Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: musicals

Camp-ing in the Outback

Starstruck

Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy), the lead of the Australian musical ‘Starstruck’ (1982) wants to be famous. She’s a singer, but her real talent is for getting attention. She pairs her bright red hennaed hair with flamboyant New Romantic crinolines. She walks a tight-rope at her Mom’s pub. Her 14-year-old cousin Angus, who fancies himself her manager, convinces her to replicate the stunt between two office towers in downtown Sydney. He phones up reporters telling them to cover the event because “it’s the type of news you write about when you don’t want to cover the real news.”

When her mother (a tough broad with an immobile Pat Nixon bouffant) questions Jackie’s talent, Angus leaps to her defense:

“She’s got star quality!”

“And what is that?” the pub patrons grumble, to which the two cousins both recite, “That little something extra.”

The quote is from ‘A Star is Born’ (1954), just after James Mason has witnessed Judy Garland singing ‘The Man That Got Away’. Responding to her overwrought singing style, Mason concludes Judy has “that little something extra” to make her famous. Steven Cohan in Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical argues that what Mason is enjoying is the campiness of Garland’s performance: her twittering emotionalism, her indulgent vocal bursts, and the manner in which she ‘acts’ the song (despite it being a sad number and her seeming almost-hysterical whilst singing, she smiles as its concluded).

Camp can be defined as a deliberately over-the-top, stylized attitude which, in its irony and incongruity, subverts the traditional cultural products it draws upon. Cohan’s book shows how Old Hollywood musicals, with their heteronormative plot lines, cheesy songs and outdated values, are invested with a queer subtext for a select audience who relish the outlandish sets and costumes, the flamboyant choreography and the overacting leading ladies.

When done intentionally, camp is a ‘wink’ to the audience that what they’re viewing is a performance, a forgery of real life. In this way it can be viewed as a very early example of post-modernism.

Starstruck

The Garland reference is not accidental, as the makers of ‘Starstruck’ meant the film as a deliberate tribute to the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland ‘backyard musicals’ of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, in which the pair would inevitably “put on a show!” in order to save their parents’ careers, or stop a theatre from being knocked down, or build a home for British war orphans. Often, the show would include a black face number. Stuck with two young stars of an awkward age, MGM accidentally invented film’s first teenagers.

While ‘Starstruck’s plot mimics that of an MGM musical (Jackie eventually has to put on a show to save her Mom’s pub) stylistically the film is more ‘Rocky Horror’ than Mickey/Judy (it shares ‘Rocky’s production designer Brian Thomson). With its outlandish costumes, garish primary colour scheme, accented over-acting and message that all problems can be solved once you get on a stage and perform, ‘Starstruck’ is a direct precursor to a string of movies in the early 1990’s I’m going to call Australian Camp: ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992), ‘The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ (both from 1994).

Fans of his later camp classic ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001) will see early traces of Baz Luhrmann’s style in ‘Strictly Ballroom’, about the sparkling but intense world of competitive ball room dancing. Gawky wallflower Fran (Tara Morice) is transformed into a sexy, sequined swan when she embraces the tango traditions of her Spanish parents.

Strictly Ballroom

The transformations of ‘Priscilla’ are more pronounced, as Hugo Weaving, Guy Pierce and Terence Stamp don unbelievable wigs, costumes and make-up while crossing the Australian outback, lip-synching to opera and ABBA atop of their shiny silver van (one of film’s all-time unforgettable images).

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert

A pre-stardom (and pre-skinny) Toni Collette also uses ABBA as an escape from the drudgeries of everyday life as the title character in ‘Muriel’s Wedding’. As a depressed pre-spinster, Muriel hides in her room from her family’s taunts (“You’re terrible, Muriel!”) and repeatedly listens to Sweeden’s favourite pop band on audio cassette. Only with the encouragement of her new best friend Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) does she later perform ‘Waterloo’ on stage in a blond wig and white jumpsuit.

Muriel's Wedding

These films not only share a camp style (with overly made-up faces being shoved into the camera and general artificiality softening hokey dialogue and plot lines) but they are about camp as they demonstrate the transformative power of performance, be it ballroom dancing, drag, karaoke or New Wave pop. Significantly, these movies are set in a gritty, working-class Australia in which burly female pub dwellers are as scary as the male ones and people microwave their tea.

They also share a witty take on the history and culture of Australia, such as when the ‘Priscilla’ drag queens perform dressed as lizards, ostriches and the Sydney Opera House, or when ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bursts out of a kangaroo costume to sing at a hip club.

While camp arose out of a queer subculture, questioning gender roles through drag and heterosexual romance through camp readings of mainstream fare like movie musicals, the irony, incongruity and wit of camp can help liberate non-queer identities as well. When the drag queens of ‘Priscilla’ interrupt some Aborigines having a bon fire, one of them joins them in a rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ (complete with didgeridoo), their shared mistreated, outsider statuses helping the two groups to bond.

