Now that musicals are back on screen, Chris Willman wonders where they'll go from here

Björk gets the praise, but ”Fantasticks” is the braver film

Calculate the astronomically improbable odds of this: Veteran song and dance man Joel Grey just had two movie musicals, ”The Fantasticks” and ”Dancer in the Dark,” open the very same weekend, after not being in one since winning the Oscar for his 1972 turn in ”Cabaret.” Watch the skies: God is sending us a sign!

The movie musical is back. Sort of. Good as it is, ”The Fantasticks” represents the last gasp of the traditionalist ”tuner,” as the trades used to call ’em. It’s so old fashioned, it spent five years on the shelf while MGM/UA first tried to determine whether there was any market left for musicals — and then pretty much forgot about it. Now the movie’s getting a quick release in six cities on its way to video.

Ironically, theatrical prospects are brighter for Fine Line’s ”Dancer in the Dark,” a grueling but attention grabbing addition to the new wave of revisionist musicals that aim to keep the tuneage and tapping but throw out all the rules. The form’s past and future are right here in one Grey colored nutshell. Yet most critics have been less kind to ”The Fantasticks,” which cinematically opens up the stage original (now in its record setting 41st year Off Broadway) without attempting any serious genre bending.

Some viewers might find the early going a bit musty. The film’s first number, ”Much More,” sung by the teenage leading lady, feels overly familiar precisely because it’s the model for subsequent opening numbers from similarly yearning Disney heroines (think ”Part of Your World” from ”Little Mermaid,” or Belle’s ”provincial life” song, which in turn were hilariously parodied in ”South Park’s” ”Up There”). That’s followed by two bumbling dads crooning a ”kids do the darnedest things” anthem, ”Never Say No,” which belongs to the comic traditions of a bygone era. But it’d be a mistake to let the apparent datedness of these introductory songs deaden you to the more timeless gems that pepper the rest of the show, like the classic romantic ballads ”Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and ”They Were You” or the jazzy, satirical ”This Plum Is Too Ripe.”

If it’s dark you want, ”The Fantasticks” has that, too. The movie, even more than the play, centers on the loss of innocence of its young lovers, although it’s treated metaphorically. Director Michael Ritchie lets the scenes between lead naïf Jean Louisa Kelly and El Gallo, the film’s halfheartedly seductive huckster (Jonathan Morris) play out in positively chilling fashion, while never venturing far enough beyond the symbolic to endanger a PG rating.

For my money, ”The Fantasticks” is the best pure live action movie musical since ”The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” True, the competition of the last quarter century amounts to a list scant longer than ”Grease,” ”Little Shop of Horrors,” ”Evita,” and ”Newsies.” But any time a movie can make the transition from the heightened emotions in a dialogue scene to the ultimate heights of song seem inevitable, it’s a revolutionary breakthrough, even if it’s a tradition as old as ”Show Boat.”

”Dancer in the Dark” doesn’t require any such suspension of disbelief. When Björk breaks into song, director Lars von Trier makes it abundantly clear that we’ve entered fantasy land — in stark contrast to the depressing hyperrealism of the nonmusical scenes, which have his noble heroine suffering blindness, trying to save her child, and being put on trial for her life. Upon the first chord or strike of percussion, the film (actually, digital video) stock changes, nervous handheld cameras become stationary, dead characters come back to life, and so forth, for three or four ennui interrupting minutes. With all this built in ironic distance, you don’t really have to believe that a man can fly, or that an ex Sugarcube can tango with a ”Cabaret” emcee. Only once, when Björk sings a cappella at the climax, is it unclear whether she’s belting in real life or in her dreams; that just happens to be the movie’s most powerful scene.

Von Trier has admitted in the movie’s press notes that maybe it was a failure of courage on his part not to make the musical numbers and drama seamlessly coalesce. And though he’s one of the world’s most exciting filmmakers, I think he’s right in regretting his choice. For one thing, it’s been done before: Anyone remember the Depression set Steve Martin vehicle, ”Pennies From Heaven,” (or the British TV series it was based on?) For another, resorting to fantasy sequences inevitably makes this the great von Trier’s least adventurous film. Ritchie’s traditionalist choice, to make the fantastical real, will always be the braver.

There are no ”Fantasticks” style musicals coming down the motion picture pike, with the long promised ”Phantom” and ”Chicago” adaptations seemingly stalled into another lifetime. But we’re in for more ”Dancer” style incongruity. ”Moulin Rouge,” with Nicole Kidman, due from Fox this Christmas, is set in the 19th century, yet uses some of the best known pop music of the 20th. Director Baz Luhrmann is a talented guy, so –though I’m not counting on it — maybe, just maybe, when one of his corset clad period characters whips out a Nirvana number, our hearts will soar and our lips won’t curl up into knowing smirks. Wouldn’t it be loverly?

Dancer in the Dark
  • Movie
  • 134 minutes