers dance with chairs has been mimicked more times than I care to remember, but this one is and always will be the best. 
Prologue from West Side Story (1961) choreographer: Jerome Robbins
Bet you thought Fosse was going to top my list? Well this was on TCM the other day and I just completely could not believe what I was seeing. This musical is an anomaly. The music, composed by legend Steven Sondheim was very jazz-based and improvisational and the dancing went along with it. A lot of the original Broadway cast reprised their roles in the film, and all of the dancing is not only ridiculously complicated set to jazz hybrid music, but looks so graceful and easy. But try doing one of them at home, and you'll knock over all of your furniture. The dancers/actors later said that when principal photography wrapped, they all burned their knee pads in from of Jerome Robbins' trailer. 
Below, any videos I can find regarding the aforementioned numbers, now go dance your heart out!: 

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