"Come to the Cabaret"

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


This genre, as defined here, includes traditonal Hollywood musicals, but goes beyond that. It also encompasses musician bio-pics, filmed concerts, documentaries and a couple of exploitation movies. In short, a real hodgepodge. The movies included are also weighted toward the the rock era, for which I'll make no apology.

"Forty-Second Street" (1933), directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by Busby Berkeley, shaped the direction of Hollywood musicals for decades with its raffish Broadway charm and eye-popping production numbers. This is the ur-musical.

"Top Hat" (1935), directed by Mark Sandrich, is the creme de la creme of American song and dance. Fred Astaire may well be the most graceful man who ever lived and Ginger Rogers matches him step for step. They hardly seem mortal.

"The Wizard of Oz" (1939), directed by Victor Fleming, is now part of folklore and viewing it has become a cherished part of childhood. Why? "Because, because, because, because, because..."

"Fantasia" (1940) is Walt Disney's ambitious attempt to find the perfect animated counterpoints to a series of classical music pieces. It works brilliantly, although the portentious narration could be cut.

"An American in Paris" (1951), directed by Vincent Minnelli, which was showered with Oscars, is the epitome of post-war glamour and style. Gene Kelly is the model of expatriate cool.

Laugh if you like, but "The Sound of Music" (1965), directed by Robert Wise, is a touchstone American musical, embodying an aesthetic you either embrace or detest. Even those who detest it grant it its iconic status as the pinnacle of kitsch.

"Jailhouse Rock" (1957), directed by Richard Thorpe, captures the Elvis that simultaneously appalled and thrilled America--a confident and surly ball of sexual energy who does not suffer squares gladly.

"King Creole" (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz, is an Elvis movie that benefits greatly from its colorfully seedy New Orleans settings and soulful music. Elvis is scrappy Bourbon Street denizen who aspires to be a singer but gets mixed up with underworld characters.

"West Side Story" (1961), directed by Robert Wise, with music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, mined the excitement and glamour of New York's mean streets and hit a cultural mother lode. Countless subsequent movies, not to mention New York City itself, owe a debt.

"A Hard Day's Night" (1964), directed by Richard Lester, is the definitive musical of the rock era, tossing out plot and character to make more room for music and movement for its own sake. It is the perfect Beatles moment on film.

"The T.A.M.I. Show" (1965), directed by Steve Binder, (sometimes seen exerpted in a compilation film called "That Was Rock"), is a filmed concert that captures the British Invasion and the American R&B resurgence at the wave's crest. Seen in peak form, among others, are the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Chuck Berry, and the Supremes.

"Don't Look Back" (1967), directed by D.A. Pennebaker, is an insider's peek backstage and elsewhere during Bob Dylan's 1965 tour in England. Starting from the flashcard opening, this movie defined hipster style.

"Oliver!" (1968), directed by Carol Reed, is the Hollywood music machine operating at peak form with top shelf music, book, and talent. There are times to genuflect to tradition.

"Yellow Submarine" (1968), directed by George Dunning, is 1960s style painted boldly. This animated film set to the Beatles music captures an incandescent moment in pop history.

"Monterey Pop" (1969), directed by D.A. Pennebaker, is the first of a trilogy that capture the rise, peak, and fall of the rock festival. "Monterey" is remarkable in the eclectic posturing of the acts, ranging from Ravi Shankar sitting to Janis Joplin stomping to Jim Hendrix kneeling.

"Woodstock" (1970), directed by Michael Wadleigh, is the expertly mounted documentary of the milestone communal music event in upstate New York and the second in the rock festival trilogy. Looking back, it's interesting how an almost regal serenity among audience members has replaced the "oh wow" exaltation of "Monterey Pop."

"Gimme Shelter" (1970), directed by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, the last in the rock festival trilogy, details the Rolling Stone tour that ended with the disastrous free concert at Altamont. The serenity of Woodstock has been replaced with prodigiously bad vibes as the Stones are upstaged by rapacious lawyers, sadistic Hell's Angels, and overdosed fans.

