Tag: Musicals

Tick…Tick…Boom! (2021)

Tick…Tick…Boom! (2021)

Joy and tragedy intermix in this extremely affectionate tribute to a musical theatre talent and his whole genre

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Cast: Andrew Garfield (Jonathan Larson), Alexandra Shipp (Susan Wilson), Robin de Jesús (Michael), Joshua Henry (Roger Bart), Vanessa Hudgens (Karessa Johnson), Bradley Whitford (Stephen Sondheim), Jonathan Marc Sherman (Ira Weitzman), MJ Rodriguez (Carolyn), Ben Levi Ross (Freddy), Judith Light (Rosa Stevens)

When an artist dies young, you also mourn the loss of all the art still to come. There is an added tragedy when – like van Gogh – the artist dies on the cusp of achieving the recognition and respect they have toiled for so long to achieve. Jonathan Larsen spent over a decade struggling to get his work performed on Broadway – only to die of an undiagnosed heart condition the night before the previews for Rent (the musical that would win him a stack of posthumous awards, including a Pulitzer and a Tony) opened. Miranda’s film is a heartfelt, joyful celebration of Larsen’s life based on Larsen’s own autobiographical one-man rock musical.

Tick, Tick…Boom is all about the counting clock Larsen (Andrew Garfield) fears as his life starts to catch up with his own mapped out timetable for success. It’s 1990 and he’s turning 30, with his rock musical Superbia still only a glint in a workshop’s eye. As he keeps reminding us, at 27 Sondheim had already staged West Side Story. Is Larsen’s chance of making a success of writing musicals ticking away? Should he build a business career, like his school friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has in advertising? Should he accept the offer of his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) to give up on New York and start teaching in Massachusetts? Or should he keep powering away at his dream?

Lin Manuel Miranda has talked openly about how Larsen’s revolutionary work on Rent changed his understanding of what musicals could be. To him – and many others – Larsen is a key figure in the history of the American musical, paving the way to some of the great landmarks of the 21st century. Miranda’s film is soaked in a deep love for both the work of Larsen and musical theatre itself. This is a film made by a man who defines himself by his love for everything musicals – and it’s a love that echoes in every single frame of his film.

Miranda was the perfect man to direct the film – after all, perhaps only Hamilton has had as much revolutionary impact since Rent (just like Larsen, Miranda spent years toiling to get it staged). Working with screenwriter Steven Levenson, Miranda expands the original one-man musical (later versioned into a three-actor piece after Larsen’s death) into a beautifully assembled testament to a crucial few months in the life of its subject, as he subconsciously starts the inspiration that will lead (eventually) to Rent. The film takes the original score for Tick, Tick…Boom and complements it with other Larsen songs and material from Superbia to develop a rich, emotionally moving tapestry that brings Larsen storming vividly to life.

And a lot of that life comes from Andrew Garfield’s revelatory performance. Bearing a striking resemblance to Larsen, Garfield’s performance has an energy, litheness and openness to it, to a degree we’ve not seen before. His singing and dancing are graceful, dynamic and impassioned. He’s emotionally open, tender, delicate – but also, as so many artists must be, sometimes selfish, demanding and self-obsessed. It’s a performance of great joy and humour, making it even more moving to remember that ticking clock is literally counting down Larsen’s life. But this is not a tragic performance: instead it is a vibrant celebration, performed by an actor at the top of his game.

Garfield delivers wonderfully in the many songs, most of them unfamiliar. Tick, Tick…Boom is a little known musical – but Larsen’s sudden death gives it a prescient tragedy he was totally unaware of when he wrote it: he meant it was a clock counting down the end of his youth, but we know it’s actually knocking down the seconds of his life. Miranda stages the songs with all the scintillating freshness of a Broadway musical, with imaginative choreography, energetically engaged performances and at times a powerful emotional intimacy that delivers real impact.

It all works so well because of that love for musical theatre that it is dipped in. The cast is stuffed with cameos from Broadway actors – the song Sunday uses a virtual Who’s Who of the cream of Broadway – and Miranda places Larsen’s music at the very heart of the movie. It’s a film directed with a great deal of skill, but not a showy or flashy distraction. Instead, creative decisions in scenes are subordinate to the songs – so some take place in a realistic setting, some in a staged recreation of Larsen’s original performance of Tick, Tick…Boom, others in a heightened reality somewhere between a dream and a fantasy. Miranda’s trick is to make these contrasted styles all feel part of the same whole – and the joy with which all are filmed (even the sadder moments) is essential to this.

And there are some powerful moments of emotion here. Bubbling throughout the story is the AIDS crisis, which has literally destroyed the lives of several of Larsen’s friends. It is to have a very personal impact on his best friend Michael (a heartfelt Robin de Jesús). Larsen’s dwelling on this plague, where many blamed the victims, sees him scribble notes for key lines that will build Rent (Miranda has these appear on screen in hand-written text). Part of the self-criticism of Tick, Tick…Boom is Larsen acknowledging that his selfish desire for success as a protégé blinded him to the suffering of some of those closest to him. While I would have liked more direct tying of Rent into the film’s conclusion, this deconstruction of Larsen’s laser focus is well done.

Above all, Tick, Tick…Boom works because it is made so clearly by people who love musical theatre, for people who love musical theatre. The performances are sublime, especially Garfield who has never been better or more engaging, with de Jesús and Alexandra Shipp also excellent and Vanessa Hudgens standing out among the rest. Miranda’s film is a strikingly well-made and heartfelt labour of love, that will reward rewatching and uncovers the overlooked work of a major talent who died way too young.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

It’s the classic, feel-good film that seems to divide people than few others

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Andrews (Maria von Trapp), Christopher Plummer (Captain van Trapp), Eleanor Parker (Baroness Elsa von Schraeder), Richard Haydn (Max Detweiler), Peggy Wood (Mother Abbess), Charmian Carr (Liesl), Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich), Heather Menzies (Louisa), Duane Chase (Kurt), Angela Cartwright (Brigitta), Debbie Turner (Marta), Kym Karath (Gretl), Daniel Truhitte (Rolfe)

Has there been any film in history that has aroused feelings as strong as this one? Busloads of tourists conduct pilgrimages to Salzburg to follow in its footsteps – it’s a bigger draw than Mozart. Sing-along performances are attended by people in costume who know every nuance of Do-Re-Mi. On the other side, those who loath this musical, do so with the burning heat of a thousand suns, practically cheering the Nazis on or choking back vomit at the opening note of Edelweiss. It was ever thus: The Sound of Music was slaughtered by critics – Pauline Kael called it “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat” – but became a box-office phenomenon, one of the most popular films ever and gilded with Oscars aplenty.

