Monday, 30 January 2012

Why "The Artist" Matters

Over the past few days, I have been reading various negative comments (on twitter, New York Times online comments, etc) from film fans about The Artist. While I understand the negative comments from modern film fans (e.g. "It's getting too much hype," "It looks really weird"), I do not understand the classic film fans who have responded in a negative light. This is my take on the film as a classic film fan, and why this film matters and should matter to all classic film fans.

Here are common comments I've been reading from the classic film fan:

1) "The plot has already been told a million times; it's not original."
OK. True. The story of a film star whose career fades while another star ascends is not new. We've seen it in A Star is Born, Singin' in the Rain, and others. But, my friends, director Michel Hazanavicius is not trying to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He is instead creating a movie that is an homage to Old Hollywood. He wants us film fans to have these existing classic films in our minds as we watch it. It's a tribute to films and an era that has come before us. In addition, I hate to break it to you classic film fans, but Old Hollywood used recycled storylines all the time. How many times has Hollywood told the "A Star is Born" story before The Artist? I don't need to tell you how many. This "not original plot" problem has existed long before 2012.

2) "Jean Dujardin is trying to be Gene Kelly."
I fail to see how The Artist's leading man Jean Dujardin (pictured above) bearing a physical resemblance to legendary Gene Kelly is his fault. Dujardin possesses the charm of Kelly, has a lovely smile like Gene did, and has a similar charisma on screen. However, he is not trying to be Gene Kelly... he never could be if he tried. Gene Kelly is and will always be the one and only Gene Kelly. The fact that Dujardin studied the films of Gene and was inspired by his screen persona should make us Gene fans proud that stars are still looking to him with admiration and wanting somehow to emulate his magic on screen. Plus, Dujardin is an actor first, and a dancer second. He learned to tap dance for this film only. It's not like he's trying to be the next song and dance man. He's not ripping off Gene. Jean Dujardin is a talent unto himself.

3) "They ripped off Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo."
While I understand Vertigo star and living legend Kim Novak being disappointed that the score for Vertigo has been lifted directly into one pivotal scene in The Artist, Hazanavicius has spoken out and said that he purposefully included this stunning piece of music because the film is his love note to Old Hollywood, and he wanted to include the music as an homage to the genius composer Herrmann. I can wholeheartedly accept this argument, and I'll tell you why. The original soundtrack by Ludovic Bource (pictured below) that comprises essentially 1 hour and 30 minutes of screen time (compared to Herrmann's music being used for only 10 minutes) is the most delightful and unique soundtrack I have heard in my recent memory for modern films. If Hazanavicius had used only existing music in his score, I might have a problem, but, instead, Bource's beautiful original material is being neglected because of this needless controversy.

4) "It makes existing silent films less important... Hazanavicius doesn't know how to make a silent film."
I really don't think this movie was ever intended to be a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin remake. It is a story of Old Hollywood being told in black and white and in silent movie form. However, since it's such a beautifully made film, you would think that classic film fans would be thrilled that perhaps new audiences who didn't even know of the existence of silent films are now going to watch Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton's films. And, if they don't, at least people are being exposed to a movie that doesn't move at a mile a minute, takes its time to tell a character-based, simple and beautiful story with no words, and not requiring a thousand camera edits in each scene. It's a nice change of pace if you ask me, and maybe more movies will start to be told again in this manner. I don't see the harm in that.

It is truly disheartening to me that classic movie fans are saying this movie is getting too much hype. Aren't we the people who say that "they don't make 'em like they used to?" Why are we knocking Hazanavicius for actually making 'em like they used to?? Who would have thought that in the year 2012, we would be encountering a silent film up for the Best Picture Oscar? And that a silent movie is back in movie theatres for a new generation to experience? This is not an occasion for classic film fans to become elitist and say that classic movies are better and that The Artist will never compare. Instead, we should be rejoicing that someone had the courage to make a silent movie for modern audiences. We should be rejoicing with even more vigor that it actually turned out beautifully, has flawless performances, and has loving allusions and references to Old Hollywood films. The Artist matters, and the first people that should appreciate this are the classic film fans.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Why We Love MGM Musicals

I present to you a list of reasons why I think people love the MGM Musicals.

1) The talent and star power is unmatchable.
OK, while many of us still love the "non-MGMers"... Betty Grable, Dan Dailey, June Haver, Gordon MacRae, Doris Day, etc., there is no question that the MGM Contract players were in a class by themselves. No other studio can compare to the MGM's Triple Threat Trio of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Judy Garland (pictured above). It's impossible. The other studios tried, and fared well on the whole, but with those three magic names (among many others), the stars of other studios can't compare.

2) The Freed Unit
What do Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade, Meet Me in St. Louis, On the Town, and Gigi have in common? Other than the distinction of being some of the greatest musicals ever made, they were all produced by one magical man: Arthur Freed. While to this day we don't know exactly what his role was and what his specific contributions were to these films, we can say with certainty that his movies and the now famously named "Freed Unit" at MGM are beyond compare. Freed had the gift of honing the best talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Gene Kelly made his film debut in the Freed-produced For Me and My Gal and rarely worked outside the Freed Unit. Cyd Charisse made her journey from featured dancer to leading lady in Freed's capable hands. Vincente Minnelli was brought into films (and directing) because of Freed, who had admired his work on Broadway. He had the knack for choosing the right talent for the right movie, whether it was enlisting arranger/later Associate Producer Roger Edens, voice coach and arranger Kay Thompson, or screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. For more information on these geniuses behind the scenes, check out Hugh Fordin's book entitled MGM's Greatest Musicals: the most in-depth book published to date about life at the Freed Unit.

