The times they are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan once portentously sung. What Dylan didn’t add to his perennial classic – perhaps fortunately for us – was an accompanying dance number. Because while we look to poets and commentators to guide us through turbulent periods, what often gets us through are expressions of uncomplicated, unfiltered uplift.
That’s where musicals come in: grace and elegance, action and energy, all-singing, all-dancing epitomes of joie de vivre. And many wonderful, often unusual, musical delights can be streamed online, providing that communal feeling of release, even when contained in our own homes.
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Modern titles dominate the Netflix landscape, so for lovers of Hollywood’s golden age musicals, that leaves slim pickings. Fortunately, two all-time greats are available. From 1939, The Wizard of Oz is still the family musical par excellence. Oz’s vibrant Technicolor (ruby slippers, Yellow Brick Road), Judy Garland’s iconic Dorothy, Oscar-winning ballad ‘Over the Rainbow’ – the film’s magic remains undimmed, even if its central message of “There’s no place like home” has an ironic edge in the current climate.
For sheer musical dynamism, it’s unlikely that gangland Romeo and Juliet update West Side Story (1961) will ever be beaten. The propulsive, witty Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim soundtrack and Jerome Robbins’ street-infused choreography still dazzle today. It’s also worth checking out (again) before Steven Spielberg’s period remake arrives later this year.
2016’s best picture Oscar winner for around two minutes, until the mistake was very publicly corrected, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land remains a bittersweet fusion and update of Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy’s lavish musical melodramas. Stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone may not be a modern Fred and Ginger, but the film still pays enchanting tribute to its overt influences.
If any one film industry has singlehandedly kept the musical afloat, it’s Bollywood. Netflix’s international range is limited, but there are some decent modern options. Megastar Shah Rukh Khan is well represented with his big, traditional, turn-of-the-century hits, like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) or Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… (2001).
Yet it’s good to also see newer, more subversive offerings. Secret Superstar (2017) centres on a young woman from an abusive home who, disguised in a burqa, uploads her own songs to YouTube and becomes an internet sensation. And last year’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (‘How I Felt When I Saw That Girl’) is a romcom with a difference. The feature debut from writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar handles its story about young lesbian Sweety with unapologetic grace and a deft meta-narrative angle. As Sweety’s playwright supporter tells her uncomprehending father (Slumdog Millionaire’s Anil Kapoor): “It’s a fresh story sir. There are plenty girl-guy love stories. Why make one more?”
If you’re looking to discover Bollywood in its postwar heyday, then Amazon is a good starting point. There’s an extensive selection of Indian cinema’s longstanding classics, including two essential works from romantic tragedy (and tragic) maestro Guru Dutt. Pyaasa (1957) stars the director as a luckless poet and features a stunning S.D. Burman soundtrack, while Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) has been rumoured to be more autobiographical, featuring Dutt in a doomed love affair with his own former paramour Waheeda Rehman.
Another film that often features in best Bollywood films lists is Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972). A lavish costume drama of illicit love between a Muslim courtesan (Meena Kumari) and a respectable young man, it had a long, chequered production, but its dazzlingly sensual song and dance have long marked it out as a national cinema high point.
Reflecting the south Asian experience in the west is director Gurinder Chadha’s specialty. Her latest, Blinded by the Light (2019), might have been overshadowed by box-office pop biopics Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019), but Chadha’s film is a more self-assuming, charming jukebox musical. Growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, young Javed struggles to reconcile his Pakistani family’s roots and expectations with a growing passion for Bruce Springsteen’s small-town-shunning, open road ideals. And when the likes of ‘Born to Run’ blast out, it’s hard to not to join his quest for freedom.
Younger viewers, meanwhile, might tap along to dancing penguin adventure Happy Feet (2006), a sure-footed animation crowd-pleaser with the likes of Hugh Jackman and the late great Robin Williams on warbling vocal duties. Some might quibble that genius Australian director George Miller won his Oscar here, rather than for a game-changing Mad Max action epic, but here is a film whose title inspires what it says.
Fresh from the BFI’s autumn 2019 Musicals! season, there are plenty of gems currently available to rent here – the best of Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Busby Berkeley and many more. For subscribers, it’s a more select but wonderfully offbeat group. Perhaps the most previously acclaimed is Once (2007), the little Irish indie that could – it even won an Oscar for its signature tune (‘Falling Slowly’) from co-stars/musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. No dancing here, but plenty of heartfelt acoustic tracks.
For more lusty moves and full-bodied crooning to the likes of Dusty Springfield and Tom Jones, seek out John Turturro’s one-of-a-kind, working-class karaoke musical Romance & Cigarettes (2005). Set in shabby but vibrant Queen’s, New York, it’s a passionate love triangle of James Gandolfini’s ironworker, his wife Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet’s flame-haired, Mancunian lingerie saleswoman. With an equally committed ensemble cast including legendary smooth-mover Christopher Walken, it’s a cult movie in the making.
There’s barely a genre that Japanese maverick Takashi Miike hasn’t tackled in his 100 plus features, and two of his musicals feature here. 2012’s For Love’s Sake, a manga-adapted high-school romance between angelic Ai and scarred delinquent Makoto, is a riot of neon hues, tongue-in-cheek camp and violence, almost Miike’s own John Waters tribute. A decade prior, midnight movie classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) showcases a guest-house proprietor family whose visitors can’t seem to stay alive, but who greet their problems with sunny optimism and song. It’s been described as ‘The Sound of Music meets Dawn of the Dead’ – not something one can say about most musicals.
Disney+ has corralled generations of family entertainment under its new house streaming service. You’ll find all its song-and-dance-infused feature animation classics here, so take your pick from the original golden age (say, The Jungle Book), its 1990s second coming (perhaps Beauty and the Beast) and the 2010s revival spearheaded by box-office behemoth Frozen (2013). Pick of the new guard is Moana (2016), an inventive tale of a plucky young Pacific island girl saving her people, which is studded with great tunes co-written by Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda.
If you want to step outside of animation, the channel has live-action musicals too, including beloved singing nun vs Nazis box-office champ The Sound of Music (1965); or a young Christian Bale strutting his stuff in Newsies (1992), in which a group of New York newsboys stand up to a ruthless tycoon. And The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) pits Kermit and co against Michael Caine’s Scrooge, in what’s arguably the greatest big-screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, a treat for any time of year.
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