Tag Archives: Musical

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A haughty prince, cursed with a beastly form and his servants transformed into household objects, gets one last chance at salvation when headstrong beauty Belle sacrifices her freedom to free her father Maurice. The Beast must earn Belle’s love to be released from the curse, but he’s a quick-tempered creature and the path to true love is very far from smooth.

Okay. I’ve got a lot to say, and you know what happens, so let’s dispense with the preamble and get stuck in, shall we?

Alright, quick recap: The beast is cursed because he can’t see beyond outward beauty, the enchantress gives him a symbolic rose, when the last petal falls he’s doomed to his beastly appearance (and his servants will be things) forever, if he can earn the love of another the curse will be broken, Maurice stumbles into the castle, Belle comes to find him and takes her father’s place, she gets to know the castle’s odd occupants but wants nothing to do with the Beast, and in the background the amorous Gaston is plotting to make Belle his wife by any means necessary.

You’ll gather from this that Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is telling pretty much the same tale as Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale’s animated version from 1991; and indeed, most of the story beats in both films are identical: Belle’s entrance, Gaston’s lodge, the encounter with the wolves, the warming of the relationship, the beautiful ballroom dance, and so on.

These moments are brought to the screen with spectacle and lavish detail; but how, the filmmakers must have thought, can we avoid remaking the impeccable original scene-for-scene? Their answer is to flesh out the backstory, swinging the tone firmly towards seriousness and melancholy, which to my mind is a fundamental miscalculation. Yes, events are portrayed with realism, but it’s at the expense of muting the comedy, drama and passions that were all abundant in the original.

The screenwriters and their 21st century sensibilities clearly felt icky about Belle – a strong, independent young woman (here more mistrusted proto-feminist than happy but yearning) – falling in love with her physically domineering and bad-tempered male captor. She can’t be happy with the Beast while she’s not free, a fairly direct reference to the idea that cartoon Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome*.

And, of course, there have to be reasons for Belle and the Beast to come together. He’s well-read – she loves to read too! His mother died when he was a child – Belle’s mother died when she was even younger. These fully-detailed connections expand the movie’s running time to over two hours, a whopping 50% more than the animation, and to little benefit as far as I can see.

Trying to reason or justify why anyone falls in love is an immensely tricky business, yet I had no problem at all with the development of Belle and the Beast’s relationship in the 1991 film and didn’t require them to share common experiences to validate their emotions. Cartoon Belle was no less complete for failing to proactively kick against the pricks; cartoon Beast was no less pitiable – and was actually a whole lot scarier – without a sick mother and horrid father to explain him.

Anyway. The pitch ‘Beauty and The Beast – now with added plague!’ isn’t very appealing but sums up the tenor of the film perfectly. It looks gorgeous and feels incredibly worthy, but it’s not very much fun. Look at the first five minutes of the cartoon (after the wonderfully efficient prologue, that is): there are more jokes and laughs in the Belle sequence than in the whole of the live-action movie, and no amount of arch quipping from Lefou can compensate for the missing amusement of his cartoon counterpart. Maurice’s charming eccentricity is transmuted to a doleful, boring sadness, and ‘real’ Philippe gets no laughs at all.

There’s a greater crime too. The original film contained one of the great cinematic double acts in Cogsworth and Lumiere, the former’s stuffiness contrasting with the latter’s gung-ho attitude. They were lively, spirited, cute. For the update, Cogsworth is lumbering, immobile and virtually expressionless, and accordingly has much less of a role to play – Ian McKellen is just not right for the part and I dislike the impractical character model.

While Lumiere is better served – he can at least dance about, and Ewan McGregor sings Be Our Guest very nicely – it’s often difficult to see his face, and his accent is all over the place. In terms of the enchanted objects, it’s safe to say that I was not enchanted with them: despite the amazing effects work I missed having proper faces to look at, Chip being particularly unprepossessing.

