by Mary Burgan
This week Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan makes some recommendations about high school musicals. Mary’s column runs every two weeks. Links to her earlier columns are at the bottom of this posting.
I’ve always loved movie musicals, and in flight from current Cineplex offerings about vampires and apocalyptic invasions from outer or inner space, I live in hope that they will return. That’s why I went to see the remake of Fame a couple of weeks ago. Walking into the theater with my reluctant spouse, whose idea of an exciting movie is My Dinner with Andre, I repressed the thought that my own longing for an old-fashioned song and dance flick is, basically, adolescent.
My love of musicals does link me and my granddaughters, as a matter of fact. We were the ones who forced the whole family to see Hairspray in the summer of 2007, and we watched large swatches of the first High School Musical on the Disney Channel last year while the boys groaned. I concluded then that if movie musicals ever returned, they would come set in some high school because of girls like us.
Fame validates that surmise. Set in the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, it breaks into elaborate song and dance sequences without regard to the limitations of time or setting—in the cafeteria and in the streets outside the school as well as in the auditorium. The plot is minimal, based on the competition for stardom of a group of young people, among whom there are obvious winners and losers. However, you don’t usually go to musicals for plot.
And you do have to accept the fact that most high school musicals hit you between the eyes with a moral. After all, if you’re going to accept people breaking out in song or dance at the drop of a top hat, you are going to accept a bright-line lesson from the whole fandango. Fame is better than Disney’s high school musicals not only because its production numbers are more inventive, but also because it gives a grittier picture of adolescents trying to win a future for themselves.
The kids at the performing arts school are more talented and more diverse in race and class than the kids at Disney’s spiffy East High School in Albuquerque. These Disney kids seem uniformly scrubbed, middle-class, and destined for the college of their choice (I watched High School Musical 3: Senior Year on line to check this out).
Reviewers grumble that the current Fame is not up to the standard of the first one, but I think it is worth watching if only as an antidote to Disney’s ersatz version of talent and success. Fame shows that everyone can’t be a winner on American Idol, so get over it. That’s a pretty good lesson for the star-stricken adolescents who flock to such movies.
For this survey I’ve gone back to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in their “let’s put on a show” movies (Babes in Arms/Strike Up the Band/Babes on Broadway/Girl Crazy). These films started in 1939 and petered out in 1943 when it became clear that Judy was going to be the star and Mickey would continue to be a hysterical little guy with startling energy.
I actually watched Babes in Arms all the way through, and instead of being charmed, I was embarrassed. There was a sudden occurrence of a blackface minstrel number that was especially offensive because the only black actor in the movie was a maid who is ordered about by a silly blond child.
Strike up the Band is a little better—no blackface, at least. But the only thing worth watching in all these movies is Judy Garland, whose way with a song trumps her tiresome partnership with Mickey Rooney. And the songs she sings, 1930′s standards by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, are terrific.
I count West Side Story (1961) as a great high school musical because it invoked the theme of teen-age kids working through their culture’s prejudices, displayed with the irrepressible energy of the choreography of Jerome Robbins and the music of Leonard Bernstein. I think the first Fame (1970) can be mentioned in the same breath as West Side Story because it also emphasizes the racial diversity of its gifted unknown performers, dramatizing the acceptance they have for one another through music by Michael Gore and wonderful choreography by Debbie Allen.
West Side Story and Fame paved the way for John Tavolta’s dancing to the music of the Bee Gees in the post-graduate Saturday Night Fever (1977) as well as the exploitation of his dancing, now a mechanical self-parody, in Grease (1978). Grease plays ethnicity as a form of macho posing, and so is almost as shallow as Babes in Arms. Travolta redeemed himself in the motherly drag of Hairspray, which teaches a historical lesson about racial exclusion. You can skip Grease 2 (1982), by the way.
Television has latched onto the appeal of the high school musical in Glee. Indeed teen-age fans have sent its versions of classic rock songs to the top of the download charts. But the monotonous stereotyping of the clueless faculty and students at William McKinley High School robs the show of the spontaneity that makes the best high school movies so much fun.
Finally. If you want recent movies that feature aspiring performers proving themselves by dancing their hearts out, you should check out The Turning Point (1977) and then Center Stage (2000), Save the Last Dance (2001), and The Company (2003). All us girls love these films about ballet school, and so will the discerning Billy Elliots in the audience—though they may never admit it.
Sorry, no horror movie suggestions for Halloween. I’m too much a scardy cat to watch them.