It’s loosely based on the real-life experiences of the von Trapp family. Maria (Julie Andrews), a young novice, arrives at the home of the widowed Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to serve as nurse for his seven (count em!) children. Von Trapp runs his house (literally) with military precision, but Maria introduces some fun into the children’s life. And, to his surprise, the Captain’s life as he finds himself drawn towards the wholesome and sweet Maria instead of his initial intended, the Baroness von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker). Marriage is inevitable – but then the family finds itself in a terrible position as the Anschluss weds Austria to Germany and the Captain is ordered to take up office in the Nazi navy. Will he do so – or will the family escape over those hills?

You would probably be fair to call The Sound of Music one of the most manipulative films of all time. But then aren’t films supposed to be about manipulating our emotions for effect? On that score you could possibly call it the greatest film ever made. I won’t, but there is a sentimental, feel-good charm to The Sound of Music that – in small doses (and some people watch this multiple times a year – once every few years is surely enough!) – can really hit the spot in the way few other films can. Sure, it tugs on your heart strings with never a trace of subtlety, but basically it’s heart is very much in the right place. It’s a kind, gentle music that, for all its treacle, is a tribute to warmth, love and family. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so embraced by so many.

Even the cast were aware it could all tip over the edge into outright sentimentality. Julie Andrews was worried it might be a little too similar to Mary Poppins (she was right in a way – Poppins is a darker film, but the success of this cemented Andrews in people’s mind as the World’s nanny). Most famously Christopher Plummer overcame huge uncertainty to star, partly to practise his singing for a Broadway musical (as it happened he got dubbed), partly on the promise he could add a tougher edge (no sign that happened). Plummer’s hate-tolerate relationship with the film is famous (he called it The Sound of Mucus) and at several points in it he is all too obviously only just avoiding sinking his head into his hands, but he even he eventually acknowledged any film that moved people as much as this, must have done something very right indeed.

It’s that emotional investment people make in this film that lifts it eventually above criticism. It’s a long film, with a slender plot. But it mines this plot for every single touch of emotional investment. It’s the ultimate triumph of one of Hollywood’s most reliable middle-brow directors, Robert Wise. Taking over from William Wyler (who just couldn’t get interested and left to make the almost diametrically opposite The Collector), Wise successfully keeps the momentum flowing and shoots the film in an economical way that lets the songs do their work. He still finds room for classic shots: that helicopter shot sweeping into Julie Andrews running up the hills is just about perfect (Andrews was literally blown over every time by the helicopter, explaining the sudden jump cut edit for her famous twirl and burst into song). Wise’s editing skills really come into play with Do-Re-Mi that cuts the song across several locations and he makes excellent use of a number of Salzburg locations (for which the tourist board thanks him).

A major part of the film’s success though must surely be directly connected to Julie Andrews. This is a career – perhaps even a life – defining performance. And even the most cynical watcher can’t help but admit Andrews is a superb, gifted performer. Her singing is beautiful, and very, very few performers could have managed to make Maria charming, sweet and someone who want to hug, rather than twee or slappable. Andrews makes you really invest in every single event in the film: she’s hugely endearing (from singing in those hills, to her little stumble of excitement as she runs from the Abbey to take up a job at the von Trapps), she’s completely unaffected and when she’s hurt (by her seemingly hopeless love for the Captain) you just want to give her a hug.

No wonder the children love her. Who wouldn’t? Sure, the film’s weakest beat might well be its romance between Andrews and Plummer (for which Plummer is mostly to blame), but it captures a wonderful sense of family loyalty and protection. Everyone, at some point, is a sucker for stories where sad and lonely children are introduced to a life where they can mess around and have fun – and get that emotional investment the Captain has (accidentally) denied them. After spending the first two hours of the film getting to know this family and seeing it come together, we feel even more intently their fear and panic at being forced into goose-stepping line with Hitler’s war machine.

The film’s final sequence around the Abbey is also surprisingly tense: the family sheltering behind tombs and trusting in the half-truths of the Nuns and the wavering loyalties of wannabe SA officer Rolfe to make their escape. Wise’s films successfully communicates the stakes. It also mixes in some comedy even here: the final lines going to the Nuns confessing their sins of sabotaging those Nazi cars. All this before we go back to where we started – Maria walking the hills, full of music, this time accompanied by a beloved new family.

It’s that desire to be part of a loving family that perhaps explains why The Sound of Music has been so popular – and why so many people turn to it for comfort time and again. With its heart-warming songs and themes, it’s a warm comfort blanket that makes people feel part of its loving family. You can’t argue against it being manipulative – but that’s the nature of films, and manipulation as effective and good-natured as this is a sort-of triumph of film-making art.

West Side Story (2021)

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Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are star cross’d lovers in Spielberg’s triumphant West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Ansel Elgort (Tony), Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Antia), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Mike Faist (Riff), Rita Moreno (Valentina), Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke), Corey Stoll (Lt Schrank), Josh Andres Rivera (Chino), Iris Menas (Anybodys)

Was there actually a need to remake West Side Story? It’s the question everyone was asking before the film’s release. Judging by the disaster at the Box Office (also connected to our old friend Covid), it’s a question people are still asking. Well, you remake it by refocusing and partially reinventing it while remaining loyal to the roots of what makes this one of the greatest 20th century musicals. Spielberg’s triumphant film does exactly this, in many places even exceeding the Oscar winning original. This West Side Story is full of toe-tapping, heart-breaking numbers, gloriously choreographed numbers and scenes of high emotion and social insight.

In 1957 in Manhattan’s West Side, it’s the dying days of the San Juan Hill district, which is being slowly bulldozed to build the Lincoln Centre. Scrambling to retain control of what’s left are two gangs of youths: the Jets, a group of white rough kids led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks, a migrant Puerto Rican gang led by would-be boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez). The two groups plan a ‘rumble’ to settle matters forever. A fight that ends up carrying even more importance when both communities are outraged by the burgeoning romance between former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). Will love triumph over hate? Well, it’s based on Romeo and Juliet, so I’ll leave it to you to work that out.

The original, Oscar-laden, West Side Story is a ground-breaking and brilliant musical. Based closely on the triumphant original Broadway production, it showcased earth-shatteringly brilliant choreography by Jerome Robbins. The sort of grace, power, passion and beauty in movement that very few productions of anything have got anywhere near matching. Spielberg’s remake can’t match that – and wisely doesn’t try, rejigging and reinventing the choreography with touches of inspiration from Robbins’ work. But, in many ways, it matches and even surpasses the other elements of the original.

The musical’s book is radically re-worked by playwright Tony Kurshner to stress the racial and social clashes between these two very different communities. Helped as well by the racially accurate casting (memories of Natalie Wood passing herself off as Puerto Rican are quickly dispatched), Spielberg’s film transforms West Side Story into a film exposing the kneejerk jingoism and xenophobia of the Jets (who are often deeply unlikeable) and the touchy, insecure defensiveness of the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Everything in the film works to establish the difficulty the Pueto Rican community had in settling in America. From language problems – most of the characters are still mastering English, with Spanish exchanges untranslated – to the obvious bias of police officers like Corey Stoll’s bullying Lt Schrank (officers and others frequently order the Puerto Ricans to “speak English”). Maria and Anita no longer work in a dress shop, but as cleaners in a department store. Racial slurs pepper the dialogue (Spic and Gringo litter the dialogue). The Jets are first seen defacing a mural of a Pueto Rican flag. Loyalty to your community – both of whom see themselves as under siege – is more important than anything. The film bubbles with an awareness of time, place and the dangers and troubles faced by migrant communities far more than the original.