And the humans/cursed ex-humans? Hmm. Emma Watson does a fair job playing Belle as a modern heroine, even if she rather underplays the role. The bad news is that her singing voice obviously had issues that required electronic tweaking, and those tweaks sound very odd, especially compared with her untreated co-stars. It’s unfortunate and distracting – where’s Marni Nixon when you need her? Dan Stevens is a cultured rather than angry Beast but not at all bad, Luke Evans is a tuneful if fairly unimposing Gaston, while Josh Gad is good fun, once you get used to the fact that his Lefou is no longer an unthinkingly loyal twerp but hopelessly in love (the ‘exclusively gay’ moment? Barely worth mentioning).

Staying with the positives, aside from the noteworthy performances and extraordinary visuals, the new songs are entirely passable; and in one specific instance the film’s melancholic bent works really well. When the servants succumb to their curse and their humanity (briefly) fades away, it’s a crushingly poignant moment. Regrettably, their transformations back to human form are not so well handled, a whirling camera fudging the process.

Overall, the best bits of this Beauty and The Beast are those that come directly from Linda Woolverton’s story and Menken and Ashman’s glorious original songs. I’ve already mentioned Be Our Guest, and both this and the title track are brought to the screen in great style. Yet – yet – I don’t know why anyone would swap the lovely animation of the ballroom scene for all the opulence here, or Angela Lansbury’s warm vocals for Emma Thompson’s. Similarly, I don’t know why you would choose to hear Watson singing instead of Paige O’Hara, Evans over Richard White or Stevens over Robbie Benson.

Ultimately, can this Beauty and the Beast be thought of as any kind of success**? I’m not sure, given that almost everything that’s good about it was already great in its predecessor, and all the advances are to do with technology rather than storytelling. It’s certainly worth a watch: it’s a work of high quality in many respects and may in time become a regular alternative to watching the 1991 version. But I doubt it, unless I feel (or want to feel) considerably more glum than usual. A decent film on its own merits, but why watch this when a wonderfully rendered, beautifully performed, much shorter and much, much, much more fun alternative is already out there?

*NOTE: I’ve never been troubled by the (admittedly pertinent) Stockholm Syndrome argument. My interpretation has always been that the Beast is emotionally done for as soon as Belle selflessly takes Maurice’s place in the jail (‘You would do that for him?’), so he’s hardly her captor at all; she has virtual liberty to wander around her prison and is demonstrably able to leave if she wants, though it’s intriguing to speculate how events might have unfolded during her escape had the wolves not turned up. But let’s not go on endlessly – the irony of an overlong review for this movie isn’t lost on me.

**Ask Disney’s financial department this question and they’ll blow smoke in your face from a huge cigar lit from flaming $100 bills, laughing all the while. Probably.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Nebbish Seymour Krelborn’s discovery of an unusual plant brings interest and custom to the dilapidated flower shop where he works and yearns after Audrey, a colleague with bad taste in boyfriends. The plant, named ‘Audrey II’ in her honour, brings Seymour good luck but at a bloody price, forcing Seymour to decide between success, the future of those he loves, and – possibly – the future of the human race.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, songwriters who would go on to produce memorable scores for Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast, scored a notable hit in the early 80s with their Off-Broadway musical version of Roger Corman’s B-Movie, Little Shop of Horrors. Frank Oz’s film of the musical of the film opens on Skid Row in grimy, downtown New York, where Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) struggle for customers in Mushkin’s flower shop, a familiar-looking trio of singers (called Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon) providing a soulful chorus to the drab goings-on.

The prospect of closure looms over the business, until Seymour is allowed to display a new plant he found during a sudden solar eclipse, bringing a sudden upswing in the shop’s fortunes. Meanwhile, Seymour and Audrey struggle with their feelings for each other, but Audrey is also involved in a physical struggle with her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin (Steve Martin) in which she always comes out the loser. Fed on his owner’s blood, Audrey II grows and grows, developing the extraordinary voice of the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs; when Seymour no longer has the capacity to nourish the plant himself, it is pretty clear who the next victim needs to be.