But most of all these films use camp to challenge society’s expectations for women. ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bombs on a local music show when she gives up her hairdo, clothes and backup band (ie. who she is) to perform like a docile lounge singer. Only when she embraces her wildness, and wildly teased hair, does she achieve stardom. The villains of ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ are traditionally-attractive dancers and bridesmaids, whose pretty faces mask ugly characters. In the last scene of ‘Muriels’ a blonde ‘frenemy’ screams at her as she drives away, “I’m beautiful!” looking anything but.

Strictly Ballroom

It is interesting that the three non-drag queen movies feature ‘ugly ducklings’ who transform themselves, but not in the terrible way of American teen movies (take off glasses, undo pony tail). For the record, Kennedy, Morice and Collette are attractive women, just not in the standard Hollywood way, just as young Garland was beautiful despite being nicknamed ‘the little hunchback’ by the MGM brass.

Muriel's Wedding

It leaves the question, why Australia? My understanding of “down undah” is that it’s a pretty conservative, patriarchal society. How did it give rise to these sequined classics? Perhaps the conservative ethos pushed the film makers to extremes (if you’re going to do something different, might as well go all the way and use drag queens!). Or maybe their distance from America, unlike in Canada, allows them the space to develop a camp appreciation for the silliness of Hollywood.

The makers of ‘Starstruck’ admit that Australian audiences didn’t really ‘get’ the film when it came out but, like the other three, it has had a second life as an international cult favourite. Who would have thought that, along with Vegemite and sexy bad-boy actors, Australia would export camp around the world?

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Howdy Neighbour!

 

And suddenly, it’s autumn.

I woke up this morning freezing. Fortified by three cups of coffee, I attempted to build a fire to bask in and warm up the cottage. How can you resist the smell that lingers on your clothes from a wood-burning stove?

After several tries (“Oh, that’s why you’re supposed to crumple up the newspaper!”) I appear to have succeeded and am currently defrosting my toes in the orange glow.

My family used to spend many an autumn up here, sometimes staying as late as Thanksgiving. I remember falling in piles of leaves, the windy walks and the lake crashing around like the Atlantic. Even as a child, you sensed the feeling of everything winding down; the summer chairs stacked away; the hammock folded up; on the final day, the water being turned off.

There was also less pressure to run around outside (not that there was ever much) and we would cuddle up inside watching That’s Entertainment videos on our little TV.

Had to just tend to my fire. Why is it that buildings can burn down by accident, but starting a fire in an enclosed fireplace is difficult?

My Dad: “We have a copy of Cher’s workout book we can burn. It’s hardcover… How’d it get here?”

Anyways, for the uninitiated, the three That’s Entertainment films consist of clips from classic MGM movies, mostly musical numbers. The first was released in the 1970’s and their appeal is supposedly nostalgic, but as a child, I just loved them. (Insert gay joke here.)

The change of the seasons reminds me of this number from Summerstock (1950). Although her relationship with the studio had turned sour, and they were soon to kick her off the lot, it is appropriate that Judy Garland’s last movie at MGM resurrected the troupe from the beginning of her career of putting on a show “right here in the barn!” There was tension on the set, with Judy’s erratic behaviour and drug use, but none is discernible on screen. “How dare this look like a happy picture!” one of the MGM brass after seeing the rushes.

Mostly remembered for the ‘Get Happy’ number, shot two months after the rest of the film, thus explaining Garland’s obvious weight loss, I have a fondness for this song. Supposedly, Judy got tired filming it one day and asked “Why am I on this tractor? Where’s Vincent, I want to go home?” The eternal questions.

I hum it when we drive past farms in the country or when I’m taking a walk amongst the fire-coloured leaves.

Can Jason Segel Save The Muppets?

The GQ magazine that I’ve previously posted about (whose cover with Taylor Lautner cover I rather embarrassingly lusted over) has an interview with Jason Segel of I Love You, Man or Forgetting Sarah Marshall or How I Met Your Mother or Freaks and Geeks-fame. Although perhaps 90% of viewers remember Sarah Marshall for the infamous penis scene, there’s a small cadre who were more impressed by the Dracula puppet show finale. We are Muppet fans, an often difficult dedication over the two decades since Jim Henson’s passing. We have sat through some terrible films and TV shows, and Jason Segel, as a Muppet fan himself, knows our pain. Indeed, he’s our last best hope for reclaiming Kermit and company’s former glory.