For that choreography, Justin Peck keeps the inspiration of Robbins, but mixes it with his own fast-paced, electric dynamism. The big numbers dominate the screen, from opening confrontation of the Jets and Sharks to the carnivalesque America, the playful Office Krupke, the frentic Gym Dance and the ballet inspired Cool. The choreography is earthier and punchier (in some cases literally so) more than Robbins, with a rough and tumble physicality and strenuous attack that contrasts with the balletic perfection of the original. It’s both a tribute to the original and also very much its own thing – and works perfectly.

Balancing tribute and forging its new identity is also at the heart of Spielberg’s brilliant direction. He’s confident enough to shoot many of the musical numbers with a Hollywood classic style – which allows us to see and admire all the choreography. But he also mixes this with sweeping, immersive camera work, thrilling tracking shots and beautiful images – there is a great one of Tony standing in a puddle surrounded with apartment window reflections, which looks like he’s surrounded with stars. Spielberg brings the demolished buildings very much into the visual design, part of making this West Side Story, earthier and rougher. The film is electrically paced and lensed with an expert eye.

The film’s two leads are both superior to the originals. Ansel Elgort is a fine singer (with a heartfelt rendition of Maria) and dancer (he excels at Cool), even if he at times struggles to bring his slightly bland character to life. He gives Tony a puppy dog quality – that does make hard to believe this version of the character killed a man in a brawl – as well as a wonderful sense of youthful impetuousness. Opposite him Rachel Zegler – plucked from YouTube by an open casting call – is sensationally wide-eyed, youthful radiance as Maria, naïve and in love, a superb singer.

Even better though are the supporting roles. Finest of all is Ariana DeBose, for whom this film feels like the unearthing of a major talent. Her singing and dancing is awe-inspiring, but it’s DeBose’s ability to switch from warm and motherly, to flirtatious and sexy, to grief, rage and confusion and all of it feeling a natural development from one to another is extraordinary. Her major songs are the films main highlights, stunningly performed. David Alvarez is a passionate, head-strong Bernardo, convinced that he is acting for the best (like DeBose his singing and dancing is extraordinary). Mike Faist is brilliantly surly and enraged (and struggling with repressed feelings for Tony) as Riff.

And, of course, there is Rita Moreno, now playing Valentina, a re-invention of the original production’s character of Don. Moreno worked closely as a consultant with Spielberg and Peck, and gives her scenes a world-weary sadness and desire for hope. She sparks beautifully with Elgort and to see her save Anita from gang rape (still a shocking scene, as it was when Moreno played it) and then angrily spit her contempt and rage at these boys is very powerful.

West Side Story needed to justify its existence. It does this in so many ways. Wonderfully performed by the cast, Spielberg pays homage to the original and classic Hollywood musicals but mixes this with electric film-making and a far greater degree of social and racial awareness (without ever hammering the points home) that allows you to see this tragedy from a new perspectives. It reimagines without dramatically reinventing and sits beautifully alongside the original. It’s more than justified its existence: in many ways it’s even better than the original.

Oliver! (1968)

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Mark Lester asks for More. You may not share his sentiments in the Oscar winning Oliver!

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Harry Secombe (Mr Bumble), Joseph O’Conor (Mr Brownlow), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Peggy Mount (Mrs Bumble), Leonard Rossiter (Mr Sowerberry), Hylda Baker (Mrs Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypool), Megs Jenkins (Mrs Bedwin)

1968. The Vietnam War gets worse. The My Lai Massacre is a low-point in America’s global reputation. MLK is assassinated. Student protests rip through campuses, culminating in Chicago riots at the Democratic convention. RFK is assassinated. In the UK, Enoch Powell talks about “Rivers of Blood”. A flu pandemic sweeps the world. The USSR ends the “Prague Spring” with tanks. It was a year of horrific global turmoil. Perhaps it’s not a surprise the Oscars chose as Best Picture something as blandly comfortable and utterly disconnected from all this mayhem as Oliver! A personality-free re-tread of a successful stage musical, with a few good tunes bolstering a lobotomised adaptation of Dickens’ novel, Oliver! is so coated with sugar it must have helped the medicine of 1968 go down.

Young Oliver (Mark Lester with his singing voice dubbed) is an angelic orphan, thrown out of the workhouse for asking for “more” (Never before has such an event occurred), eventually escaping to London (Where is Love eh?). There he finds the Big Smoke to be nothing less than a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Invited by pickpocket The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) to consider himself part of the family, he’s soon learning how to pick a pocket or two from Fagin (Ron Moody). It’s not all fun and games though: violent criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) is a wildcard, although his devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis), the sort of girl the boys will do anything for, remains loyal to Bill for as long as he needs her. But there’s a secret in Oliver’s past – who are his parents?

Carol Reed could once make a claim for being the greatest director in the world. You couldn’t make a case for that based on this cosily chocolate-box, unimaginative trudge through a musical that has little other than a couple of catchy tunes to really recommend it in the first place. The real MVP here is Onna White, whose choreography is very impressive. White takes everyday acts and, with a little bit of jazz and a dollop of musicality, turns them into dance movements. It gives the dance numbers a heightened reality that kind of works and provides nearly everything worth looking at it in the film. Reed certainly leaves her to it, carefully setting the camera up with simple wide and medium shots to capture as much of it as possible.

And you could argue that’s his job. But he brings nothing to the other parts of the production. Of course, Lionel Bart’s musical is a much lighter affair than Dickens’ original (although, in actual fact, this is much more of a musical remake of Lean’s Oliver Twist, making many identical cuts and sharing nearly all the same dialogue), but you’d think the director who gave us Odd Man Out and The Third Man could give some drama and character to London’s underbelly. Not a jot. They have the same muted technicolour cleanliness of everything else, and any hint of ruthlessness, criminality or moral conundrums are well and truly left at the door. What we get is a world where everyone – apart from Bill – is fundamentally nice and decent, and rapacious old men using children as criminals is basically not a lot different from running an after-school club.

It isn’t helped that Oliver!, like Bart’s stage original, has a weak book that offers little light or shade for its characters other than to typecast them into simplified “goodies and baddies”. Reed and the film either can’t or won’t stretch this much further – although the film does rearrange some events of the original production to give a bit more motivational heft to actions and introduce Bill earlier to at least add a bit more tension. The film is as quickly bored with the angelic Oliver as the original is – fair enough since he’s a tediously saintly chap – with Mark Lester alternating between looking winsome and shocked at the company he finds himself amongst.