Oz’s film chooses not to open out the action too much, content to restrict it to a couple of sets that would look equally at home on the stage. It’s a wise choice, a tribute to the source material (play and Corman’s 1960 original) and fitting the intimate story of Seymour and his two Audreys. The cast is also well chosen, finding a balance between recognisable film comics and talented vocalists: Moranis and Martin are passable singers but are outshone, as you would expect, by the talents of Stubbs and especially Greene, an original cast member with a distinctive voice whose softness contains bursts of surprising power. All the singing cast bring Menken and Ashman’s doo-wop and Motown-flavoured tunes to life, to particularly good effect in Suddenly Seymour and Mean Green Mother from Outer Space. And it should come as no surprise that master Muppeteer Oz makes Audrey II a convincingly mobile creature, speaking and moving with quick and fluid movements.

There are times, however, when the pacing of the film is a bit off. There is quite a gap between Suddenly Seymour and Suppertime, filled by Seymour’s murderous visit to Orin and Bill Murray’s cameo as the dentist’s simpering, pain-loving patient. Wikipedia informs me (not having seen the musical or Corman’s film) that this scene didn’t feature in the stage musical, and it shows. Although Murray is very funny, the scene disrupts the musical flow of the piece; it feels as though it belongs to another film, and contributes to a feeling that comedians are being wheeled out simply to have cameos – whilst Christopher Guest and John Candy are amusing in their small roles, Jim Belushi does nothing with his.

Furthermore, although the climax of the film is generally handled well, the actual moment of Audrey II’s destruction looks fairly cheap, most probably caused by a late change to the film’s ending, likely to dismay fans of both the musical as originally written and Corman’s movie.

Little Shop of Horrors contains much to enjoy, and with pleasing performances of decent songs does everything a musical should. Given that it’s easy to get wrong (Tommy, take a bow), Oz and his cast deserve a lot of credit; however, he does allow too much non-musical comedy into the picture, leaving the audience with a sense that two different films are fighting for space. For comedy fans, the songs are likely to get in the way. For musical purists, this will probably be a film to watch in its entirety once, with further viewings limited to listening to the favourite numbers and lamenting some of the missing ones.

Phantom of the Opera, The (2004)

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Beautiful dancer Christine Daae is promoted to lead roles at a Paris opera under the tutelage and influence of her ‘angel of music.’ But when he chooses to reveal his love to her, he also reveals himself to be the half-crazed opera ghost living within the bowels of the building, making demands of the opera’s new owners. Christine must choose between her love for childhood sweetheart Raoul and her strange fascination with the Phantom.

There is a moment at the start of Phantom of the Opera when the black-and-white framing scene (in which the opera’s effects are being auctioned off) bursts back in time, bringing the opera house back to vivid, colourful life to the accompaniment of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s famous organ chord introduction. Sadly, it is one of the rare moments of drama in a film that looks the part but fails on all other grounds. I have not seen a stage production of this musical, but this review comes the same week as watching the film version of Mamma Mia! and what that piece may lack in sophistication, it more than makes up for in getting the viewer involved.

Phantom the film suffers because Joel Schumacher fails to get a feel for the mood of the work, and this appears to affect the performance of the actors. The opening is fairly efficient at introducing the protagonists: new opera owners Andre and Firmin (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) accompany new patron Raoul (Patrick Wilson) to rehearsals of a noisy opera called Hannibal, in which the temperamental diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) is the star. Mme Giry (Miranda Richardson) guides the ballet girls, including her daughter Meg (Jennifer Ellison) and Raoul’s former acquaintance Christine (Emmy Rossum); Mme Giry may know more than she lets on about the ‘Opera Ghost,’ who soon makes his demands known. When Carlotta goes off in a strop, Christine fills in and a star is born.

All well and good – except that these scenes, like the whole film, are played with such an unevenness of tone that you don’t know who or what you should care for. Callow and Hinds go for light comedy, whilst Driver pitches at full-on Italian pantomime; Richardson’s reactions are underplayed, brooding with a thick French accent, but her daughter is quite clearly a Scouser and her friend American. The accents wouldn’t matter so much if the acting was better, but Rossum and Wilson deliver such flimsy, wooden performances it’s a wonder they don’t get carried off with the rest of the scenery.