3) The MGM Studio Orchestra
While Fox might have had the highest quality sound studio, MGM had the greatest players, conductors, and orchestrators. Once MGM Musicals were becoming really popular (circa 1944), MGM expanded their studio and hired professional orchestral musicians. The result? The signature MGM sound that is heard in every musical from Meet Me in St. Louis and onward. With a strings section without peer, a killer horns section, and brilliant arrangers and orchestrators at the helm like Lennie Hayton, Roger Edens, Alexander Courage, and the grossly underrated Conrad Salinger, MGM's Studio Orchestra possessed a finesse like no other.

4) They make us happy. 
The MGM Musicals are full of iconic moments that just make us smile. Gene dances in the rain and flashes us that dazzling smile. Judy "gets happy" in Summer Stock. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse magically and effortlessly dance in the dark in The Band Wagon. Judy finally breaks down Fred's impeccable style and class when they mug like "A Couple of Swells" in Easter Parade. Louis Jourdan realizes he's actually in love with Leslie Caron's Gigi. Judy and Mickey sing and dance their way to stardom by "putting on a show" over and over. I could go on and on. I'm sure everyone has that special MGM Musicals moment that never fails to put a smile on your face. I think they're the most joyful films ever made. They're so beautifully made that we cry with joy at their beauty (I know I'm not the only one who has)...

5) We feel comforted by them.
The MGM Musicals stars are our close friends and extended family, our medicine when we're taking a sick day or when we're just feeling down, and they're completely rewatchable treats. I'll never get sick of watching Judy and Gene together in Summer Stock, or Judy and Fred slowly fall in love with each other in Easter Parade. They're the most repeatable films to view on the planet, and, truly, my life is happier and richer with MGM Musicals. As a singer and film buff, they're the perfect movies for me.

I'm so thankful that for a few magical years, the "stars in the heavens" were perfectly aligned, and movie musical magic was created on those MGM soundstages. The films are irreplaceable, and to say they're special is an understatement. They're an important part of film history, and they are eternally joyful.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Gene Kelly: The Underrated Singer

Fans, scholars, and critics alike talk all the time about Gene Kelly the dancer, Gene Kelly the director, Gene Kelly the choreographer, and Gene Kelly the actor. But rarely do they discuss Gene Kelly the singer. As a singer who is completely enchanted by Kelly’s light, clear, and pure tenor voice, I often wonder why it doesn’t get the appreciation it should. In fact, I once did a presentation on his singing voice in a high school music class just to give attention to another side of Gene Kelly. While Kelly is constantly heralded as one of Hollywood’s favorite song-and dance men, the “song” aspect of this phrase is too often silenced or dismissed in discussions of Kelly’s work and talents. I’d like to amend that here.

I was prompted to write this post because I’m currently reading Todd Decker’s Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, a book focused solely on Astaire’s singing career. It’s a fascinating account of the dancer’s contribution to American popular music, and it made me wonder why there is no similar source devoted to Kelly’s vocals. Granted, Kelly didn’t introduce countless original standards by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer as Astaire did, but his singing voice was almost always his segue into his legendary dances. And before Hollywood, he was singing live on Broadway in the critically acclaimed Pal Joey. Kelly was no slouch as a singer, to be sure.

A few examples of Kelly’s singing prowess:
  • What would “Singin’ in the Rain” be without his joyful vocal rendition preceding it? He sings in the rain before he dances, remember. Plus, his version of the song, though recorded by countless others including Judy Garland, Usher, and Jamie Cullum is still the definitive rendition.
  • Moreover, would Kelly’s dreamy “The Heather on the Hill” duet with Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon be nearly as romantic without his soft and crystal clear voice serenading her before they dance on MGM’s soundstage version of Scotland? I think not. The cut track from Brigadoon, There But For You Go I,” is my personal favourite vocal performance of Kelly’s, and it’s a crime that it didn’t make it into the movie. Not many singers are able to make me tear up just listening to them, but the first time I heard the outtake, there were definitely tears in my eyes as I marveled at his emotional and honest performance.
  • Finally, just this morning I was listening to the Les Girls soundtrack and was blown away by the power in Kelly’s voice at the end of his duet with Kay Kendall, “You’re Just Too Too!” Take a listen when you get a chance! It’s a side to his singing he shied away from showing us until 1957.

In a discussion of Kelly’s singing voice, we must not forget his pairings with Judy Garland. She brought out the best in his singing voice, and he brought out the best in her dancing — arguably a match made in heaven. Their infectious “For Me and My Gal” duet showcases her alto voice, which blends perfectly with his tenor. Moreover, their “You, Wonderful You” duet in Summer Stock is the definition of adorable as their two vocals blend in perfect harmony. Forget Garland and Sinatra’s or Garland and Crosby’s duets: I’ll take Garland’s and Kelly’s perfectly paired voices over theirs any day (not that I’m biased, of course).

One singing-related anecdote from the set of Kelly’s 1944 film Cover Girl has always stayed with me. In the film, Kelly premiered to the world one of Jerome Kern’s most beautiful songs, “Long Ago and Far Away.” Kern was in the studio the day Kelly recorded the song, so the latter was noticeably nervous. In fact, Kelly was never particularly confident and even self-conscious about his voice, so to have Kern himself in the studio that day only added to his tension. Kelly went for the first take, and nervously waited for Kern to weigh in. After some silence, Kern replied, “If you want to make the old man happy, please sing it again.” Pretty high praise from one of the great American songwriters.

In closing, Kelly had a unique tenor voice, great control of his sound, and more than ably serenaded his many leading ladies. So the next time you watch him in a movie, while you’ll likely always gravitate to his dancing first, you might also pay close attention to his singing voice. If you do, I think you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for the Hollywood legend that is Gene Kelly.

Sources and Further Reading
Hirschhorn, Clive.  Gene Kelly: A Biography.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.