Sunday, August 2, 2009

soul food, part one

Okay, then! It never occurred to me that some readers would get so riled up about a couple of innocuous stories about me fighting the good fight against the forces of evil (aka selfish, self-obsessed people who think either they're important enough to hold up all their fellow subway passengers and then bully someone smaller than themselves, or that their "faux friendliness" [thanks to I Am Not Star Jones for her comment, which gave me this phrase] is just what an overworked, underpaid immigrant worker needs to turn her day around and that it's perfectly acceptable to be deliberately rude about someone's home). So in the interest of turning the page to a bright, cheery subject, I thought I would put together a list of my favorite movie musical numbers.

Notice that I did not say "the best movie musical numbers." This is my highly subjective list, though I did spend some time thinking about parameters. To me, a musical number in a movie is just that: a scene that involves the characters singing or dancing or, preferably, both, without much dialogue - the scene must be structured around the music (though for some reason, it didn't seem right to include ballet numbers; I'm not sure why, but this accounts for there being no mention of The Red Shoes here, when it's possibly my all-time favorite movie). This definition is broad enough that I can include a couple no-dancing numbers, and a couple no-singing numbers. Also, the movie itself doesn't have to be great, but the number must be, and it can't just be that it's a great song, or a great dancer - it has to just bowl you over altogether.

The fatal flaw in my list is that I limited myself to one entry per star (and per movie), otherwise the list might have ended up all Fred, or all Judy. To appease myself and the musical gods, I've included honorable mentions with some of the entries (couldn't help myself, really).

I originally was going to have a list of 10, but that dream went all to pieces in a matter of moments, so I've put together a list of 20, which I'll post in two parts. I've included clips throughout, but as we all know, online clips have a tendency to disappear; if one of the links is a dud, please forgive me, and let me know.

There's a lot of entertainment below, so get yourself a cup of cocoa, and settle in. Without further adoooooo, in very rough (verging on arbitrary) ascending order:

20. "You Can't Stop the Beat," Hairspray

John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, first burning Velma Von Tussle, followed by his astonishing Tina Turner imitation... nevermind James Marsden's fab moves (put to better use in "The Nicest Kids in Town" - I'm still trying to master that funkiness) and Queen Latifah's big moment... The movie isn't perfect, by any means, but this number is a winner.

19. "I'd Do Anything," Oliver!

The songs in this movie are so damn catchy: "Food, Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself," "Who Will Buy," "Be Back Soon." Any one could have been on my list, but I chose this one because it features both Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger) and Ron Moody (Fagin), as well as the angelic-looking and angelic-sounding Mark Lester as little Oliver.

18. "I'm Going Back," Bells Are Ringing

Judy Holliday, comedic genius. Her timing, her expressions, her movement - and that voice. My favorite Judy Holliday moment is the beginning of Born Yesterday, when she's onscreen for three minutes, looking rather sleek and sophisticated, before delivering her first line, a pure Brooklyn "Whaaaaaat!" However, except for a little humming and sashaying, she's not working her musical chops in Born Yesterday, so instead, we have this eleventh-hour number from the Styne/Comden/Green delight.

17. "Adelaide's Lament," Guys and Dolls

Everyone always moans that this movie is so miscast. Meanwhile, I think both Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Skye Masterson are completely charming and natural, and Marlon even pulls off his big number ("Luck Be a Lady") with a lot of style. But even so, they can't top Vivian Blaine (another brassy broad, like Judy Holliday) as Miss Adelaide, doing a little pop psychology (courtesy Frank Loesser) to figure out why she and Nathan aren't yet married, after their 14-year engagement. The accent alone... and the medicine cabinet... (Note that in this clip - the only one I could find - the song doesn't start till about seven minutes in.)

16. "Ain't It the Truth," Cabin in the Sky / That's Entertainment III

In one of the great editing room blunders of the twentieth century, Lena Horne's bubble bath number was cut from Cabin in the Sky for being too risque. The fact that this amazingly talented performer was in fewer than ten movies is also a sin. I couldn't find a video of this number anywhere, but if That's Entertainment III is going to be on TCM or PBS, set your DVR, and enjoy.

