Goblets they carved there for themselves,
And harps of gold where no man delves.
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by Man or Elves. - J.R.R. Tolkien
Show of hands: how many saw this one coming? It was inevitable, really. Though I’m not obsessed with them like some people, I do like a good musical now and again (and I include rock operas and revues in that classification). However, I tend to be pretty particular; I don’t care for songs that seem shoehorned in, or that throw off the pacing or tone. Furthermore, I’m far more forgiving of dramatic inadequacies than I am of musical ones; since the very idea of people bursting spontaneously into song and crowds of strangers performing perfectly-choreographed dances together is completely absurd in the first place I’m willing to suspend my disbelief much more than usual, but too many uninteresting numbers kills it for me. Keep that in mind when looking over this list, which I’ve illustrated (like last month) with embedded videos; in each case I tried to choose what I considered the most representative musical number rather than the best, though in some cases I was constrained by the poor variety and/or quality of available selections. These are listed alphabetically by title, with a short list of three honorable mentions thereafter.
1) Aladdin (1992) The first of the revived Disney studio’s films to employ intentional anachronism, and the only one to do it well. I chose this song rather than the marvelous “Friend Like Me” because I just love the dancing and the use of counterpoint, especially the three girls on the balcony (starting at 1:45).
2) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) I have no idea why so many film critics dislike this wonderful movie, why they praise the Sherman Brothers’ work with Disney but pan it here, and why they insist on obsessing about minutiae like Dick Van Dyke’s lack of an English accent (see comment about absurdity of musicals above). In fact, this musical number plays with the convention in that Van Dyke’s character, who is not part of the song-and-dance troupe but merely using it to hide from a pursuer, is totally out of sync with the others.
3) The Hobbit (1977) When this first appeared on television I strongly disliked the heavily stylized animation, but it grew on me over the years and now barely misses being on the list of my favorite movies. I’ve actually read some ignoramuses complaining about the lyrics to the songs, not realizing that they’re all straight from Tolkien’s text. I’m especially fond of John Huston’s recitation of the ballad of the Coming of Smaug, starting at exactly 5:00. And because it was available, I decided to include the whole movie.
4) Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) This has been among my favorites since the first time I heard it in 8th grade; I’ve already mentioned it a number of times in a number of places on this blog, so we’ll just leave it at that.
5) Man of La Mancha (1972) The fact that the lead female character is a whore has nothing to do with its place on this list, though I fully admit it helped to get my attention the first time I heard the album in my early teens (which actually predated my seeing the movie by several years). I picked it out of a budget record bin for “The Impossible Dream”, a song I still love but have chosen not to feature today in favor of the less-overexposed “Dulcinea”.
6) The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) What can I say? The subject matter would’ve predisposed me to like it even if it hadn’t had such an infectious libretto, catchy tunes and fun characters. This one is a regular at our house every autumn.
7) 1776 (1972) Another one I’ve loved since high school, and as you can probably guess we watch it every July 4th; though it takes dramatic license with some of the details, it still adheres more closely to the facts than is typical for Hollywood. I would’ve preferred to feature “But Mr. Adams”, but there was no available movie clip for it so this one will do (sorry for the poor picture).
8) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) I know Roald Dahl didn’t like this adaptation of his book, but I do; in fact there’s very little about it I don’t like from the sets to the casting to Wonka’s weird, quotation-heavy dialog. This is a perfect introductory clip not merely because it’s a great song, but because it presents virtually the whole cast to Wonka’s world and demonstrates a bit of his eccentric style as well.
9) The Wizard of Oz (1939) Most Americans of my generation or thereabouts will remember that for many years this movie was played annually on broadcast television, but I’ve never grown tired of it. One of the true greats.
10) Yellow Submarine (1968) I first saw this on television as a child and was absolutely blown away; though I knew and liked several Beatles songs already, I can probably trace my real love for the group to that viewing (which also affected my drawing style for months). I love animation, and I love the Beatles, so naturally this is on the list. Of the available clips, I thought the theatrical trailer gives the best feel for the show.
Musically, these three are up there with the others, but in each case the rest of the film outside the songs doesn’t quite measure up.
1) All That Jazz (1979) Great songs and fantastic choreography by director Bob Fosse make this semi-autobiographical picture watchable, but the story is slow, repetitive and ultimately a bit depressing. But the musical numbers…well, judge for yourself:
Fun fact: Paula Abdul’s video for “Cold Hearted” was intentionally patterned after this one; it was obvious to me the first time I saw it and I’m sure it will be to you as well.
2) Godspell (1973) The only thing that keeps this one out of the top 10 is that I have to be in the right frame of mind for it; the fact that all the songs are based on sayings, parables and incidents from the Gospel of Matthew is not so much the issue as the fact that I have to be in a sort of nostalgic mood to watch early ‘70s hippie-flavored stuff. I really wanted to share “Turn Back, O Man” with you since that was the number I did in our little CYO production when I was 15, but alas that one’s only available in poorly-recorded stage videos. This was my second choice, though, and you may recognize the setting of the finale.
3) Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1975) What I said for Godpell is also true here; it’s a sequence of vignettes which were visually very avant-garde and unusual at the time, but seven years later could easily have been shown as music videos. Jacques Brel’s music, however, I can listen to almost any time; I linked a couple of examples in “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”.