New Hollywood and the Musical

With Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story coming to theatres, he will be the last of the major “New Hollywood” directors of the 1970s to tackle a famously risky genre. By the early 1960s, the Hollywood Musical had, for all intents and purposes, died its first death. The occasional exception (e.g., Oliver!) would burst through, but for the most part after the early ’60s, studios and producers would pour huge sums into musical films hoping to reverse the trend, and most of those ventures would tank. Books have been written exploring reasons why the audience may have turned away.

The most logical explanations involve the fact that musicals have traditionally been romantic and fantastical, and modern audiences were more cynical and desirous of realism, although both assertions are generalizations to which there are exceptions. Naturally musical and dance styles had changed as well. Fans of musicals tended to be traditionalists, but mainstream audiences (younger ones, anyway) preferred rock and roll, disco, and other contemporary sounds. So Hollywood stopped making quite so many of them. Once, like westerns, or horror, or comedy, or melodrama, musicals had been a major genre, with entire studio departments such as MGM’s Freed Unit, in peak working order to crank them out. By the 1970s, anyone making a musical would have had to start from scratch. Experienced talent would not automatically be on deck. So this made it even HARDER to make a musical. Musicals were already hard ENOUGH. You need stars who are triple threats, and you need to shoot and cut scenes in time to pre-existing musical rhythms (in non-musical films it’s the other way around — the score comes last). All of these huge hurdles!

This is undoubledly why the New Hollywood generation of the 1970s wanted to tackle musicals. It was like a point of honor with them. What a heavy load to lift! Each one thought they’d be the guy to do it, to revive this moribund genre, or at least to defy the odds and make one successful musical picture. And for years, musicals were the shoals on which their ships foundered. Some did okay at it; most did not. So here’s a chronological look at that phase. (Naturally we won’t include Bob Fosse here, though he is associated with New Hollywood, because musicals are what Fosse DID…though even his first one, Sweet Charity flopped. But it may well have been Fosse’s success with Cabaret which inspired the others to try it). And then there’s the nostalgia vogue we wrote about here.

Brian De Palma, Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

This highly enjoyable anomaly almost doesn’t count because De Palma was not yet famous when he made it, and he had already had a famous disaster in 1970’s Get to Know Your Rabbit. Most of his previous films at this point were French New Wave inspired experimental films, although he was just about to go even further down the Hitchcock rabbit hole he had just begun with Sisters (1972). Phantom of the Paradise did indeed lose money, but it was before De Palma himself was box office. If he had released it AFTER Carrie, The Fury and Dressed to Kill, his arc would look more like that of his cohorts. At any rate, I happen to LOVE Phantom of the Paradise, a camp, sci fi glam rock opera retelling of Phantom of the Opera with music by Paul Williams, and starring De Palma regular William Finley and Jessica Harper. It’s much more solid and fine-tuned to its times than most of the others on this list….it was just perhaps a little (or a lot) too weird for audiences. A couple of years later Obsession and Carrie put DePalma on the map for real.

Peter Bogdanovich, At Long Last Love (1975)

In 1975, Peter Bogdanovich seemed like a guy who could do no wrong. The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973) were all blinding successes, and Daisy Miller (1974) though it was a box office failure, is critically defensible. His Waterloo proved to be At Long Last Love, an old-fashioned 1930s style musical showcasing the music of Cole Porter, and starring Cybil Shepherd, Burt Reynolds, and Madeline Kahn, and lots of his usual supporting players. Critics took the opportunity to pounce, and tear the director off his pedestal, lambasting everything from the stars to the script to the playing style. It was declared one of the worst movies of all time and it only made back half of its cost. This, followed by the similar failure of Nickelodeon (1976), were the finish of Bogdanovich as a golden boy. For years, it was impossible to see At Long Last Love — I never saw it until quite recently. There is now a restored directors cut closer to Bogdanovich’s intention. And at any rate, as often happens, the decades that have passed have made a huge difference. You kind of wonder what everyone’s problem was. The attack on the film seems ad hominem — there was blood in the water. People didn’t like Bogdanovich himself as a person, and they took it out on the movie. Is is perfect? No. Is it the worst thing you ever saw? Good lord, no. But in having the hubris to attempt it, the director was roundly and permanently punished.

Martin Scorsese, New York New York (1977)

A (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious concept – a Martin Scorsese musical. Not intrinsically hilarious…going into it, I was expecting something more impersonal…I thought Scorsese would be doing a Hollywood musical in the way perhaps he “did” Merchant-Ivory in The Age of Innocence. For some reason, because of photos I had seen of stars Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, I was expected a Mickey RooneyJudy Garland type thing. Imagine my surprise and delight when it turned out to be a fully psychotic, violent, sordid DeNiro fest. Fresh off Taxi Driver and in the run-up to Raging Bull it was an era in which they did a bunch of on-set improvising. DeNiro untethered is insane and volatile, frequently funny but always because he is unsettling. He is so extreme that he ruins it for Minnelli (who finally gets her day in the sun in a gorgeous musical-within-the-musical about ¾ of the way into the picture) but for most of the movie she is bullied and manipulated by DeNiro in such a way that her character is reduced to having the presence of Talia Shire’s Adrian in the Rocky pictures. She probably curses Scorsese and DeNiro to this day for this. At any rate, the film hardly ruined the principal folks involved, but it did nothing to restore the viability of the Hollywood musical.