Nothing can interrupt the overflowing “niceness” of what we are seeing. Ron Moody’s Fagin had been honed from performing it on stage so often (and he is very good). But his Fagin is a cuddly uncle, the sort of grown-up scamp you would invite over for a drink, only keeping an eye on the silverware when you did. This is, let’s not forget, a bloke who colludes in murder (though the film reduces his responsibility), kidnapping, grooms kids for a life of crime and willingly lets them die for him. Not a whiff of this is allowed onto the screen. The Artful Dodger (played with a cheeky but tellingly amoral charm by Jack Wild, who tragically never hit these heights again) is given more light and shade than Fagin.

Like the musical, the film downplays the abusive relationship at its heart. Nancy is little more than a walking embodiment of the cliched “tart with a heart” trope, and the film adaptation chooses to praise her for not just sticking with her abuser, but slavishly devoting herself to him. In fact, beyond being casually kind to a child once in a while, this devotion is pretty much Nancy’s entire personality – and the film approves of it. This isn’t a dark picture of a violent man victimising a young woman, folks, it’s love! See, there’s a ballad about it and everything!

It’s a family drama so her murder takes place off screen (just her death spasm legs are seen), but you’d like to think the film could have taken a few moments to put a bit of light and shade on just why this character feels the way she does and does the things she does. In fact, the film is quite dependent on Oliver Reed, the only actor in it who dares to touch some sort of psychological depth – it’s quite telling that, even though he was a famed drunk, he’s the only member of the cast to have had any success after the film was released.

Instead, this is a great big, colourful, empty pantomime of a musical, devoid of character and (outside of its choreography) inspiration. It’s a great big explosion of tasteful sets, mugging actors, pretty colours, prancing and the odd catchy tune. It’s got no idea what the original novel was about at all, and no interest in even touching some of the themes of poverty and criminality Dickens was aiming at. Reed directs the entire thing with the indifference of a gun-for-hire.

Its syrupy sweetness and hammering tweeness leaves you punch-drunk rather than sugar-rushed. Oliver is such an insipid fella you’ll be delighted when he shuts up and sits in the background for most of the second half. It clumsily unveils a mystery and then drifts towards a conclusion that lacks any real drama. It studiously avoids anything that could remotely stretch the viewer. It’s trying so hard to charm you and hug you, it comes across like a lecherous stranger offering you sweets. Oliver! wasn’t even the best musical of 1968, let alone the best film. But in a year when the world was going to hell in a handcart, perhaps a kid-friendly fable bending over backwards to charm and reassure you was what the world needed. Doesn’t mean I need to stomach it now.

Les Misérables (2012)

Hugh Jackman runs for years in Tom Hooper’s controversial Les Misérables adaptation

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Inspector Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thenadier), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thenardier), Samantha Barks (Eponine), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche)

Of all the behemoth musicals of the 1980s, Les Misérables may just be the best. An entirely sung adaptation of Victor Hugo’s door-stop novel, it’s been thrilling sold-out global audiences ever since 1985. It ran on Broadway for 16 years and never stopped playing in the West End. Plans to turn it into a film have took decades, with its scale always the problem (not least since musicals spent a large chunk of the 1990s as far from sure bets at the Box Office). Finally, it came to the screen, with an Oscar-winning director who supplied the ‘fresh new vision’ a show that had been staged literally thousands of times needed. That vision has its merits, but it’s also divisive.

The story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict imprisoned for nineteen-years for stealing a loaf of bread. He is persecuted by his nemesis Javert (Russell Crowe), a rigid policeman who believes a man can never change. On parole, Valjean is an outcast but his life is changed forever after encountering a Bishop (played by original West End Valjean, Colm Wilkinson) who claims he had gifted the silverware Valjean had in fact tried to steal. The Bishop charges Valjean to live his life for the good of others. Eight years later he has become a respected mayor of a small town. But his past starts to catch up with him as Javert arrives as the new chief of police. Will helping Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the mother of illegitimate child Cosette (growing up to become Amanda Seyfried), lead to his secret being revealed?

Tom Hooper has a difficult challenge taking on Les Misérables. There can be few people around who haven’t heard at least some of the songs – and no musicals fan who probably hasn’t at a minimum watched a concert version, if not the show itself. How do you even begin to make one of the most famous musicals of all time fresh? Hooper chose a new approach that would up the intimacy and drama, fore-fronting emotion over scale. It also allowed him to fuse his unconventional framing with the raw, hand-held camera work of John Adams, his hit HBO miniseries.

So, Les Misérables, unlike many other musicals was to be all-sung live by the actors, rather than separately recorded and lip-synched on set. The camera would fly into their faces and almost interrogate the actors as they performed, capturing every emotion passing across their face. It would be up-close and intimate. What in the theatre works as a series of powerful, theatre-filling, ballads would be repackaged into something very personal. At times it works extremely effectively.

Having the actors sing live, means all the power of the performances they gave in the moment are captured. Emotions are dialled up, with songs often delivered through cracking voices or snot-filled nose sniffs. This has a particularly huge benefit for Anne Hathaway, whose deeply heartfelt, devastating rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is delivered in a single shot close-up that turns the song into a powerfully raw song about trauma (this sequence alone probably ensured Hathaway won every major gong going). It’s the same with Jackman: Valjean’s Soliloquy in particular plays off the raw guilt, shame and self-disgust Jackman lets play across his face while later Who Am I gains even more impact from the fear, hesitation, regret and moral determination Jackman injects into it, cracked voice and all. Perhaps not a surprise the two most confident performers benefit the most.

The downside is that, repeating the same visual technique for every single song, does make the film at times rather visually oppressive and repetitive. Even the large group numbers sees the camera drill into the faces of the individual singers, rather than offer us any wide shots. In fact, the wide shots in the film are so few you can almost count them on one hand. While Hooper’s approach uses the close-up to present the songs in ways theatre never could (good), it does mean he sacrifices the scale and beauty cinema can bring (less good).

You actually begin to think perhaps Hooper doesn’t really like musicals that much. His vision here is to turn Les Misérables into more of an indie film than an adaptation of West End musical. Choreography isn’t, to be fair, a major part of the stage production, but theatrical spectacle is, and that’s almost completely missing. Some of the most powerful, hairs-on-the-back of the neck power of the big numbers has been sacrificed for grinding the emotion out (Jackman at points speaks some of the lines rather than singing them). Musically, Samantha Barks’ marvellous rendition of On My Own is the only song in the film I would listen to out of context. It makes the show different – but more variety and more willingness to embrace the spectacle of the show – mixed with the intimacy of the solo numbers might have added more.

Les Misérables is still however very entertaining: after all it can’t not be when it has some of the best songs in the business. The acting is extremely strong. Jackman is perfectly cast: he not only has the vocal range and strength, but also the acting chops to bring to life a character who goes from red-eyed fugitive to caring and dutiful surrogate father. Hathaway is hugely affecting as Fantine, vulnerable but also with a deep resentment. Redmayne is hugely engaging and charismatic as Marius. Barks is excellent, Seyfried gives a lot of sensitivity to Cosette and Carter and Cohen are fun as the Thenadiers. The only mis-step is Crowe, who has the presence for the role but notably lacks the vocal strength for a notoriously difficult role.

