History of Musical Film
The 1970s: Big Names, Mixed Results
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996, revised 2014)
"Goin' Like Elsie"
Adaptations of Broadway originals continued to dominate the musical screen in the 1970s. Two were bona fide hits --
- Director Norman Jewisohn filmed Fiddler on the Roof
(1971) with enough sensitivity to make audiences overlook a butt-numbing
three hour running time. Israeli actor Chaim Topol energized the film with
a sensitive performance as Tevye, the milkman who sees his traditional
Russian Jewish village shaken by the forces of change.
- Bob Fosse's searing version of
Cabaret (1972) turned a stage hit into a screen classic. The often
harsh story of people caught in the political turmoil that gripped
Germany in the early 1930s featured memorable performances by
Liza Minnelli as amoral vocalist
Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as
the leering Emcee. Fosse, Minnelli and Grey took home Academy Awards.
However, most of this decade's Hollywood musicals originals as well as adapted stage works were mishandled. With millions of dollars poured into poorly produced projects, the early 1970s became the golden age of bad big-budget movie musicals. Some of the most memorable clunkers
- Song of Norway (1970) tried to mimic The Sound of Music but
missed the whole point, turning a 1948 Broadway operetta into an
embarassing screen clunker that left critics howling. A magnificent
opening montage of Norway's lush countryside was followed by an
incomprehensible story, plus a mauled version of the stage score.
Even the talented Florence Henderson was unable to brighten this disaster.
- On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
(1970) had some stylish scenes set in the past, but director
Vincente Minnelli flubbed his attempt
to blend these into the main contemporary storyline. French vocalist
Yves Montand was hopeless as the psychiatrist
treating a woman stuck in a past life. Although
Barbara Streisand was now a top audience
draw, she was not enough to save the film from commercial and critical failure.
- Lost Horizon (1973) desecrated the 1937 Frank Capra classic and
humiliated an all-star cast. A mostly saccharine Burt Bacharach score,
ugly sets and a long list of well-paid stars had business insiders
referring to this film as "Lost Investment."
- Mame (1974) had Lucille Ball, a poor singer, but far
better in the title role than most critics admitted. Supporting performances
by Broadway veterans Bea Arthur,
Jane Connell and
Robert Preston were delicious, but the film
did not capture the magic of the stage version and did little business.
- At Long Last Love (1975) was a fiasco, with director
Peter Bogdonovich squandering $6 million so that Cybil Shepherd (his
then-girlfriend) and Burt Reynolds (top Hollywood hunk of the moment)
could beat some immortal Cole Porter
tunes within a millimeter of death. Critics jeered, audiences stayed away,
and the film took in a paltry $1.5 million.
The commercial failure of several animated musicals, including the enchanting Charlotte's Web (1973), coupled with the dismantling of the Disney Studio's animation unit, seemed to spell the end of screen animation of any kind. Attempts to revive the genre drew tepid results until the 1990s, when animation would make an industry-shaking comeback. More on this in the chapters to come.
Rocking the Big Screen
Rock movie musicals had a mixed record in the 1970s. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and the Who's Tommy (1975) appealed to youthful audiences despite overblown productions. Mindless mistakes like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) were dismissed by critics and the public. Hollywood's most successful original rock musical was The Rose (1979), the story of a Janis Joplin-like rock diva who's professional success sends her into a self-destructive spiral. Overcoming a melodramatic screenplay, pop diva Bette Midler made a dynamic screen debut.
Despite a poor critical reception, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) developed a one-of-a-kind cult following. Teenagers came back to see the film week after week, singing along, talking back to the screen and enacting scenes in costume. The film became a camp classic. Late night screenings for Rocky Horror buffs continued all across America right into the next century.
By the late 1970s, the screen musical was considered a dinosaur, but a massive hit proved that the genre had some kick left in it. Grease (1978) and its white trash teens coming of age in a 1950s American high school became a world-wide phenomenon. The stage score was augmented by several new songs, including the new interpolated pop hits "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want." Where the stage version stressed period spoof, the film stressed the love story involving a mildly rebellious leather jacketed boy and a squeaky-clean "Sandra Dee"-type girl. Ingratiating performances by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and a spirited production delighted audiences, making the film a pop-culture landmark. Earning $159 million on its initial relesem it became the highest grossing film musical up to that time.
Big Names, Mixed Results
Several major directors attempted screen musicals during the late 1970s, but the results were more interesting than successful.
- New York, New York (1977) was Martin Scorcese's attempt to
do a dark big-band era musical (excuse me?). While the John Kander
& Fred Ebb title tune was a major hit
for star Liza Minnelli, the film
was a cumbersome bore, made the worse by heavy studio editing. Years
later, a home video release restored key footage, making the film easier to
follow but still unsatisfying.
- Sidney Lumet helmed an adaptation of the stage hit The Wiz (1978).
A lavish production that turned Manhattan into the Emerald City could not make
up for funereal pacing and uneven casting.
- Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical
All That Jazz (1979) blended fantastic musical sequences with a
self-indulgent story. Based on Fosse's experiences during rehearsals for
Chicago and earlier shows, this was the first musical (and with
any luck, there will never be another) to include graphic footage of
actual open heart surgery.
- Milos Forman adapted the radical Broadway hit Hair (1979) into a sometimes intriguing film, capturing the anti-war, pro-hippie spirit of the original show. But most filmgoers were not yet ready to rehash the often painful memories of the 1960s. This movie would not find a following until decades later.
By 1980, the consensus in the business was that film musicals were dead and buried . . . the same conclusion many had made back in 1933. This time it would take puppets and dancing teapots to prove the experts wrong. In Hollywood, it takes all kinds . . .