Things barely improve when the Phantom appears. Gerard Butler is the man in the mask and is a tall, imposing figure; yet – and this may not be his fault – he generates very little chemistry with Rossum, who remains lifeless throughout. What almost certainly is Butler’s fault (I can’t imagine he would have been dubbed by someone else this way) is the Phantom’s singing voice which, whenever asked to go higher than mid-tenor range, turns unpleasantly shouty.

Accordingly, moments which are meant to be musically thrilling become turn-offs. To be fair to the performers, musical highlights are fairly thinly spread – Butler shouts his way through Phantom of the Opera and Music of The Night whilst Rossum does an okay job of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again – and a lot of parts which are presumably meant to sound operatic are a mess of people talking over each other. There are also a lot of typically unmelodic Lloyd-Webber recitatives (if that’s the word), which in other musicals would be leavened by the words of Tim Rice, but here only feature Don Black and Richard Stilgoe’s awkward punning.

To mention a few positives, I should say that the sets and costumes both look gorgeous, as do most of the cast. Also, things do heat up a bit (as they should) towards the climax with Raoul’s pursuit of the Phantom; but even here, the Don Juan opera is pretty terrible, The Point of no Return hardly a hum-a-long – and it is preposterous that removing the Phantom’s mask also removes his hair dye! Schumacher’s film contains a few highlights, but if you are looking for a dramatic and gripping version of Gaston Leroux’s tale which really gets you into the story, for all its technical limitations I would recommend Lon Chaney’s silent Phantom of 1925 over the one cooked up here.

Dreamgirls

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Singing trio The Dreamettes fight their way to stardom, earning their stripes by acting as backing singers to big name James ‘Thunder’ Early. But when their manager Curtis launches the group on their own, the decision to promote beautiful new lover Deena over the more powerfully-built and voiced Effie – his former beau – has far-reaching consequences for them all.

There’s nowt so curious as film fashion. By the end of the 20th Century film musicals were seen as guaranteed box office disasters, only for Moulin Rouge!, Chicago and Mamma Mia! to bring them firmly back into the limelight. Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls is based on a 1980s stage musical, little-known in Britain; but the story should ring many bells with those familiar with the stars of Motown.

The Dreamettes are: belting lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), shy beauty Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and excitable young Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose); and while they wow the crowd at a Detroit talent show, car dealer and self-anointed Dreamettes manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx) makes it his business to ensure they’re not quite good enough to win.

He then engineers a position for the Dreamettes behind R&B star James Early (Eddie Murphy), a rough and ready soul singer coming off the peak of his fame; Effie needs to be talked round as she finds merely ‘ooo’ing behind Early demeaning, but Lorrell has no such qualms and begins a relationship with the star even though he’s married. Whilst on tour, Curtis usurps the position of James’ manager Marty (Danny Glover) but his attempts to sell Early to a white audience in Miami prove disastrous; so, despite carrying on a relationship with the smitten Effie, Curtis sends the girls – now known simply as ‘The Dreams’ – out on their own with Deena as the lead singer.

Unsurprisingly, Effie is put out by this and not even the concerted efforts of her songwriting brother C.C. (Keith Washington) can keep her in the group; this suits Curtis fine, since he has a replacement standing by and a plan to propel Deena to superstardom, but unbeknownst to him there will always be a reminder of Curtis in Effie’s life as she struggles to forge her own career.

A musical drawing on the incredible catalogue of Motown songs sounds almost too good to be true, and in this case, at least, it is. For whilst Dreamgirls nicely captures the look of 60s Detroit and America’s difficult march towards racial equality during the period, the songs (written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen) are a sometimes uneasy blend of Motown hooks and 80s musical styling, with the arrangements in particular more modern-sounding than you might expect. Many of the lyrics are hopelessly naïve, too (“We are a family/Like a giant tree”).