They all provide some of the most intimate renditions of these songs you’ll ever see and the film unarguably offers a take you will have never seen before, even if you had sat through every single one of the thousands of stagings. It works better for solos than group numbers (which, with their kaleidoscope of voices all in different locations are hard to replicate on screen anyway), and it’s a well the film dips into far too often, but when it works, it really does. Les Misérables divides some – and on repeated viewings its repetitive visuals make it feel longer, with the second half in particular flagging – but Hooper does something a West End show can’t do. It might well have been better if it has used more of the things cinema cando (scale, sets, mise-en-scene – it’s hard to picture an actual image from the film that isn’t a close-up) but a film with actors as good as this and songs as affected as these will always work, no matter what.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James Cagney is superb as Broadway legend George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: James Cagney (George M Cohan), Joan Leslie (Mary Cohan), Walter Huston (Jerry Cohan), Richard Whorf (Sam Harris), Irene Manning (Fay Templeton), George Tobias (Dietz), Rosemary DeCamp (Nellie Cohan), Jeanne Cagney (Josie Cohan), Eddie Foy Jnr (Eddie Foy)

To many James Cagney was the definitive gangster. But Cagney wanted to be known as more than just another heavy: at heart he was a song-and-dance man. He got few chances to show it, so when the right film came along, doggone it he didn’t plan to leave anything in the dressing room. Cagney dominates George M Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy (at times its almost a one-man show with guests). He’s in almost every scene, doing his twist on Cohan’s stiff-legged dancing style with such energy and enthusiasm it leaves you quite exhausted watching it (Cagney sprained his ankle twice making it). It was a massive hit and won Cagney a much-deserved Oscar.

George M Cohan came from a family vaudeville troupe and became “the man who owned Broadway”. An accomplished performer, he was also a prolific writer (banging out more than 50 shows and 300 songs, including nation-defining tunes like Over There, The Yankee Doodle Boy and You’re a Grand Old Flag). The film uses his awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D Roosevelt (Cohan arrives at the White House fresh from playing an all-singing, all-dancing version of the wheelchair-confined President in I’d Rather Be Right) as a framing device. Naturally, the President wants to know all about this Broadway legend’s life. Cue Cohan settling back to tell him his entire life story: from birth to childhood stardom, knock-backs and a string of successes.

It’s odd to think Cagney wasn’t keen at first. A leading union man – one of the founder members of the Screen Actor’s Guild – Cagney was not an admirer of Cohan, who had taken a strong stand against the 1919 actor’s union strike. What changed Cagney’s mind was accusations of communism from the House of Un-American Activities in 1940: he was cleared but his producer-brother William told him he needed “to make the goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made.” They certainly succeeded with Yankee Doodle Dandy, such an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of the American way it must surely be Sam the Eagle’s favourite film.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is nothing more-or-less than a grand slice of entertainment. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as The Great Ziegfeld, another cradle-to-grave rundown of the life of a Broadway mover-and-shaker. Like that film, Cohan’s rough edges are comprehensively shaved off: his hostility to the actor’s union goes unmentioned as does his divorce and remarriage (instead his two wives are amalgamated into a new fictional wife, conveniently called Mary so that his song Mary’s a Grand Old Name can be named after her). Several events are telescoped or shifted to a new date for dramatic impact. Cohan emerges thoroughly charming (if proud), decent and honest all-round entertainer, overflowing with bonhomie.

Narratively the film does nothing Hollywood hadn’t done before. The big difference here to The Great Ziegfeld is that Curtiz keeps the story moving with real pace and a certain flair (it’s a solid two hours, and never outstays its welcome) and the musical numbers are dynamic and entertaining. A great deal of that is due to Cagney, outstanding in a part that demands an overabundance of personality. Cagney’s dancing and singing doesn’t have the grace of Fred Astaire (the original choice), but it has a gloriously entertaining and breath-taking energy. Cagney studied Cohan’s stiff-legged-marionette dancing style, and used his physical exuberance to bring to life his numerous dance routines with a spectacular stand-and-applaud skill and energy. (Curtiz uses a highly mobile camera to film most of these in single shots, to really capture the skill and energy of Cagney). His singing also follows the Cohan style – the sort of half-singing, half recital style Rex Harrison would later make his own. His impersonation is uncanny and performance superb.

Cagney is gloriously entertaining and makes every single one of his numerous songs thrum with glee. It’s a real reminder of what a modern performer Cagney was: he’s fast-paced, lacks any sense of staginess and has a real emotional honesty. His comic moments are very funny: in Cohan’s first meeting with Mary, still in old-man make-up (fresh from playing father to his own mother on stage), Cagney lets a little moment of glee move across his face as he realises Mary thinks he really is an old-man in his 70s – a confusion he plays up to, before launching into an impromptu tap dance routine. When tragedy strikes he is just as moving: his heart-broken repeat of his mantra “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you” at his father’s death-bed not only moves the audience, it also made the stony Curtiz weep on set.

No wonder, when a dying Cohan watched the film, he said “My God, what an act to follow!” Cagney’s performance, with its playful energy, encouraged a greater spontaneity in Curtiz’s disciplined directorial style. The famous sequence, where Cagney walks down the steps inside the White House before bursting into a joyful bout of tap-dancing was improvised on the spot (and a glorious summary of the playful joy of the movie it is). Curtiz uses montage very effectively at several points (a sequence of early knock-backs for Cohan is a wonderful collection of shots of signs, producer refusals and walking feet). He often uses high and low angles to imaginatively shoot the action, and the fluid camera for the musical numbers finds a neat middle ground between theatrical performance and cinema.

Of course, it is damned patriotic. The film recreates several of Cohan’s most stirring numbers in all their pomp. The explosion of Americana (Washington! Lincoln! Teddy Roosevelt!) that is You’re a Grand Old Flag (with hundreds of Stars and Stripes). The cheek and charm of Yankee Doodle Boy. The rousing marvel of Over There. The film plays up Cohan’s determination to do his bit in the First World War – turned down for service as too old, he carries out a full tap-dance routine to show he’s as limber as the next man. But it also has time for finding a way of staging creativity: there is a marvellous little sequence – beautifully shot by James Wong Howe – of Cohan finding the tune for Over There, tinkling experimentally with a piano on an empty stage.

The narrative of the play doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it delivers a traditional structure with plenty of energy and some good scenes. (I enjoyed Cohan’s mother, struggling to find something nice to say about one of Cohan’s rare-flops, a music-free melodrama, left weakly praising the set). Though Cagney dominates the film, Walter Huston is very fine as his supportive and experienced dad and Joan Leslie charming as his loyal wife Mary (so supportive she’s happy to gift her song to stage star Fay Templeton, because the show needs her more). The balance between standard biopic scenes and musical numbers is very nicely handled.

