If the Hollywood musical is supposed to be almost dead (or at least on a respirator) then why are there so many crowding the multiplexes — not to mention heating up the musical-comedy competition at the Golden Globes?
From the traditional (“Hairspray,” “Sweeney Todd”) to the stealth (“Once”) to the in-
between (“Across the Universe”) to the biopic (“I’m Not There,” “Control,” “La Vie en rose”) to even a parody about the biopic (“Walk Hard”), filmmakers have been playing with the form, refitting the musical for a new generation of filmgoer.
“I thought, ‘How do I make a little film that appeals to a younger audience — a musical dressed up in a different way?'” “Once” helmer-writer John Carney recalls. “How would Gus Van Sant do a musical? Or a Mike Leigh? Or a Ken Loach? Those guys would probably set up hard-and-fast rules and not break them. That’s what I tried to do.”
Carney’s simple yet effective story of a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) and Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) who inspire each other — on several levels — hit a chord with Stateside auds for Fox Searchlight.
Carney had in mind the songs of old mate Hansard (of Irish band the Frames) when writing the script, using some already-existing tunes while commissioning others specifically for the film.
“It was a very natural collaboration” among himself, Hansard and Irglova, Carney says. “I gave him ideas and suggestions, but I was not very specific. For the song ‘Once,’ for example, we talked about Glen’s character, who’s always procrastinating.”
Screenwriter John Logan’s problem when it came to adapting Hugh Wheeler’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for Paramount’s bigscreen version of “Sweeney Todd” was turning such a well-known theater piece into a cinematic experience.
“When I started working on this, five years ago, I was really studying the core and book and trying to think about it in a cinematic way,” says Logan, who worked hand in hand with Sondheim while writing the script. “We (Logan, Sondheim and director Tim Burton) felt that it was important that this be a work of cinema and not a product of the theater.”
Choruses and “splashy rhetorical conceits” were the first things that they cut, according to Logan, who learned to read music while working on the project.
“We went with the focus on Sweeney Todd’s human side,” he says. “We cut away sections of the show that didn’t move the Sweeney Todd character forward.”
Not that all the surgery was easy for Logan.
“It was harder to adapt because I felt such a sense of artistic responsibility, and it’s a masterpiece. Someone hands you a beautiful gem, and you work hard not to drop it!”
Music producer Mike Higham adds that even though Sondheim told him he wrote “Sweeney Todd” like a movie score, that didn’t make the adaptation easy.
“I took some of Stephen’s music with the vocals and arranged parts of it to make it work for the picture. I was bending his music to fit the picture, which was a huge job,” Higham says.
But they also made the conscious choice not be a traditional musical transferred to film.
“It doesn’t feel Broadway,” Higham says. “People don’t burst into song. ‘Mike, I want this to feel like a silent movie,’ is what Tim said to me at the beginning, and I know what he meant — he didn’t want the music to stop. You never know where the underscore stops and the song starts.”
In “I’m Not There,” screenwriters Oren Moverman and Todd Haynes (who also directed) had their pick of 40 years of Bob Dylan songs in their look at the life of Dylan through six different actors portraying the troubadour. As in any creative endeavor, inspiration overtook the best-laid plans.
Moverman says the filmmakers wanted to use Dylan song “Going to Acapulco,” even though it was “completely obscure.” That kind of surprise fits into the kaleidoscopic epic that probes the psyche of the legendary songwriter.
The Beatles also get reinterpreted in Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe,” which plays out against the backdrop of an America torn by the Vietnam war.
“When it comes to iconic material, it’s always a super challenge,” says veteran Taymor collaborator and music supervisor Eliot Goldenthal. “It’s a profound sense of loneliness when you have to reconceive these things.
“How much do you leave in? How much do you completely change? The flow of the drama really dictated the arrangements.”
A pivotal scene has Englishman in New York Jude (Jim Sturgess) practically spit with contempt while singing “Revolution” to his girlfriend’s SDS-like organization, limning close to John Lennon’s original spirit of the song.
“It wasn’t Jude’s fight in Vietnam, it wasn’t his passion,” Goldenthal says. “He was a personal artist; he saw a bit of the naivete around the movement she was working in. Like Chairman Mao’s poster in the protesters’ offices. Coming from the outside, it’s easier to objectify and see what’s going on.”
Beyond Lennon and Dylan, rock icons are abundant in this year’s lineup, such as in “Control,” the biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.
“Songs were written into the script to tell the story, like ‘She’s Lost Control’ or ‘Isolation,’ ” comments “Control” helmer Anton Corbijn.
He also plumbed his own record collection for David Bowie, Roxy Music and Iggy Pop, “to have songs in the film (from those) who had certain influences over the Joy Division guys.”
Onscreen singing is pivotal even to nonmusicals this year, as exemplified by dark comedies “Juno” and “Waitress.”
“Music can inspire ideas, and I get a lot of ideas from listening to music,” Moverman concludes. “It gives you a certain mood, certain abstractions — if I’m stuck, music can unstuck me.”