Milos Forman, Hair (1979)

This one is definitely not a failure; it was a moderate success, although given the fact that Forman’s previous film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1974) cost around $4 million and made around $164 million, and brought home all those awards, and Hair was also a huge Broadway hit (with songs that were even hits on the radio!) it was probably a disappointment to its producers. I liked this movie a lot when it came out, and owned the soundtrack album, although once I explored the original Broadway cast album and the music and styles of the ’60s, I came to strongly dislike the film for having more of 1979 than 1969 about it. The book to the show was entirely rewritten, removing lots of the revolutionary political, cultural and social elements, and knowing that, I have to stand with the original creators Jerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot in rejecting it.

Robert Altman, Popeye (1980)

I also loved this movie when it came out. I loved Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl.  (I even went to a costume party as Williams’ Popeye). I loved the way the film captured the early Max Fleischer cartoons, with the mumbling dialogue, and I loved the look of the Sweet Haven set. I remember the Harry Nilsson songs being the strangest element (they were very oddly mixed). But with the passing of time I have to concede now what audiences knew back then — it’s a real mess!  Robert Altman’s usual techniques, like ambling, leisurely, pseudo-documentary camera work, and overlapping dialogue—REALLY don’t work for a live action cartoon. His thing works strictly for realism—it is simply wrong for stylized performance like this. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall both give truly terrific performances, as do ensemble players—including actors like Paul Dooley and Ray Walston, and clowns Bill Irwin and Michael Christensen (whom I later knew from Big Apple Circus). But the camera treats their great work with indifference—as often as not, we have to work to locate it within the frame. Jules Feiffer wrote the screenplay but it’s impossible to tell if it was any good from the way Altman directed it. Feiffer (a huge fan and aficionado of the original Popeye comic strip) felt Altman didn’t shoot his screenplay. At any rate, despite the fact that Popeye earned three times its budget, it was expected to make more, so Altman was essentially written out off as box office poison at this stage. The days of M*A*S*H were far behind him.

Francis Ford Coppola, One from the Heart (1982)

This is the BIG one, the BIG belly flop. Coppola was at the top in the 1970s, with his first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now under his belt. At this stage he could write his own ticket. He rolled the dice on an old-fashioned but original musical shot entirely on soundstages at his Zoetrope Studios, with original music by Tom Waits and (as with Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love) a book cowritten by himself. As he had also cowritten Patton and all of his other previous films, and had also directed the conventional musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968), that was not necessarily a warning sign. But for whatever reason preview audiences did not respond well to this movie. The original studio, MGM, pulled their backing, and then the second one Paramount reneged on releasing it. Finally, Columbia did release it, but reviews were mixed to bad. Alone among the musicals we’ve mentioned thus far, the story had a quotidian, workaday, contemporary setting, though it was shot in a beautiful, stylized manner. The cast was also not calculated to fill seats: Frederic Forrest, Terri Garr, Raul Julia, Natassja Kinski, etc. In 1982 this was a good SUPPORTING cast, but not one to roll the dice on to sell tickets. Today it has its defenders, but my one attempt to watch it was unsuccessful; I was too bored to get all the way through. The film cost $26 million to make and earned about $600,000. It took Coppola decades to climb out of his financial hole, and he never did climb out of the artistic one.

James L. Brooks, I‘ll Do Anything (1994)

Brooks himself was not one of the New-Hollywood bunch; though he was one of their generation. He was busy revolutionizing television when these others were making their cinematic bones. But his co-producer Polly Platt was of course Peter Bogdanovich’s ex-wife and former artistic partner, and she WAS front and center of the New Hollywood posse. Brooks had previously knocked it out of the park as writer-director-producer of Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987). With I’ll Do Anything however the magic eluded him. Despite songs by Prince, Sinead O’Connor and Carole King, the tunes were performed by such stars as Albert Brooks, Nick Nolte, and Julie Kavner. Test audiences hated the songs, so (much as the big studios had done many times in the early ’30s) Brooks reshot some new scenes and cut all of the musical numbers, so the version of the film people watch today is a non-musical dramedy, one far less impressive than Terms of Endearment or Broadcast News. It only made back a quarter of its $40 million budget.

Woody Allen, Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

This one has its critical defenders, has a terrific all-star cast and (like a lot of Allen’s films) has aged well, although at the time, it was seen as ending the hot streak of Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, and Mighty Aphrodite, and beginning his near decade long slump of the late ’90s through the early ‘oughts. I am someone who saw just about all of Allen’s films at the cinema upon release, and I didn’t bother with this one at the time, based on hearing that it relied on old Tin Pan Alley classics sung by non-singing actors in their normal voices. And then I didn’t see it for years afterward, I’m guessing because rights issues had made it unavailable. But I did finally see it a few years ago, and my verdict was “it’s fine”. It’s not bad, or not worse than many of the Wood-man’s middling efforts. Still, it only made back half of its investment, and like I say, launched a long dry period for the director, whose career did not truly rebound until Match Point in 2005.

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Nowadays of course the directors of “New Hollywood” are very old — so old that Scorsese has become the poster boy for the crotchedy alte kakers who defend stories over superheroes. It was perhaps wise of Spielberg to wait a half century into his career, watching all his contemporaries get their wings clipped, before attempting a musical of his own. After all, his attempt at a classic comedy, 1941 and his attempt at a period romance, Always, are both pretty awful failures on one level or another. But where we stand now in 2021, the musical genre has rebounded. The onus isn’t on Spielberg to revive an entire cinematic tributary all by himself. Early reports are encouraging. I am very much looking forward to it, though I will say that, as West Side Story is my favorite musical, and I love the Robert Wise version, I will not be an easy audience!