Yankee Doodle Dandy offers up a familiar package, but one of the most professionally assembled and enjoyable of its type ever made. With Cagney in joyful, dominant form, you’d genuinely be quite happy just sitting and watching him go through as many vaudeville acts as he likes. Shot with flair by Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy is catchy and highly entertaining.

Chicago (2002)

Catherine Zeta-Jones struts her stuff in Rob Marshall’s fabulous Oscar winner Chicago

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Renée Zellweger (Roxie Hart), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly), Richard Gere (Billy Flynn), Queen Latifah (“Mama” Morton), John C. Reilly (Amos Hart), Christine Baranski (Mary Sunshine), Taye Diggs (The Bandleader), Colm Feore (Martin Harrison), Lucy Liu (Kitty Baxter), Dominic West (Fred Casely), Mya (Mona), Susan Misner (Liz), Denise Faye (Annie), Deidre Goodwin (June)

It’s become quite the fashion to knock Chicago. Heck I’ve done it myself. How did this mere musical win Best Picture? It’s not even as if the original production was much more than an entertainment. It’s another of those films diminished by whispers that it doesn’t deserve the title of Best Picture. But, look at the film with an unprejudiced eye, and you’ll see that this is the best stage-to-screen musical theatre adaptation since Cabaret. Chicago is such dynamic, high octane entertainment, you would have to a really cold heart not to enjoy it.

A heart as cold, perhaps, as most of the characters. Its set in a 1920s Chicago where it doesn’t matter what you are famous for, so long as you are famous. Who are the bigger stars? The people on stage of the infamous on death row? Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is a wannabe who guns down her conman lover Fred Casely (Dominic West) when his promises of the stage career she’s dreaming of turns out to be all hot air. Roxie works out that she can turn her infamy into just plain fame – following the inspiration of vaudeville-star-turned-accused-murderer Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is now more famous than ever. With amoral lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) in their corner, can they play all sides against the middle and find freedom and fame?

Chicago’s debt to Bob Fosse is in almost every single frame. Rob Marshall’s brilliant choreography is inspired by Fosse’s own work for the original production. It means the entire film drips with the passionate sexiness of Fosse’s best work. It’s also inspired by Fosse’s Cabaret in its use of the musical numbers. There all the musical numbers were kept within the nightclub, acting as a subtle commentary on the events of the film. Here they occur in Roxie’s imagination, staged in a shadowy empty theatre with a mysterious band leader (a charismatic Taye Diggs) introducing each song. It’s a brilliant concept, that allows them to be staged with the sort of exuberance and theatricality that would look plain odd in a ‘real’ setting.

And what musical numbers they are! These are toe-tappingly, finger-clickingly fun, that will make you want to jump up and join in. Marshall’s choreography and direction is not only faultless, but also covers a range of styles. From the sultry opening of All That Jazz performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, we get burlesque (When You’re Good to Mama), sensual sexiness (Cell Block Tango), knock-about farce (We Both Reached for the Gun), classic 1930s Astaire and Rogers (Roxie) and surreal madness (Razzle Dazzle). The one thing they all have in common is the high-octane energy they are performed with (no wonder all those dancers are so slim!), with no one leaving anything in the dressing room.

Chicago is possibly one of the best edited musicals ever made. Marshall gets a superb balance between camera movements, cutting and the dance numbers. We can appreciate – and see – every step of the intricate choreography, with clear camera movements and angles. But the film is also edited practically on the beat. Cuts accentuate changes in the tempo and even marry up with the exact movements of the dancers. Not only that, the numbers frequently cut from reality to fantasy and back again – and this parallel montage is superbly done, with perfectly timed transitions. The cutting complements each number so well, it actually makes them more exciting and dynamic. It’s a masterclass in using the language of cinema to accentuate the impact of dancing.

But Marshall manages to make Chicago not just a collection of amazing dances and fabulous tunes. In our celebrity worship age, Chicago feels increasingly more relevant – you can imagine Roxie would love to be on reality TV and would never be off Twitter. It doesn’t matter that she’s got no real talent (in fact it makes the fact that all the musical numbers are fantasies even more witty), she’s just desperate to be known. Shooting her lover is the best thing that’s ever happened to her and she’ll do anything to stay in the newspapers, from a fake pregnancy to playing the timid ingenue.

Everyone in Chicago is just playing the game. Velma is just as desperate to cling to fame – and her growing desperation at losing the limelight to Roxie is almost touching. Mama Morton, the quietly corrupt prison warden, lives vicariously through her inmates (she even dyes her hair to match Roxie’s). The media lap up the details of every killing, turning the trials into huge soap operas. And at the heart you have Billy Flynn, as much a showman as he is a lawyer, playing every angle and knowing its all about telling a good story rather than truth or justice.

Chicago is played with absolute commitment. Renée Zellweger is excellent as the fiercely ambitious, amoral Roxie, her fragile softness perfect for the image Roxie likes to project, just as she is able to twist her face into selfish meanness. Zeta-Jones clearly hadn’t forgotten her years of musical theatre, demonstrating she is a superb singer and dancer, her vampish glamour perfect for Velma’s dark ambition. Richard Gere (in a role turned down by Travolta, as he ‘didn’t get’ the framing device) channels his natural charisma and good natured smirk into a role that could have been made for him. Reilly is surprisingly sweet and effective as Roxie’s put-upon husband and Latifah hugely entertaining as the knowingly manipulative Mama.

Chicago may be “just a musical” – but you’d be hard pressed to find a better entertainment. The song and dance numbers are superb and the film still manages to land some blows on celebrity culture. Hollywood has always loved musicals – can you imagine how the viewers of Broadway Melody would have responded if they had seen this? – and with Chicago we get something we’ve not seen since the golden days of Bob Fosse. There are few Oscar winners as straight forwardly entertaining as this.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Luise Rainer and William Powell bring the life of The Great Ziegfeld to life in this decent-but-not-great Best Picture winner

Director: Robert Z Leonard

Cast: William Powell (Florenz Ziegfeld Jnr), Myrna Loy (Billie Burke), Luise Rainer (Anna Held), Frank Morgan (Jack Billings), Fannie Brice (Herself), Virginia Bruce (Audrey Dane), Reginald Owen (Sampson), Ray Bolger (Himself), Ernest Coassart (Sidney), Joseph Cawthorn (Dr Ziegfeld), Nat Pendleton (The Great Sandow)

I’d always been led to believe The Great Ziegfeld was one of the low points in Best Picture history – that the Oscar had gone to a plotless, over-long, empty mess. So, watching this film for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised. The Great Ziegfeld may be flawed, but it’s not as bad as all that. In some places it’s even pretty good.

Florenz Ziegfeld Jnr (William Powell) is a showman with big dreams. From the Chicago World Fair of 1893, where his show features strong-man The Great Sandow (Nat Pendleton) – lifting a massive pair of dumb bells inside of each is a “Dumb Belle” (geddit?!) – Ziegfeld heads towards New York. There he puts on a series of variety shows, The Ziegfeld Follies, crammed with popular entertainers and gorgeous babes. Along the way he spends money like water, marries star Anna Held (Luise Rainer), cheats on her a lot (although the film handles this coyly) and finds love with star Billie Burke (Myrna Loy – the real Burke grudgingly agreed she was too old to play herself).

