Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Cabin in the Sky was the first musical film to feature a cast of all African Americans. It was also Vincente Minelli’s directorial debut. The film is a musical take on Faust centered around the well-meaning but morally frail Lil’ Joe.

The movie is mostly a religious moral tale. It has an interesting depiction of spiritual conscience, with memorable performances by the powerful Kenneth Spencer as a general of God’s army and Rex Ingram as Lucifer Jr. There’s also a fantastic trumpet player in Lucifer Jr.’s crowd played by none other than Louis Armstrong.

Most of the songs are sung by Ethel Waters, who also performed in the Broadway production. She has a powerful voice, but her songs are invariably slow and sappy, which is really my least favorite kind of music. Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson plays Lil Joe, but he was not originally from the Broadway production, something you probably could have guessed the second you heard him start singing “Life Is Full of Consequence”.

The movie is a solid production. There’s a surprising number of moving camera shots considering the film’s age, and it makes sure to include a lot of different dance styles, from jazz to tap, as most good musicals do. The film’s even got some spots of humor that still were effective today, something that I find rare in movies from this era. It does get a little dull during its run, but it’s an entertaining and historical film that is worth a watch to anyone who can enjoy classics and musicals.

Final rating: 7/10

–James A. Janisse

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

It’s Always Fair Weather is a musical about three war buddies who return after the war is won, get drunk, and agree to meet back at that very bar in ten years. Fast forward through an interesting and entertaining “10 Year Montage”, the men reunite as promised and find they have nothing in common anymore.


Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Everyone Says I Love You is Woody Allen’s entry to the musical genre. It knows it is; the narration recognizes it early on. That’s just one part of this movie’s reflexivity on the musicals genre, and as a film that’s part homage and part satire, it works exceedingly well.


The Princess and the Frog (2009)

To surprise my girlfriend and satisfy my own interest, I took her to see The Princess and the Frog. It was an enjoyable experience only marred by the shrieking and giggling young adult women in tiaras that populated the theater. I guess I can’t really blame the movie for all that.

As everyone knows, this movie is Disney’s first hand-animation cartoon since 2004’s Home on the Range. Since it is also Disney’s first black princess, there’s been a lot of buzz and pseudo controversy over the movie its entire development. I was glad to see that the end product was one that would only offend someone going in and demanding offense, and that its animation and spirit were nearly as enjoyable as the films of the Disney Renaissance of the 90s.

I’m always skeptical of the ability of cartoons to make me laugh, but I did quite a few times during this film, including one joke near the beginning that I still haven’t stopped repeating in real life (Your head… it’s in the tuba). The humor was mostly spot-on, with a few unfunny jokes that are only to be expected.

The characters of the movie were also pleasant, though I know many critics disagree. I found the villain to be satisfyingly evil, and even though the song he sang wasn’t particularly interesting (nothing compares to Scar’s “Be Prepared”), the animation during the sequence was uniquely trippy.

Prince Naveen was hands down my favorite character, and I got a kick out of him as an arrogant but well-meaning guy. Even more impressive was Charlotte, who Disney could have easily turned into an antagonistic spoiled brat, but instead decided to make her a genuinely helpful and caring friend. Tiana was a strong and independent female lead, which definitely speaks well to a generation captured by Miley Cyrus, and although the movie kind of beats its message into you, it’s not a horrible message to have: work hard for things, but don’t live to work.

Other character aspects were lacking, however. Louie looks like a generic Disney alligator, an issue that seriously detracted from his originality as a character. And Lawrence fulfills a seemingly necessary role for Disney, that of the fat cowardice sidekick villain. I almost feel like children on Disney could be conditioned to fear and mistrust portly men.

Some of the songs, like the opening number by Randy Newman, were catchy and sounded enjoyably “Disney-ish”, but others also suffered from unoriginality and banality. At least the story is efficient and forward-moving – there aren’t really low points once the movie gets going, and the ending, though predictable and generic, is sufficient enough.

Although the movie might be a bit “light” and not have the power of the Lion King or the majesty of Beauty and the Beast, I forgive Disney. It’s been a while, and they’ve gotta dust off the old Disney magic. But at least they began with a strong enough starting point in The Princess and The Frog.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

Cabaret (1972)

Cabaret is a musical set in 1930s Berlin. It explores a few stories, primarily one involving a cabaret dancer named Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli, for which she won an Oscar) and an English man named Brian (Michael York, who would later find his niche in the Austin Powers movies as Basil). One of the underlying themes throughout the movie is the rising power of Nazis in 1930s Germany, and it may be that historical aspect that really drives the movie home for me.

