A Star is Born 1954 ****


With 2018’s remake still ringing in our ears and a Renee Zellweger biopic opening soon to kick off the coming 2019 awards season, this 1954 comeback for Judy Garland is essential viewing, even if the running time of the restored version is a punishing three hours plus. Garland has become known as a gay icon, but she meant a lot to a mainstream audience, and George Cukor’s musical drama gives her plenty of opportunity to belt them out, notably the celebrated and extended Born in a Trunk number. Given her own issues with alcohol and drugs, it’s tricky to watch Garland as the upcoming ingénue while Mr Norman Maine (James Mason) falls apart; with only one musical feature after this (the maudlin I Could Go On Singing), A Star Is Born marked peak Garland, whereas Mason had highlights like North by Northwest and Lolita to look forward to as well as a career stretching out to the 1980’s.

Garland doesn’t always look comfortable here; one of the ironies of the A Star is Born films is that the leads are never ingénues, but established divas, and Garland seems more on message as Vicky Lester than Esther Blodgett. This restored version, with still frame sequences and alternate versions, gives the impression of a chequered production, with Cukor not involved in several sequences; as in the 1936 version, Hollywood is seen as somewhat venal, and the way that business interferes with private life is well caught. All four A Star In Born films have their merits, but taken as a quadrilogy, it’s interesting to see how they reflect the changing nature of male-female relationships. Normal Maine does not snort coke, ride a motorbike, play Glastonbury, attend SNL or urinate in his own pants, but he’s still a toxic male, even when played with enormous charm by Mason. And this is Garland’s show; fans of Judy will want to see her swing successfully for the fences here in a performance that fascinates because of how it does, and does not, reflect the truth of her troubled career.

Can’t Stop The Music 1980 ***

can't stop

A musical folly of the highest order, Can’t Stop the Music is a loving tribute to the Village People, who surfed the disco wave of the late 70’s with hit songs like YMCA and Go West. Of course, being gay, and it’s no secret that the Village People were super-off-the-charts gay, was considered to be something of an commercial issue in 1980, so the Village People somehow get side-lined in their own movie to allow centre-stage to a solid heterosexual pairing of Police Academy’s Steve Guttenberg and Superman’s Valerie Perrine. He’s a song-writer, she’s a model, they share a NYC flat and the Village People are their ticket to stardom. Rhoda’s mother from the popular sitcom, Nancy Walker is a random choice to direct, and producer Alan Carr’s promise that co-star Bruce Jenner would become a household name as the “Robert Redford of the 1980’s seems somewhat wide-of-the-mark seen from today’s perspective. With surprisingly vivacious but non-sexual bursts of male and female nudity, lashings of strange scenes including milk promotion and Leatherman from the Village People singing Danny Boy, Can’t Stop The Music is an oddity for the ages, destined to play in the background of all the best parties until the music finally stops.


Mary Poppins Returns 2018 ****

Reviving a beloved fifty-year old property was always going to be a tough ask for Disney; Mary Poppins Returns succeeds primarily because Emily Blunt is perfect casting to take over the umbrella from Julie Andrews; there’s a mix of starch and sweetness here that’s ideal to recapture the character, although Blunt’s Poppins is notably different, particularly in a sexualised way. Rob Marshall’s film doubles down on the musical-hall styling of the original, but the fresh emphasis on innuendo; Blunt’s performance of The Cover is Not The Book shifts somewhat towards Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Otherwise, there’s a familiar mix of 2D animation, sentiment, and of course every child loves a trenchant analysis of the banking system. Nefarious disaster capitalist Colin Firth has the Banks family (Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer) over a barrel unless they can recover precious deeds. Mary Poppins Returns scrupulously adheres to the original film, right down to longeuers, general over-length and a lack of pace. But the music is fine, and Blunt revitalises the character for a new generation of nanny-seeking children of all ages.

Rocketman 2019 ***


Bohemian Rhapsody casts a long shadow over Rocketman, which not only mines a similar character with a similar goal during a similar 70’s period, but also has the same manager (John Reid) as a central character. Without the sentimental response that Freddie Mercury elicited, and sans the huge climax of the Live Aid gig in Rhapsody, Rocketman has to go for something different; with Elton John very much alive, still standing and able to approve all creative choices, the result is a fun if self-regarding look at a great musician and performer. Played by Taron Egerton without much flair, John rises from a talented boy in shorts hammering away on the pub’s piano to a suicidal rock legend quaffing booze and drugs as if there’s no tomorrow. Having a good time is portrayed as Elton’s downfall; he obstacles are all in John’s head, which makes for a highly personal if rather un-dramatic narrative. There are some odd decisions, like having all John’s music fully formed from his early years; he sings Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting at an age when he can hardly have known what he’s singing about. But the music carries the film, making this an amusing fantasia of outrageous costumes, high-end eyewear and flattering fabrications about the star.