Watching The Great Ziegfeld you can see how it influenced so many later films. A witty, show-piece crammed crowd-pleaser about a impresario, its essentially the grandfather of The Greatest Showman. It’s unpretentious and easy-going – but also impossibly long, far too long for its slight story. It’s sprawling, puffed-up and the musical numbers are often mundane and tedious – but it, just about, manages to stay entertaining.

In real life Ziegfeld was a chancer with a roving eye. He left a mountain of debt and his genius was at least as much about promotion as it was art. You can see why Hollywood has a soft-spot for him: he was all about spectacle (a running gag has him always wanting “higher steps”, a neat short-hand for making things bigger). His rough edges (the affairs and the financial chicanery) are filed down as the film’s Ziegfeld is a charmer with a Wodehousian wit, cheeky and naughty but always a gentleman.

William Powell is perfect casting, and a big part of the film’s charm is tied up in his winningly (and deceptively) casual performance. Powell turns the role into a personality part, smoothly underplaying with a wink to the camera. He delivers the various bon mots with a real skill and provides nearly all the film’s pace and energy and a big barrel of its sense of fun.

He sits at the centre of a film that has genuine moments of directorial flair from Robert Z Leonard. There are some great tracking shots and he handles the ‘acting’ scenes very well – a scene with Ziegfeld chatting with Will Rogers and Fanny Brice (playing herself) is worth the price of admission alone. The performers mostly bounce effectively off each other.

Leonard also gets emotional impact from Ziegfeld’s late romance with Burke (a sequence of the two of them chatting, coyly holding hands is very well done) and creates a superb series of visuals to close the film (a shot of the ageing Ziegfeld sitting in his chair, staring at his name in lights over his theatre, is a wonderful summary of the man’s life – and maybe, when his hand drops down releasing a flower, it even gave Welles a bit of inspiration for Kane’s death five years later).

When The Great Ziegfeld focuses on Powell’s lightness of touch, and character-led moments (Frank Morgan is also great fun as Ziegfeld’s bombastic, long-suffering rival) it works really well. What has suffered over time – and today feel like its weakest parts – are those heavily praised in 1936.

MGM marketed this as the most expensive film ever made, the money splurged on those massive musical numbers, with scores of extras and enormous sets. The centre-piece is the “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” number, featuring countless extras on a massive rotating “wedding-cake” set, 175 spiral steps high. Like Ziegfeld’s shows it’s all about the cost, spectacle and size. And they are not even 1% as interesting as watching Astaire and Rogers tap dance in a marquee in Top Hat.

The film’s numerous musical numbers often feel like dull products of yesteryear. Over-long, over-extended, shot to squeeze the set into frame rather than focusing on skill or grace. These numbers – some of which I admit I fast-forwarded through – pad out the running time but contribute nothing to either story or entertainment factor. If anything, you are desperate to get back to Powell’s skilled playing of the biographical scenes, rather than sitting through another over-ripe number.

Similarly much of the acting has aged less well. Myrna Loy is strangely uncomfortable as Burke (perhaps all to aware the real Burke was just off camera). Luise Rainer won the first of her two consecutive Oscars – but her performance is extremely over-played, utterly lacking in nuance. Her famous “telephone” scene (heartbroken, she calls Ziegfeld to congratulate him on his new marriage) was hailed as great acting, but today looks mannered and overblown.

But despite all these flaws – mundane and boring musical numbers, a lack of spark and pace – there is actually a fair bit of wit and charm. Its early sequences – which focus on Powell and Nat Pendleton’s witty turn as Sandow – are surprisingly light and engaging. The moments where the film relaxes and isn’t straining to impress are engaging and fun. There is a decent 90-minute Astaire-Rogers film straining to get out here, crushed under the weight of the Ziegfeld/MGM grandeur. It’s entertaining – better than you might have heard – but can’t hold a candle to the great Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, its charm spread very thin.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor make a love story for the ages in Luhrmann’s electric Moulin Rouge!

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (Duke of Monroth), John Leguizamo (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Jacek Koman (The Unconscious Argentinian), Caroline O’Connor (Nini), Kerry Walker (Marie), David Wenham (Audrey)

It’s 20 years old now and I still don’t think there has been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! Believe me it’s not for want of trying. Baz Luhrmann’s hugely inventive, uniquely stylistic musical is cinematic marmite: either loved or reviled (not sure I’ve ever met anyone who had a meh attitude to it). One of the pioneering inventors of the juke-box musical, Moulin Rouge! mixes pop songs with inspiration from opera to Greek myth and comes up with something Spectacular, Spectacular.

It’s the turn of the century, and Christian (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Paris looking for truth, inspiration and above all: love. Arriving at Montmartre, he and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) fall in love. Satine is the star at Harold Zidler’s (Jim Broadbent) Moulin Rouge and also the star of Zidler’s planned stage show. She has been promised to his wealthy backer the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). With Christian commissioned to write the script, can he and Satine hide their love from the Duke and make sure the Show Goes On? Or will tragedy strike?

Fast paced and electric, Moulin Rouge! could inspire motion sickness, especially in its opening 15 minutes which throw us deep into its unconventional medley of styles, tones and inspirations. Did that first 15 minutes lose a lot of people? You can imagine it as the earliest scenes featuring Christian’s meeting with Toulouse-Lautrec and the other Bohemians are by far its weakest. If your irritation grows at these shrill scenes (crudely over-acted with an overbearing Keaton-ish energy), I can well imagine thousands of viewers checked out in Luhrmann’s music inspired Moulin Rouge can-can musical with its explosion of rap, Nirvana, Lady Marmalade and insanely quick cutting. It’s a statement opening – and throws you straight into its heightened reality. A tone that continues for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Luhrmann leaves nothing in the locker room here. Only a director of such exuberance, playfulness – but also deep skill and understanding of high and low culture – could have balanced it as well as he does. Go with it and you’ll love it. It’s pure operatic entertainment. Luhrmann’s master-stroke is to shoot a period musical in the style of the high-velocity music-video pop that excited people in 2001 – finally you get a sense of why the Moulin Rouge and can-can seemed so exciting and sexy back then. It’s a night-club of 1999, thrown into 1899.

But what makes the film work after that initial explosion of energy – and I’ll agree that the first 15 minutes tries too hard to grab your attention – is that Luhrmann mixes the styles up so effectively. There is everything here, from Busby Berkeley numbers to heartfelt love ballads to dreamy duets to a sexual tango to a classic theatrical set-piece, tinged with a spot of tragedy. Every musical number seems inspired by a different genre and style of musical theatre. And the use of modern pop music is fun, entertaining and mines the emotional connection we all feel for the best pop songs.

