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A Song in My Heart

…The Musical Lives On

I've never cared for musicals. My wife claims that I prefer "realistic" entertainment, and she may be right. I've never found it believable that characters in a purportedly dramatic film (like Fame) should break spontaneously into song at perfect pitch, with elegant dance steps to accompany the music. As a life-long aficionado of horror and science fiction, I find it much easier to believe in Klingons, vampires or other strange creatures than in a universe where song, dance and musical notation spring full-blown from the minds of "regular" people like you and me. The musical genre violates my sense of reality, my inescapable knowledge that reality just isn't like Singin' in the Rain. That's my bias, I suppose, and probably an indefensible one. So, I consider it an example of both personal growth and genre resurrection when I state unequivocally that the best film and TV episode of 2001 were both...gasp!...musicals.

Forget Pearl Harbor, Tomb Raider, The Mummy Returns or A.I.—the most engaging, stylish, and emotionally stirring film of the year is Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The film succeeds because director Luhrmann doesn't try to shape our reality to that of the musical genre but instead creates a new and timeless "alternate" universe where the frenetic combination of dance and song is so over-the-top and exciting that it breaks down audience resistance. That Luhrmann chooses to re-shape twentieth-century pop hits for a period romance (the wild and wooly Paris of 1900) only contributes to the notion that the world of Moulin Rouge is not ours, but one where MTV-style editing has gotten out-of-control. Musical "cribs" from Madonna, Elton John, The Beatles and other 20th century pop icons allow audiences to experience the thrill of the turn-of-the-century nightclub, Moulin Rouge, where anything goes. Or, as Luhrmann writes in the DVD notes: "The whole stylistic premise has been to decode what the Moulin Rouge was to audiences of 1899 and express that same thrill and excitement in a way to which contemporary movie-goers can relate." It's a brilliant conceit and one that makes Moulin Rouge a total original. There is no other film like it, and the movie's raw energy, gusto performances and dynamic songs combine to tell a great (and surprisingly touching) love story. I's a post-modern musical in the best sense of the word, simultaneously self-reflexive and sincere. Some critics complained that McGregor and Kidman don't have the singing chops to carry off their vocal parts, but to my ears, they were pitch-perfect...the big-screen couple of the year.

On TV this fall, another musical also unexpectedly stirred viewers. Joss Whedon wrote, directed and composed eleven songs for an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayerentitled "Once More, with Feeling." This all-singing, all-dancing musical installment of the long-lived genre series was a revelation too. The performers on the series, from Sarah Michelle Gellar to James Marsters, have always been terrific in dramatic and comedic scenes, but who knew they could also carry a tune!? Probably, someone ought to credit Woody Allen for his 1996 film, Everyone Says I Love You, in which "non"-singers like Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Tim Roth, Edward Norton and Goldie Hawn gamely performed delightful tunes that revealed their inner turmoils. That's the same tactic employed on Buffy, with the stalwart Scoobie Gang, vampires and demons breaking repeatedly into song to reveal their innermost secrets. For the vampire Spike, it is his love of Buffy that is exposed. For Xander and Anya, it is a fear about their impending marriage, and so on. Amber Benson, who plays Willow's lady-love, Tara, probably has the best (and most-trained...) voice of all the regulars, and her number is a powerful and beautiful one that is both sexy and sad.

A few years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered a terrific (and terrifying) "silent" episode entitled "Hush," but "Once More, with Feeling" surpasses even that high and is probably the best episode in the series' six years. Watching this standout episode, a viewer can't escape the feeling that he's seeing the movie stars of the next generation. Gellar and Marsters not only have great chemistry, but incredible charisma, especially when singing. Glamorous, sexy and talented, they draw even casual viewers into Buffy's fantastical, witty world. Joss Whedon's original songs accomplish the near-impossible task of being funny and memorable at the same time, and one hopes a soundtrack CD is on the way. All in all, this Buffy episode makes one wonder when network television has ever been as good.

Before Moulin Rouge and "Once More, With Feeling," my favorite musical was probably Rob Reiner's hysterical rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, because it understood how songs and singers could be smart and stupid at the same time (anyone remember the lyrics to "Big Bottom?") Now, Moulin Rouge and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have broken down my resistance and convinced me that a song in the heart—and on the screen—can artfully reveal characters, depict new vistas, and leave audiences breathless and enchanted. My wife will be thrilled...


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