The movie is interesting among musicals because all of the songs (and dances) take place in the realm of realism. Every single song, save for one, is performed onstage at the Kit Kat Klub, and almost all of them involve the Master of Ceremonies played by Joel Grey. Grey, whose daughter Jennifer later starred in Dirty Dancing, is hands down the single greatest highlight of the film. The MC introduces the film and serves as a binding thread throughout the various different segments and tangents of the movie. Grey is energetic, charming as hell, and a fantastic host for this kind of movie. Whether he’s in drag or singing about his menage a trois, he lights up the screen and commands full attention. Grey also won an Oscar for his performance, and his performance is truly deserving. of it

Besides Grey, there’s still plenty to enjoy in the movie. Minelli is fantastic as Bowles, creating a character who is simultaneously enticing and frustrating through her textbook narcissistic personality disorder. York is also quietly charming, and you really feel for this guy whose life is turned upside down due to the decadence and enticement of the cabaret. The songs are memorable and catchy, and the camera work only excels the action during the various stage antics.

The movie slows down a bit when it delves deeper into the threeway relationship between Minelli, York, and a rich bisexual tempter played by Helmut Griem, but that storyline ends with a bang that ultimately justifies the time spent dwelling on it. The movie itself ends with an ominous look forward toward the future of Nazi Germany, one where Joel Grey’s MC will surely not be tolerated, and one where we can only hope the secondary Jewish characters who end up getting wed can escape and survive.

Cabaret is a fantastic musical, stringing entertaining musical numbers together with a number of interesting storylines, a glance at historical cause-and-effect, and all-around fantastic performances by the entire cast. I strongly recommend anyone and everyone see this movie.

Final rating: 9/10

–James A. Janisse




West Side Story (1961)

Last week I watched West Side Story for my class on musicals here at U of M. I still have the mixed meter rhythm of America stuck in my head.

So I’ve never seen this movie, but of course I knew a lot about it. Somehow, I knew that it had won 10 Academy Awards, more than any other musical, yet I missed the fact that it was a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. Oh well, I found it out soon enough, and away with this two and a half hour movie I went.

I’ll say right upfront that the length was a slight problem for me. It’s not that I don’t like long movies – some of the longer movies I’ve seen have also been some of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. But the problem with West Side Story is that its length feels enhanced by the inclusion of a few slow and honestly boring songs that just sap the pace for me. Maybe it’s a personal distaste for slow songs, but I could have done without the three or four Tony/Maria songs (except for Tonight).

Besides that, there’s not too many bad things to say about the movie. Granted, the movie depicts gangs who do group plies while they patrol their street, but you just have to get over the fact that these are not your average Greasers. It’s like Danny Zuko and the T-Birds met up with the seven brothers with seven brides, and they all gave and took a little. No, I wouldn’t be afraid of Riff or Baby John either, but it’s a musical adapted from Broadway, so you just have to deal with it.

And once you do you can enjoy the hell out of yourself. You’ll definitely recognize at least three songs from the movie that you’d heard before but didn’t know their origins. The music in this film, done by Leonard Bernstein, is fantastic and catchy. Even the music that is just background or scored, without words, is some great jazzy riffs that really carry the film.

The story, adapted from one of the greatest storytellers of all time, is of course solid. The plethora of characters each carve out their own niche and make themselves memorable in their own way. Despite being made in the less-than-progressive year of 1961, I feel as though the film at least tries to offer a balanced view of the racial tension that makes its plot.

The direction and cinematography is what really did it for me, though. I don’t know who did more work, Robert Wise or Jerome Robbins, but the end result is a beautiful collection of shots that combine stasis and playful angles. It made the movie at least three times more enjoyable than a dull, standard shot/reverse shot fare would have provided.

I really enjoyed this movie, though it might not be for people who have a hard time watching old hokey movies or for people who don’t enjoy musicals. The length could also serve as a problem, but since the entirety of the movie is filled with fantastic music and great performances, it feels justified when you finish the film. West Side Story deserves its status as one of the greatest musicals of all time, and I feel enriched for having finally seen it.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

The Pirate (1948)

The Pirate is a musical made the same year as Easter Parade and featuring Judy Garland as well. The male star of The Pirate is Gene Kelly instead of Easter Parade’s Fred Astaire. These are two different musicals legends who had different ideas on how a musical should be. A comparison of the two looking at only 1948 would probably see Astaire as the victor, because The Pirate is a bad movie.

The film opens with Garland reading from a picture book about Mack the Black, a pirate who raids villages and steals women. Of course, the strong female character that she is, Garland wishes for a time when she, too, could be kidnapped and taken away by a man who would undoubtedly beat her while killing people and stealing things. Instead, Garland is set to be wed to a porcine mayor who is ready to settle down and not travel. Luckily for her, Gene Kelly is a traveling actor who may lack enough sense to get involved.

Kelly always plays individuals who are super-masculine and quite brash, but The Pirate takes it to a whole new level. Kelly claims that there are too many beautiful women with too many names, so he calls them all NiƱa – resulting in one of the most uninventive and obnoxious songs I’ve heard in a musical, whose only saving grace is its wordless dancing near the end. Kelly’s character lies and deceits to get close to Garland, and when she finds out she hurls objects at his head repeatedly. Yet, a moment later, she is at his side, singing “You Can Do No Wrong” to him. This flip-flop that comes out of nowhere is only one of the eyeroll-inducing moments of this movie that prevent you from writing off its stupidity as being a product of the times.