What’s more, there are simply far too many songs, many of which are completely unmemorable and poorly used to boot. The film starts off well, with the characters’ staged songs reflecting their actions and emotional states and spoken dialogue advancing the plot; but it later degenerates into a free-for-all with people singing or speaking in semi-random fashion: the quasi-recitative ‘It’s All Over’ is particularly lumpy, but luckily the excellent (if clumsily-titled) ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ follows immediately afterwards.

The biggest problem with Dreamgirls, however, is that it badly lacks the soul you think the almost entirely African-American cast would bring to the party in coachloads. It’s true that Jennifer Hudson brings attitude and feeling to the role of Effie, and Eddie Murphy fitfully lights up the screen as he channels James Brown (the obvious inspiration, along with Marvin Gaye, for Early) in his increasingly erratic performances; but elsewhere the film is painfully bland, the characters’ stories little more than soap opera fodder, with totally predictable ups and downs and an ending that offers no surprises.

Knowles proves once again (after Goldmember) that she is a much better singer than she is an actress, and although Foxx is simultaneously suave and reprehensible there’s no real edge to his record mogul. Dreamgirls has obviously been shaped to receive a particular age rating and therefore cuts away from anything too graphic or difficult in respect of sex or drugs; by contrast, although the domestic violence of the Tina Turner film What’s Love Got to do With it? was uncomfortable, it rang much truer than the clean, relatively unmessy relationships portrayed here.

There are plenty of lesser issues – chiefly the cringe-making take-off of the Jacksons, but also John Lithgow’s extraordinary appearance as a weirdly-coiffed director – but I don’t want to give the impression that Dreamgirls is a bad film. As I say, Hudson and Murphy are both very good, and there’s a simple and direct pleasure to be had from two hours of song and dance: the climactic ‘One Night Only’ is a particular highlight. But Condon had the chance to make something raw, edgy and truly different by taking on this project, and it’s a real shame that instead of hunting out the soul of the story he played safe and filtered it for teenaged fans of Chicago the film, rather than the more adult sensibilities of fans of Chicago the musical.

The Sound of Music

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Impetuous postulate Maria may not have what it takes to be a nun, but the Reverend Mother decides she may be an ideal governess for the seven children of widowed naval hero Captain von Trapp. Although their personalities initially clash, Maria’s free-spiritedness captivates the Captain; however, more powerful forces than their love threaten the safety of his beloved Austria.

Those of you who have come across The Sound of Music halfway through during countless Easter holidays and thought, ‘Not this again!’, get it or rent it out and pay attention to the first couple of minutes, before the orchestra begins tinkling away, let alone before Julie Andrews opens her mouth. Pay attention to the snowy peaks, the shining river flowing through green valleys, the turquoise lakes, everything that makes Maria’s heart want to sing: that, my friends, is how to open up a stage musical for the big screen.

The opening caught my attention because the remainder of Wise’s film is unavoidably familiar, not just from repeated showings but also television shows based on, and promoting, a revival in the West End of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous musical. I can barely imagine that anyone will not know the plot, but to flesh out the above the film follows the story of Maria (Julie Andrews), a nature-loving postulate nun in late 1930s Salzburg whose continuous lateness causes disruption within the abbey.

Thinking that she needs to see more of the world, the Reverend Mother (Peggy Wood) packs her off to the luxurious von Trapp house, where the father is often absent and the seven children – ranging from about four to sixteen in age – are getting through governesses like nobody’s business. With patience, understanding and song Maria wins the hearts of the children, and when the Captain (Christopher Plummer) returns from Vienna he is upset by the wildness of his free-running kids but bowled over by their talent for singing, as is opportunist impresario ‘uncle’ Max (Richard Haydn). The third member of the party, Baroness Schraeder (Eleanor Parker) is not so impressed, but she is concentrating on snagging the Captain as a husband – only the governess does scrub up quite well… Meantime, the Nazis are just about to declare their Anschluss, uniting Germany with Austria, a move that not only disgusts the Captain but will undoubtedly see him called into the war effort.