It’s an MTV pop musical, mixed with Gene Kelly, lashes of camp, cheeky humour and finally tragedy and suffering. It’s got a million cuts in it, but Luhrmann successfully makes the film darker, slower and more intimate as the film progresses. From the electric dynamism of the opening, this becomes an increasingly personal tragedy revolving around five key characters. It never loses that sense of showmanship – Zidler’s planned production is an overblown Bollywood inspired extravaganza that delights in recreating the joy and brashness of that genre – but the final hour is a more adult, foreboding movie with plenty of heart.

Moulin Rouge! is all about Luhrmann’s gadfly brilliance to discover inspiration from a host of sources, pulling it together into something brilliantly original, from the plot – which is inspired by La Boheme by way of Orpheus and Eurydice – to brilliant montage songs like the Elephant Love Song Medley, which takes snippets from nearly every popular love song you’ve ever heard. Very few films can switch so effortlessly from cheeky, end-of-the-pier humour to gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s energy effectively and brilliantly applied, and that comes from the director (who was, of course, inexplicably not among the films eight Oscar nominations).

Luhrmann also gets the actors to perform with the sort of energetic, fully-committed exuberance the film needs. The principals go at every single scene with no hesitations at all – bless them, none have any concern with appearing silly at all. McGregor reveals a sweetness and earnestness (as well as very strong singing voice) he hadn’t shown before. Kidman was an absolute revelation as a woman hiding doubt, insecurity and fear under an exterior of pure confidence. Broadbent’s comedic brilliance is matched with his dramatic flair. Roxburgh is hilarious, and also vile, as the selfish Duke. Luhrmann recognises their strength – after the first 10 minutes every scene features at least two of these performers.

Things have clearly been cut here and there. Motivations and even characterisations of some of the other members of the Moulin Rouge troupe change from scene-to-scene. Sometimes it tries too hard to be inventive. But it works so often that it hardly matters. And the remixes of the songs for performance are outstanding. The “Like a Virgin” Busby Berkely number is hilarious, the “Roxanne Tango” breath-takingly influential. “The Show Must Go On” is powerfully doom-laden and “Your Song” beautifully romantic. “Come What May” – the only original number – is an iconic ballad.

There’s not been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! – and Luhrmann has never managed to match it again since. Electric, dynamic, exciting, heartfelt, moving and above all extremely joyful, it has some brilliantly judged performances from its lead actors. There hasn’t been anything like it since – and I’m pretty sure we won’t see it’s like again.

Top Hat (1935)

Astaire and Rogers dance Cheek to Cheek in Top Hat

Director: Mark Sandrich

Cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (Dale Tremont), Edward Everett Horton (Horace Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini), Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick), Eric Blore (Bates)

It’s got the sort of plot PG Wodehouse would consider a bit far-fetched. Due to a series of misunderstandings and mistaken identities (that the script executes quite a few linguistic gymnastics to keep in place, since a few words from someone would sort it all out in seconds), Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) falls in love with Broadway star Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) but believes that he is in fact West End producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) who is married to her best friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick). So, thinking Jerry is a cad, she decides to run away to Venice with her boyfriend, Italian dress designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) – only for a confused and infatuated Jerry to follow.

Of course the entire thing revolves around Dale having never met Madge’s husband, and Madge never for a minute questioning the description of her husband (despite the resemblance he clearly bares to Jerry in how Dale talks to him) – or when Madge later “introduces” Dale to Jerry, not saying a word that could suggest they’re not married. But that’s classic farce here, and the light comedy works an absolute charm with mistakes, confusion and jealous clashes occurring at every moment. Top Hat is a superb piece of witty light froth, with some cracking lines and some great comic set pieces. 

And of course, its main attraction is some superb dancing from Astaire and Rogers in probably the highlight of their long collaboration with each other. The grace and skill of these two has to be seen to be believed – as does the natural synchronicity with which they move together. With Sandrich’s camera calmly and carefully tracing the lines of Astaire and Rogers’ movements, the viewer is invited to sit back and enjoy some of the finest dancing you are ever going to see. With music from Irving Berlin – and the songs are endlessly catchy – it makes for a perfect combination.

This is the film where Astaire first used top hat (of course!) and cane as part of a dance number. The play-within-a-film musical number “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is perhaps one of the finest displays of tap dancing in the movies, in which Astaire moves from moments of stillness into explosions of energy, mixing cane taps with foot taps, ending in a superbly funny sequence where Astaire uses his cane as a “tap powered machine gun” to playfully shoot out the chorus line behind him. It’s a set-piece that makes you believe that Hardwick’s West End show really is the smash hit you keep hearing it is.

That’s then followed by a parade of no-less than three superb dances that chart the progress of Dale’s and Jerry’s relationship – from flirtation in “Isn’t it a Lovely Day”, full of side-by-side steps that lead into a growing physical looseness, to the grand ballroom “Cheek to Cheek” which uses every inch of a huge Venice hotel set to see the two lovers come back together again after confusions (and which ends with the famous slap of Astaire by Rogers for making her fall in love with him, with Astaire’s dreamingly happy “She loves me!” after she departs). Finally the two come together for a final duet dance – after of course all the confusion has been cleared up – which is yet another triumph of two dancers working in perfect partnership. You can’t help be swept up in the excitement of watching these two masterful performers push themselves to the limits.

That’s not to overlook that the film also operates because of the charm of the two leads. Astaire is a dreamy, compulsive, slightly naïve man, passionate about the things he cares about. Rogers is a bit harder-edged, but increasingly find herself both drawn to Jerry and appalled at the guilt in believing she is falling for her friend’s husband, her shame mixed with her strong emotional attachment.

But then she also interprets some of Helen’s seeming ease with the idea of her husband flirting with another woman as a (surprisingly modern) go-ahead for all the flirting that follows. Certainly Helen doesn’t seem fussed at the idea of her husband contemplating playing away (for all that she later punches Horace for not telling her truth). Perhaps that’s because she recognises her husband is as camp as Christmas, with Edward Everett Horton living in like a bickering old married couple with Erik Blore as his equally camp butler Bates. These two bicker cattily comment on everything from each other’s clothes to their manners. 

Mind you Dale’s other love interest is an equally preening – and malapropism-prone Italian dress maker (Determined that “Woman shall wear my dresses no more!” after one particular moment of stress) played with wit by Erik Rhodes. It’s possible that with a lead as un-traditionally masculine as Astaire, it was thought best to make every other man in the film even less masculine than him. Either way, the film has a surprisingly modern air of sexual freedom in it, where husband swopping seems not entirely out of the question, and the Hardwick marriage (seemingly a marriage of convenience) might as well be an open one. Don’t often get that from a 1930s musical.

Astaire was critical of the script itself at first – it’s basically an exact rewrite of The Gay Divorcee, the Astaire and Rogers film from the previous year – but everything settles into one of the most triumphantly enjoyable and funny films the pair worked on, with Astaire at his most graceful and Rogers at her most dynamic. And the dancing is a joy that will last forever.