And They Sang a New Song: Hollywood Musicals of the 70s

06/08/2011 4:00 AM |

Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s, Part 1: The 1970s
June 17-26 at Anthology Film Archives

The 20th Century Limited that connected Broadway and Hollywood symbolically, New York and Los Angeles literally, stopped service in 1967: the same watershed year when, cultural lore has it, Bonnie and Clyde killed Doctor Doolittle, sacked Camelot, and the Big Movie Musical was forever invalidated.

Yet even as the wide-open 70s came on, with the long death rattle of the “Freed Unit” style expelling horrors like Mame, new approaches to the musical were underway. These are the subjects of Anthology’s program.

Some films here tap decade-specific musical currents: Typical of director Brian De Palma, Phantom of the Paradise sees conspiracy in the orchestration of successive pop trends (50s nostalgia, Beach Boys barbershop, Homo-Macho Glam), with Lilliputian “Rainy Days and Mondays” songwriter Paul Williams as Swan, Death Records’ producer and youth-culture Dr. Mabuse. Less cynical about rock n’ roll radio is the Roger Corman-produced Rock’n’ Roll High School, a jolly running joke casting the alleycat Ramones as a pinup boy band. (I have long been haunted by the film’s image of Joey with his mouth stuffed full of sprouts.)

With the notable exception of Bob Fosse’s output and Grease, musicals were consistent money pits. Among New Hollywood’s movie brats, the genre became the preferred form of career hari-kiri. Before Coppola’s One From the Heart, Martin Scorsese fell on the knife with Big Band 40s-set New York, New York (he recovered), Peter Bogdanovich with his Cole Porter 30s At Long Last Love (he didn’t).

The most piercing return to the musical’s heyday, however, comes with Pennies from Heaven‘s Great Depression. A pained story of pop treacle as spiritual sustenance during the breadlines era, Pennies stars Steve Martin, and was directed by former hoofer Herbert Ross from Dennis Potter’s script, accordioning his own BBC miniseries. Ross keeps Potter’s Brechtian conceit of characters broadcasting their souls through the warbled recordings they lip-synch, but the original homemade production numbers have blown up into show-stoppers, while designer Ken Adams and DP Gordon Willis decorate the “real” Chicago with Walker Evans and Edward Hopper iconography. The resulting fantasia goes beyond Potter’s tidy real-life/pop-heaven dichotomy: characters live and die half-in, half-out of a dream.

The title-tune number by Vernel Bagneris and Chris Walken’s strip-tease in Pennies are both stunners, but in The Little Prince, directed by MGM old-schooler Stanley Donen, the most pervasive choreography style of the era is on display. Bob Fosse dances the part of The Snake, in a number whose influence cannot be overestimated, particularly on Michael Jackson, seen here in The Wiz, and the new MTV “musicals” of the decade to come. Fosse’s jump from Broadway was the exception proving the rule, Stephen Sondheim’s decade-defining streak of conceptual productions having, conspicuously, little film presence. Fosse’s All That Jazz is all about the price of that success, a film a clef with Roy Scheider as the director’s alter-ego, breaking himself on the rack of sex n’ entertainment, credits rolling on his life while Ethel Merman bawls “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” As with Pennies, also released at the outset of the 80s, we find at the heart of these films the essentially 70s deconstructionist urge: The musical must be destroyed in order to save it.