Each of these story strands is pretty meaty on its own (the love triangle in particular has satisfying overtones of Jane Eyre), but in a musical the story has to be secondary to the songs: and the songs are, in the main, superb, flowing and epic when the mood demands it (The Sound of Music, Climb Ev’ry Mountain), playful at other times (How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria?, So Long, Farewell), and at others still beautifully simple (Edelweiss). The songs are so familiar they may sound simplistic nowadays, but each is memorable and serves its purpose perfectly. It may be an obvious statement but The Sound of Music celebrates the sound and emotional pull of music, not only bringing the von Trapp children back to their father, but also opening out the sense of Edelweiss so that it encapsulates the situation of Austria as a country (putting the Nazis noses out of joint at the same time, which is always a good thing).

Julie Andrews is perfectly cast as Maria, not so pretty that she would look out of place in the abbey nor so plain that the Captain would overlook her; she has a good singing voice, excellent comic timing and just the right mix of hesitancy and self-assurance. Christopher Plummer barks out his orders with a gleam in his eye and makes a convincing captain, whilst Parker as the Baroness is the villain of the piece yet still elicits our sympathy when she recognises she must give way. None of the children are unbearable (though the boys are a bit annoying), Charmian Carr in particular doing a fine job as Liesl, on the brink of womanhood, even if she is clearly well into her twenties in reality.

For me, the Sixteen going on Seventeen sequence with Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) goes on a couple of minutes too long, and the same could be said for many of the film’s early sequences, but the music is always pleasant and the views are colourful and vibrant. I would have gladly cut out twenty minutes of dancing (and the whole of Lonely Goatherd – the puppets are ugly!), but I think this is probably more due to my modern impatient tastes than any fault of the film.

The last quarter of the film, featuring the family’s flight from the Third Reich and their tense seclusion amongst the abbey’s dead, makes for an exciting climax and a vivid contrast with the sunny – and rather cosy – look of the rest of the film. It also means that The Sound of Music has it all: love, songs, scenery, danger, laughter – it even manages to fit in a small on-screen role for Marni Nixon, famous voiceover for artists such as Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn in other musicals. Little wonder that it won five of its ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; and whilst the more jaded viewer will continue to cry ‘Not again!’ when the film next appears on television, they will still hum along in the background as a whole new generation experiences the magic of Maria for the first time.

Hello, Dolly!

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: ‘Marriage broker’ and general life-fixer Dolly Levi has plans to fix the life of grumpy half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder by arranging to have him marry her. To do this, she enlists the services of Cornelius and Barnaby, underlings at Horace’s hay feed shop in Yonkers, to sweep Horace’s intended Irene and her hat-shop assistant Minnie off their feet as they discover, for the very first time, the joys of New York.

Although the genre has made a strong comeback in the 2000s for young and old viewers alike, the last great decade for musical films has to be the 1960s: West Side Story won Best Picture at the start of the decade; My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music took the honours in the middle years. Hello, Dolly! won a number of Oscars but missed out on the big prize, losing to the gritty Midnight Cowboy; and in subsequent years heavyweight films such as Patton and The French Connection took the centre stage. This film, based on a Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker and with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, may be the last hurrah for the big, old-fashioned song-and-dance musical, then; and its star turn makes sure the decade goes out with a bang.

The story is fairly simple: young widow Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) travels to Yonkers with two jobs on her mind, seeking inspiration from her late husband Ephraim as she goes. The first job is to attract the attention of grumpy shop owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) away from a marriage of convenience to milliner Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew), towards herself; the second task is to smooth over Horace’s objections to the relationship between his niece Ermengarde and her beau Ambrose (Joyce Ames and the lofty Tommy Tune).

