I seem to have gone on a movie musical kick lately, and they were all relatively recent (21st century, not the 50s and 60s when Hollywood musicals were a big thing).
First, one I hadn’t heard of and stumbled across on Amazon, Walking on Sunshine. This is basically Mamma Mia, but set in Italy instead of Greece and using 80s pop music instead of ABBA music. A young Englishwoman travels to Italy to join her sister on vacation and learns that her madcap sister is about to get married, and the groom is the man our heroine fell for during a previous vacation to this place. The Mamma Mia influence is really obvious, with a lot of character and situation parallels. You can tell that someone was trying to cash in on that. And I have to admit that I might actually like the story in this movie better than Mamma Mia. It’s less creepy than “one of these men who slept with my mom around the same time might be my dad” and the ending is more satisfying. It’s fun, fluffy, extremely lightweight entertainment with catchy music, and if you grew up in the 80s there’s a bonus nostalgia factor with the music. It’s fun guessing which pop song they’ll use for each situation. It’s amusing to consider that there’s also an element of E.M. Forster a century or so later to this story, since it’s about English people going to Italy and finding themselves and learning to loosen up. It’s like moving Where Angels Fear to Tread to the 21st century, removing the tragedy, and adding pop music.
Under other (non-pandemic) circumstances, I would have gone to see the latest musical version of Cyrano at the theater on opening day because this sort of thing is totally my jam. But it showed up on Prime Video and I may be watching it repeatedly (I’ve already been listening to the songs on YouTube so often that they keep popping up in “listen again” for me). This is the classic story of the brilliant and witty but physically unattractive man who helps the handsome but inarticulate man woo the woman they both love by ghostwriting love letters to her, but with some twists. There’s the music, for one thing. The other is that instead of him having a big nose, as Cyrano is usually portrayed, he’s a little person (since he’s played by Peter Dinklage). That adds some nuance, since Dinklage is a very handsome man, but his stature might be harder to get past than a big nose, especially in that time period (the adaptation was written by his real-life wife, so I’m sure there was some thought put into that). It’s a romantic story, but not a genre romance. I’d say the vibe is kind of Moulin Rouge meets Les Mis. There are occasionally some surreal anachronisms (like breakdancing in the historical setting), but then a lot of it is very grounded, so that it goes into this dreamlike place when the musical numbers kick in. “Dreamlike” is a good description of this film. I find myself wondering if I really saw it or if I dreamed it. The music is kind of ear-wormy and the actress playing Roxane is utterly incandescent. This gives you an idea of what it’s like:
Then last weekend I rewatched La La Land. I watched it on HBO when it first showed up there after release, and I recall liking it, but it didn’t make a strong impression and didn’t give it much thought until a few months ago, when I was listening to a radio show on musical theater and movie musicals. It was an episode on “to dub or not to dub,” looking at movie musicals that had the singing dubbed by professional singers, those that maybe should have, and those in which the actors were able to sing for themselves. As an example in the category of “it may not be the best singing, but it’s about the acting of the song and the emotional impact” they played this song:
That’s probably what won her the Oscar for this role, and it’s more impressive when you know that this was sung live, not lip synced to a studio recording, and it’s one continuous take with no edits, so she had to get the whole thing right. Anyway, this song hit me at that time on a tender spot emotionally. I was pondering whether I’d made the right choices in my life and trying to decide whether I should keep trying with writing or give up and get a regular job so I’d have more financial security, and this idea of the world needing dreamers was what I needed to hear. At that time, the movie wasn’t streaming on anything I had access to, but it recently showed up on Prime, so I rewatched it, and I think because of what I’ve been pondering, it had a much bigger impact.
The story is about an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz musician who meet when they’re both at pivotal points in pursuing their respective dreams, when they’re going to have to decide whether or not to give up and try something else. It looks and feels a lot like an old Hollywood musical while at the same time being somewhat realistic about how hard it is to make it, how rare and difficult those big breaks can be, and what compromises and choices you might have to make in pursuit of your dream. I think one reason it worked better for me the second time was I had my expectations set better. Because it feels like an old Hollywood musical, you’re expecting it to be a romance and to work out that way, but it’s really a love story about a dream, not a person. If you’re expecting it to be a romance, it feels like a bait and switch, but if you know it’s about the dream, it works a lot better.
It reminds me that what I’ve always wanted to do was bring stories to life. I wanted to go into film or television, either as a writer or as someone who puts together the pieces to bring it all together. I didn’t know enough about the business to even know what, exactly, it was I wanted to do. Now I know I was looking at being either a development executive or being a TV staff writer who might eventually work up to showrunner/executive producer. But I knew I didn’t want to live in LA. Even when it’s heavily romanticized, like in this movie, it holds zero appeal for me. If I were to list the things I want in a place to live, it would be the polar opposite of every one of them. So I didn’t pursue it, since there’s no point in training to do something that would require you to live in a place you’d hate while also having to struggle to break in. When I actually visited LA, my impressions of what it was like were confirmed — and my first visit was even pure Hollywood, going to a red-carpet movie premiere.
So, anyway, that movie gives me a lot of feelings. I’m still not sure what choices I’d make if I could go back in time and have a do-over, knowing what I know now. Back when I would have been studying TV and film, it was before the Internet and Zoom meetings, before you could make a decent movie on your iPhone and post it to YouTube, where it might go viral and get you a break. If I could be 18 again but now, I might make different choices, but I’m not sure I would pursue that dream if I had to be 18 again back when I was 18. Now I just have to hope that one of my books gets made into a series and I get to be involved somehow.
I do think I could suck it up and move to California if I got a chance to work on one of the Star Wars series. Just putting that out there.
Speaking of Star Wars, I think after my sidetrack into rom-coms and musicals I’ll get back to my Star Wars rewatch. I’m just about through rewatching Andor, so I think I’ll go for a Rogue One/A New Hope double feature this weekend. I haven’t watched them back-to-back, though I’ll have to do it on subsequent nights since I don’t have the stamina for watching two movies in one evening.