The two aforementioned songs are quite unenjoyable. Another, “Be a Clown”, is all right and actually features a great dance from Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers, two black dancers whose scenes were cut when the film aired in some Southern states. But “Be a Clown” will already be familiar to those who have seen “Singin’ in the Rain” – although it’s true that “Singin'” came later and practically stole The Pirate’s song, its familiarity still brings it down a notch. The only song left that I enjoyed is “Mack the Black”; it’s a pretty catchy tune, and features Garland at the most sensuous I’ve ever seen her.

I’d like to take this opportunity to confess that I think Judy Garland is a bad actress. Which is not to say I don’t like her – I think she’s cute and endearing. I still would never trust her with any dramatic material, and I don’t think she has a good range of emotions to display.

The film has long takes of well-choreographed dancing, and that’s about the only thing I can truly compliment. The dances aren’t the most exciting or original, but they are high-energy.

The rest of the film is cheap and thoughtless. You can see the strings behind the production at least twice, once when Garland’s hat is “blown” off, and again when Kelly walks a “tightrope” to her window. There’s also a very strange sequence in which Garland imagines herself as a donkey that Kelly is dancing around… I can’t even being to analyze that, and it just served to further irritate me.

I can’t recommend this movie to anyone except the most die-hard fans of musicals, Gene Kelly, or Judy Garland. It might have been an entertaining flick back in the days, but its triteness and overt sexism doesn’t stand up today.

Final Rating: 3/10

–James A. Janisse

Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat is one of the most famous musicals of all time, and possibly the most acclaimed of the ten movies that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. I personally first learned of the film through its inclusion in The Green Mile, which I had seen when I was much younger. I had always been interested in the film that spawned the “Cheek to Cheek” number, and since then I’ve seen Top Hat a few times.

As film critic Alonso Duralde once told me, watching an Astaire and Rogers movie for plot will only result in heartache. I’d be willing to say that that goes for most movies made during this time, when studios had solidified their movie-churning process and nothing was allowed to be too original. Therefore, I feel like it’s best to look at the movie for what it’s really showcasing – the musical abilities of its two leads, the unmatchable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

In that regard, Top Hat is excellent. The musical numbers just seem to get better and better. No Strings (I’m Fancy Free) is usual Astaire goodness, where he makes sure to utilize the furniture around him as part of his dance. His sand tap dancing to put Rogers asleep is also a nice touch, both interesting and somewhat romantic. Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To be Caught in the Rain) is enjoyable because Rogers gets to match Astaire in his dance steps under a gazebo.

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails is a fantastic number. Although it uses more than one shot, which went against Astaire’s philosophy on dance sequences, it includes him using his cane as a prop to a marvelous degree. It becomes a rifle that he tap-shoots his backup dancers with, and the whole thing is both humorous and impressive. Cheek to Cheek is of course possibly the best known song that Astaire and Rogers ever performed together, and it’s not hard to see why. The lyrics are as sweet as anything you could imagine, and their dancing together is exemplary of top-notch class. This is also the instance of Rogers’ feather dress which would gain her the nickname “Feathers” to Astaire for the rest of their career, and which would be referenced in Astaire’s Easter Parade.

The Piccolino is admittedly a nonsense song with subpar lyrics, but the big dance number makes up for it, and to be fair, it was really just an exercise at rhyming an unusual word. With that in mind, it’s not so horrible a tune, and serves as an adequate finale to the film.

Unfortunately, I am unable to praise this film as flawless and perfect. It would be dishonest of me to not admit that the plot had me irritated. I understand that the comical mishap of ascribing a wrong identity to someone may not have been overdone when this movie came out, but nowadays such a thing is more than trite, and the entirety of the plot relies on it. It’s very contrived, and you realize that the entire ordeal would be solved if the characters were just able to better communicate. I couldn’t stand that Rogers mistook Astaire to be her friend’s husband for almost the entire picture. It was such a weak foundation to a silly storyline.

I also wasn’t a fan of the butler character Bates, who was inconsistent and unnecessarily flamboyant. Alberto Beddini was played by Eric Rhodes, who very obviously wasn’t Italian, and the result is one of the worst accents I’ve ever heard in filmic history. These weak and sometimes annoying characters, combined with the questionable plot, are weakpoints to a film that has otherwise survived its 75 year age to remain relevant.

If you can bring yourself to ignore such inconvenient deficiencies, the musical numbers will not disappoint. Astaire and Rogers are possibly at their finest here, showcasing their dancing and musical skills and proving why, 70 years later, we all still know and love their names, and why 70 years from now they’ll remain just as relevant.

Final rating: 7.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade is the only film with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, and it’s your standard musical fare, lively and saccharine with little character development but interesting dance numbers.