When Horace leaves to call on Irene anyway, Dolly encourages his employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin) to copy his example and head into town; they do so, with the avowed and scandalous intent of ‘kissing a girl’ (it is 1890, after all), encouraged by Dolly to visit a certain hat shop run by Irene and her young assistant Minnie (E.J. Peaker). As luck – or rather, as Dolly – would have it, the whole group turn up simultaneously in the luxurious Harmonia Gardens, Cornelius and Barnaby penniless but entertaining Irene and Minnie regardless; Ermengarde and Ambrose hoping to win money to set themselves up in a polka contest; and Horace, disappointed by Irene’s habit of keeping men in her closet, dating a supposed heiress with an incredible resemblance to one of Dolly’s best friends. It’s hardly conceivable that they will all be kept apart, especially when Dolly is the restaurant’s favourite guest.

If it’s immediately apparent that this tale could be told with considerably less fanfare, and budget, than any of the Oscar-winning musicals named above, nobody told the people at 20th Century Fox, who spent over $20 million recreating late 19th Century Yonkers and New York, and the magnificent Harmonia Gardens set, with loving care. Against these magnificent backdrops and with the help of entirely serviceable tunes, Hello, Dolly! plays out as a mixture of farce and open-air ballet – and here is the first of the film’s snags.

For whilst the songs are perfectly nice – the title number being the most memorable – their extension to incorporate lengthy dance sequences after they have served their purpose becomes tiring after a while. In part, this is purely a matter of taste, and keen connoisseurs of dance will find an awful lot to enjoy in the set-pieces, either the massed dancing in the streets and parks or the astounding acrobatics of the waiters; for me, however, a lot of it is dancing for its own sake (unlike, say, much of the dancing in The Sound of Music) and I struggled to enjoy much of it.

The bigger issue, however, is with the cast. Michael Crawford struggles with his American accent and has a pretty weak singing voice, though he cannot be blamed for the fact that his facial expressions are synonymous (in Britain) with Frank Spencer from the (later) sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Matthau, meanwhile, seems tremendously ill-at-ease, perhaps because he is in a Gene Kelly film but can neither sing nor dance; he would be a disastrous choice were he not so good at being grouchy in the non-singing, non-dancing parts of the film, and his knack for stone-faced comedy stands in welcome relief to his employees’ capering in and out of wardrobes, under/over tables etc.

And finally, you have La Streisand. In just her second film, Barbra plays Dolly with such a staggering amount of overweening self-assurance that you cannot begin to picture her as a grieving widow. Admittedly, part of the problem lies with the character, since Dolly has to be a go-getter to make her way in life; but the film makes such a fuss over her, and Streisand makes such a show of enjoying the attention, that when the film asks (as it undoubtedly does) ‘Don’t ya just love her?’ the only reasonable answer is ‘not particularly.’

It doesn’t help that Streisand is obviously much too young for the role, being twenty years Matthau’s junior, so her conviction appears to be the brashness of youth rather than the direct honesty of experience; fortunately, her strong and unique vocals are excellent throughout, which may not redeem all the film’s faults but certainly offsets some of them.

Hello, Dolly! is the epitome of overblown, and feels like an anachronism when put alongside late 60s historical events such as the Vietnam war or the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But to judge a film against its political backdrop is overly harsh, and much of this one is perfectly passable, and highly polished, entertainment whose nostalgic value would have been immeasurably increased by a less modern central performance. If nothing else, it contains a few minutes of Louis Armstrong, a true American icon, and you can’t complain about that.

Jesus Christ Superstar

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Among the ruins, a group of actors recreate the last days of Jesus Christ, detailing his rise to glory and his betrayal to the priests by rogue disciple Judas Iscariot. From Judas’ point of view, however, the circus around Jesus is getting out of hand and needlessly messianic. And what kind of betrayal is it when the man to be betrayed appears fully aware, if not fully accepting, of his fate?

A bus pulls up at the historic city of Avdat and disgorges its passengers, a hippyish bunch of actors who proceed to get into gear and character. Roles established, Carl Anderson bursts into song as Judas, outraged that the movement set up by Ted Neeley’s Jesus has been hijacked not only by people who hail him as the New Messiah, but also by his unseemly love for Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman).