"Cabaret" (1972), directed by Bob Fosse, in which the songs are all done on stage at a raunchy nightclub in Weimar Berlin, flirts brazenly with decadence at the same time it affirms democracy. This is the artistic pinnacle of the traditional musical.

"The Harder They Come" (1973), directed by Perry Henzell, introduced reggae music to the world outside Jamaica with its story of a singer who becomes an outlaw. The production values are not so hot, but the music is compelling and perfectly matched to the action.

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975), directed by Jim Sharman, is tricky to judge on whatever merits it has outside the context of its devoted cult. A few movies must be accorded "indispensable" status for reasons other than what's on the screen.

"Saturday Night Fever" (1977), directed by John Badham, is the movie you can screen for your grandchildren some day when they sit on your palsied knee and ask, "Pop pop, what was it like back when disco ruled the earth?"

"American Hot Wax" (1978), directed by Floyd Mutrux, is a portrait of the life and times of legendary disc jockey Alan Freed, who was virtually a rock star himself. Tim McIntire performs with a fascinating undercurrent of melancholy.

"The Last Waltz" (1978), directed by Martin Scorcese, is a filmed account of the Band's farewell concert in 1976, which was attended by a pantheon of rock talent. This is rock's Baby Boom generation at that perfect artistic moment between youthful barbarism and middle-aged complacency.

"The Buddy Holly Story" (1978), directed by Steve Rash, casts Gary Busey as the incredibly promising young rock 'n' roller from Texas whose life was cut short in a plane crash.

"Quadrophenia" (1979), directed by Franc Roddam with music by the Who, focuses on the one British youth cult worth more than a second glance, the 1960s mods. Although a bit too self- consciously grand, it captures the music, style, and moment with spirit.

"Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979), directed by Alan Arkush, is the perfect teens-running-amok film counterpart to the propulsive three-chord firepower of the Ramones soundtrack. Remember the lab tests and keep mice far away.

"Hair" (1979) escapes becoming a kitschy period throwback by virtue of droll direction by Milos Forman and whipsaw choreography by Twyla Tharp. When the artists of today find sublimity in the exploitation of yesterday we are truly in the post-modern age.

"Pennies from Heaven" (1981), directed by Herbert Ross, is a bold and unique attempt to deconstruct the traditional musical by contrasting bleak reality with glitzy fantasy musical numbers. Steve Martin is the only actor who could pull this off.

"The Compleat Beatles" (1982), directed by Patrick Montgomery, is a fun but hype-free documentary about the Beatles, taking care to measure their profound cultural impact. Especially valuable are the interviews with producer George Martin, an important collaborator in the Beatles' sound.

"This Is Spinal Tap" (1984), directed by Rob Reiner, captures the ragged glory of all those cloddish, semi-talented rock bands who defied extinction through the years almost entirely through their ability to remain on their feet. The wickedly funny satire is laced with affection.

"Sid and Nancy" (1986), directed by Alex Cox, may overglamorize the squalid lives and ugly deaths of the prince and princess of punk, but punk was a crucial moment in the history of rock and the Sid Vicious deconstruction of "My Way," filmed vividly here, unleashes something profoundly subversive.

"The Great Rock and Roll Swindle" (1980), directed by Julien Temple, allows the Sex Pistols, surely the most misunderstood band in history, their deserved time in the spotlight of documentary history. Johnny Rotten's cackle still echoes through rock.

"The Commitments" (1991), directed by Alan Parker, demonstrates vividly how each new generation discovers for itself the power of pop music. A hardscrabble Irish soul band has its moment in the sun.

"Backbeat" (1994), directed by Iain Softley, is a portrait of the Beatles during their Hamburg days. It finds their particular genius in an intersection of American rock music, Liverpool street smarts, and German fashion.


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