Trolls ***

trollsTrolls feels like a feature length advert for dolls, and that’s just what it is. But like many adverts for toys, it’s often fun to watch, a gaudy, fuzzy, airy slice of noting but fun nonetheless. Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick are ideally cast as the star-crossed lovers of the troll community, and both give impressively personable vocal performances. Various hangers on, including Russell Brand and James Corden have comparatively little to contribute, but this Shrek-lite tale of warring kingdoms and dating princes is likely to become a family favorite by dint of its undemanding, pleasing quality. The prominence given to hit single Can’t Stop The Feeling in the climax doesn’t hurt, but all the music choices are generally in tune with the jolliness of the whole enterprise.

One From The Heart 1982 ****

Forrest Garr One from the Heart

Post Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola seemed determined to find new directions from old inspirations; his 1982 musical One From the Heart returns to the set-based musical of the 50’s and 60’s , with a Las Vegas set love story scored by Tom Waits. Hank and Frannie (Frederic Forrest and Terri Garr) are the couple on the rocks, and tightrope-walker Leilia (Nastassja Kinski) and Ray are the possible new romances against an independence day background. A maudlin musical was never likely to fire up public interest, and One From The Heart flopped; seen today, it’s a fabulous mood piece, with sensational work from Waits and some dynamic shots that boggle the brain in their artful conception.


The Last Dragon 1985 ***


A hybrid of martial arts and 80’s disco, Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon failed to kick-start a new genre, but is worth catching just for the sheer awfulness of the whole venture. Taimak plays Bruce Leroy, an aspiring martial-arts master who falls for Purple Rain’s Vanity, who stars in her own tv show and is something of a proto-video DJ. Neither of them can act their way out of a paper bag, but a gallery of weird and wonderful supporting roles keep Michael Shultz’s The Last Dragon breathing fire. Julius Carry gives a fabulously eccentric performances as the villainous Sho’Nuff, The Shogun of Harlem, William H Macy and Chazz Palminteri have cameos, and Faith Prince plays a wanna-be pop star who resembles Brenda Blethyn as Cindi Lauper. If that’s not enough there’s horrible comic relief from a group of kids who resemble a Bugsy Malone version of The Warriors, risible special effects as Bruce Leroy discovers ‘the glow’ a magical power that enables him to fight Sho’Nuff and the whole enterprise is topped off with an extended promo for Debarge’s Rhythm of the Night. If Rocky can be a stage-show, The Last Dragon is surely in prime position for a Broadway reboot.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch 2001 ****


Neil Patrick Harris may be bringing Hedwig back to Broadway, but it’ll be hard to eclipse the stunning performance of John Cameron Mitchell in this strident rock musical from 2001.  Having co-written that original theatrical show with Stephen Trask, Mitchell plays Hedwig, an East German boy who gets a botched-sex change in the hope of finding love in the West, only to have the wall brought down as he ponders his own mutilated genitals. Stirring musical numbers include (Dirty Little Town, Wig In A Box and The Origins of Love), and for once, the story doesn’t let down the music, with Hedwig’s predicament writ large by big performances and imaginative production. Hedwig may lose something in the transition from stage to screen, but it also gains a certain cinematic oomph that’s well worth seeking out for lovers of musicals.

Camp 2003 ***


The many admirers of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect might want to cast their minds back to 2003’s Camp, written and directed by Todd Graff, who went on to Bandslam and Joyful Noise. She’s among a group of misfits put on a show in the Catskills, and there’s a smart off-Broadway sensibility on show, right down to some clever insider jokes and a cameo from Stephen Sondheim. Arriving too early to be part of the Glee/High School Musical wave of films about cheerful wannabes, Camp is considerably deeper than both, and has a number of lively numbers from a capable young cast.

Newsies 1990 ***


If you only see one period musical about union development starring Christian Bale this year, then the choice is limited to Disney’s 1992 film Newsies. That’s no bad thing, since despite its relatively unknown status, Kenny Ortega’s film has a lot to offer, not least in the form of songs by Alan Mecken, who also did great work on The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Bale plays Jack Kelly, a newsboy who rallies his youthful co-workers to strike against the press-barons, notably Robert Duvall. Originally conceived as a straight drama, Disney appear to have got cold feet about the musical content, and the songs are treated in a piecemeal fashion, often broken up by irrelevant dialogue. But the setting, cast and subject are all fresh, and the novelty value of bale’s song and dance keeps you watching; as with his later performances, it seems there’s few things that bale can’t do as an actor.