The roar of the crowd reaches the disquieted ears of priests Caiaphas and Annas (Bob Bingham and Kurt Yaghjian), and Caiaphas decides that Jesus must be eliminated; however, how to get hold of him through the surrounding disciples and crowds? Judas may provide the answer, though detention alone doesn’t get rid of Jesus; for neither Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) nor King Herod (Joshua Mostel) want to deal with him. Meanwhile, Jesus knows what’s coming but still questions why he has been chosen to redeem mankind.

You might imagine, when filming a musical, that if you get the music to sound as good as it can, you’ve more or less won the battle; and by extension, that Jesus Christ Superstar is a much better film than Ken Russell’s Tommy. Jewison’s film does get the music right; it’s left virtually intact from the concept album, feeling surprisingly, authentically rocky for Andrew Lloyd Webber and containing powerful songs in Heaven on Their Minds, Everything’s Alright, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Simon Zealotes and the show-stopping title number, plus Jesus’ outstanding Gethsemane.

As with Evita, the linking recitative sections are weaker, but on the whole this is Lloyd Webber writing at his best, that is to say in his own style rather than pastiching others. The singing is strong too, Anderson possessing a fine, growling voice and Neeley a great falsetto, even if his tight vibrato won’t please everyone. Elliman, the original Magdalene from the 1970 concept album, fills the role with emotion and Bingham, Dennen (another original performer) and Larry Marshall as Simon Zealotes are all very effective.

Then there’s the controversy of the plot, which (of course) predates Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by decades. Tim Rice’s lyrics don’t focus specifically on the question of Jesus’ divinity, but they certainly raise the issue (‘No talk of God then, we called you a man’). More incendiary is the paradox of Judas’ betrayal: if Jesus had to die, then it must have been God’s will for someone to betray him – and therefore Judas was little more than a patsy (‘I’ve been used!’ he screams). Or perhaps Jesus is the one being used? For many, many reasons*, I don’t propose to have the theological debate here; what I will say is that Jesus Christ Superstar intelligently asks provocative questions in an accessible and entertaining format.

Or at least, it should. I come back to the assertion that you get the music right and the rest of the film follows – it’s simply not true. It was an interesting ploy to film Jesus Christ Superstar on rudimentary sets not far from where the biblical action took place, but on the screen it looks for the most part like a scattering of people lost in the middle of the desert in curious outfits (what are those bulb things on the priests’ heads?). It’s also fairly obvious that the actors are not over-familiar with being filmed, because the passion in the voices is not always entirely reflected in the face and body motions – Anderson in particular has a strange habit of flinging his hands behind him like a ski-jumper.

There’s a slight disconnect between the soundtrack and the visuals, the former having been created (one assumes) for the latter to follow. Worse, there are simply not enough visuals to fill the time, so Jewison (who, with Melvyn Bragg, has the gall to take a screenplay credit) is forced to rely on slo-motion and freeze-frame gimmicks while dancers fling themselves about in the hippy-dippy style of Hair or Godspell.

And while there are occasional nods to modern (local?) troubles – a few tanks, fighter planes and the selling of guns and hand grenades in the temple, the significance of these is never explained or put into context. My abiding memory is that of Our Lord pushing over two postcard racks (or possibly the same one, twice).

What counts most against Jesus Christ Superstar is that it simply doesn’t work as a piece of storytelling. Jesus is far too passive, especially during the second half where he is carted around from Caiaphas to Pilate to Herod and finally back to Pilate. He’s reduced to being a stationary figure who sings occasionally, but he’s far from the only one. Jewison’s efforts to liven things up include the ghastly mega-camp treatment of King Herod’s Song, Mostel’s mediocre singing only adding to the scene’s many woes (Jesus wisely stands at a distance, looking vaguely pained but reassured that the song’s only three minutes long). Even the ballsy title track verges on the borders of camp and kitsch, saved only by Judas’ throaty vocals.

Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar has some purpose, a record of the show as it might have looked in the 1970s. It’s not, however, a film that lives long in the memory and is unlikely to win many converts to the musical. Its lasting legacy will be its soundtrack, which brings across the passion of the piece without the dilution of the bland and often misguided visuals.

NOTES: Most of them involving the phrase ‘blind ignorance’.