15. "Down Argentine Way," Down Argentine Way

Speaking of underused performers... There's not much footage available that shows off the amazing talent of the Nicholas Brothers, but they do have this great number in a mediocre film. Their tap style is so completely theirs, and so thrilling - makes me feel lucky that some studio guy somewhere had the brilliant idea to include this number, and then the wisdom not to cut it in post-production.

14. "Think Pink," Funny Face

This number is a camp classic, with the Alexey Brodovitch-inspired fashion spreads, the legion of Quality Magazine editors in their Dior and Givenchy ensembles, and Kay herself, in an obvious homage to / parody of Diana Vreeland. Kay Thompson: Not only does she go and write one of the best "children's books" ever (Eloise), but she was a cabaret phenomenon as well; no wonder Liza Minnelli decided to do an entire show last year as a tribute to Kay (her godmother). This is old school show-biz star power. Watch and learn.

13. "With a Little Bit of Luck," My Fair Lady

I was tempted by the "Ascot Gavotte," as I love that song's blaséness (not to mention the over-the-topness of the Cecil Beaton costumes) and often quote the line "I have never been so keyed up," but Stanley Holloway is just too irresistible here. Like Kay Thompson, he's a pro, and attention must be paid. Also, considering my current career status ("funemployment"), I support the song's general philosophy toward the idea of work, introduced by Alfred P. Doolittle with this keeper of a line: "I used to that sort of thing once, just for exercise. Not worth it - takes up your whole day!"

12. "Ya Got Trouble," The Music Man

There are a lot of problems with this movie, namely Shirley Jones (the woman managed to suck the life out of the movie versions of some best musicals of our time), Buddy Hackett, "Ronny" Howard with an irritating lisp, and "Shipoopi." But then there's Robert Preston (also irresistible in Victor Victoria). Try to watch this one without smiling like a fool.

11. "Dance at the Gym," West Side Story

Of all the theatrical choreographers, Jerry Robbins is the one who most consistently thrills me. I could (and do) watch his work over and over and over again. Pauline Kael, in one of the great mis-hits of her career, called the choreography "simpering, sickly romantic ballet." Oh, come on. "Dance at the Gym" simpering? I don't think so. (Meanwhile, the woman goes on and on about Singin' in the Rain, which, I'm sorry, is all toothpaste and Technicolor.) And it's not the only fabulous set piece in the film: there's the opening sequence, and "America," and "Gee, Officer Krupke," and "Cool." And George Chakiris... he blows poor bland Richard Beymer out of the water in both the charisma and dancing categories. Then there's Russ Tamblyn, and Rita Morena.... *sigh*

This is a truly complex and character-revealing number, all told: the competition between the Jets and the Sharks at the dance (MC'ed by sad-sack John Astin as Glad Hand), where Bernardo and Riff and the rest are heart-breakingly alive and joyful, and then the dream sequence, when Tony and Maria first meet. I'm a sucker for the way real life comes back into focus at the end, intruding on Tony and Maria's somewhere.

{Coming up next: my top ten! Can you stand it?}


  1. that was a lot of fun. thanks for sharing. i had never seen 'I'm Going Back', can't wait to see it.

  2. This Blog is so new, and yet is has already jumped the shark. A new record. What's next? Siobhan loves Wolcottchi? Pfffft....

  3. No no no! Th original Hairspray ending is better.

    Interesting list, only the West Side Story ones would have made my Top 20. Hmmm

  4. This is a perfectly curated list, and it gave me an evening of unalloyed pleasure. Thank you. I do, however, disagree about "Singin' in the Rain."

  5. I guess it's too much to hope--to pray--that a fine selection from High School Musical 3, such as Ryan and Sharpay's homage-laden fame anthem/manifesto "I Want It All," will make the top-ten cut.

    And yet one must live in hope, even if one does not pray.

    --James Wolcott

  6. Jump the shark? What an ass. A beautiful list, and all respect to Mr. Wolcott, High School Musical????? I know, we must all be perverse, but really, sir.

  7. Oh, any chance we'll see "I Want It Now" from the first Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? (THe one with Gene Wilder not Johnny Depp.)