In the interview, he recounts a sad scene at the Henson Company, who designed the puppets for the Sarah Marshall vampire show. Segel asked if he could see a Kermit or a Miss Piggy. After a pause, the Henson people admitted “We don’t have Kermits or Piggys. We sold everything to Disney.” Later, when he had a meeting at with Walt’s company during which a bunch of executives pitched him projects, he interrupted and said “Thank you, this is all very flattering, but listen. You guys own the Muppets and you’re just kind of sitting on ‘em. I really love the Muppets, and I think I know how to bring the franchise back.” After some laughter, and his pledge that he wasn’t going to make it ironic or Judd Apatow-esque, Disney relented. Jason Segel is getting to make his Muppet Movie.

Whether he’s able to succeed at taking on where The Muppets Take Manhattan left off will rest on how he balances the trinity of humour, music and heart. Humour for Segel will presumably not be a problem. I have faith that his funniness is not solely of the R-rated, penis-exposing variety. Music has proven an obstacle for post-1990 Muppet vehicles, partly because the scores of the original three movies were so legendary. But they’ve signed on James Bobin, co-creator of Flight of the Conchords, to direct, which is an inspired choice.

Then there’s the question of heart. It’s difficult to strike the right tone and not go schmaltzy. Surprisingly, the original Muppet Show TV show, which made Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo household names, had very little emotion in it; the show was largely made up of terrible Vaudeville one-liners, covers of classic and contemporary songs during which things would explode, and 1970’s guest stars attempting to achieve rapport with a green felt frog. All the heart came from the films; in The Muppet Movie, Gonzo’s melancholy song in the desert followed by Kermit’s outburst at the gang claiming he didn’t promise them anything; in The Great Muppet Caper, Kermit’s disillusion with Miss Piggy after she lied about being the designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg in a drag queen role); and, of course, The Muppets take Manhattan, whose ‘Saying Goodbye’ song and final wedding scene bring a tear to every Muppet-fan’s eye.

Segel had to reference the ‘Saying Goodbye’ song often during pitch meetings. “I kept getting notes from, like, the Muppet brass saying, ‘Muppets are never sad. Muppets never break up.’ And I had to be like, ‘No—they do. And that’s the best part.’”

Suddenly, the last few years of mediocrity are explained: Disney had no idea what they had bought! They thought they had acquired a pantheon of cheery, furry characters to stand alongside mindless Mickey and gang.

 (Mickey Mouse, it must be said, finally and loudly, is the single most uninteresting character in Western culture. His sole characteristic is having satellite-dish shaped ears, which turn his head into three perfect circles, becoming the ideal copyrighted logo, which is all Disney needs of him. Okay, I’m done.)

They completely misunderstood the characters. While the Muppets are zany, neuroses were always just below the fake fur. They’re all a bunch of losers. Fozzie is just a lost little boy, who has mistaken Kermit for his father and uses (bad) jokes to get attention. Ditto with Gonzo, only he likes daredevil stunts (I won’t get into his poultry-philia here).

And how to summarize Miss Piggy? Frank Oz didn’t like doing female characters and I think his being uncomfortable accounts for Piggy’s continual tension between the feminine and the masculine. She tries, desperately, to be glamorous and elegant, but she inevitably fails and when she does, she screams, and threatens, and karate-chops. Camp has been described as the failure of femininity, and Miss Piggy could be the textbook example.

Like all them, she wants Kermit’s love and approval and when it becomes too much for his nonexistent green shoulders he berates them. The fact that Kermit can be earnest and well-meaning but still get frustrated makes him very real.

But these are just my feelings about the Muppets. I’m sure Jason Segel has his own and they come from the same committed place. The Muppet Wikia site, which has literally everything you could ever want to know about the Muppets (and I know that people use that word incorrectly, but it’s an incredibly exhaustive resource) outlined two potential plots for the new movie. The first is classic Muppet and is about getting the whole gang out of retirement to save the Muppet theatre from an evil rich oil man. The second, a meta film called The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever, is based on an idea Henson himself  worked on before his death. In it, the Muppets have to make a film with a budget that keeps getting slashed, while the production values of the film you’re watching get visibly cheaper and cheaper.

The plots ultimately don’t matter much. The Muppet movies of the 1970’s and 1980’s revived the standard stories of classic musicals (“Let’s go to Hollywood/Broadway and become famous and make people happy!”), hopeful plots for a cynical time. What will matter is whether Segel can find a way to expose another organ, his heart, through Jim Henson’s complex creatures. 

Not about the World Cup

Although I may start rooting for the French team just for kicks: I love how their melodramatic theatrics have turned them into the ultimate stereotypes.

And speaking of stereotypes,

I love musicals. I grew up on Singing’ in the Rain and That’s Entertainment! (parts I, II and III). In first year I read the Judy Garland biography Get Happy and connected her ‘singing through the tears’ emotionalism with my romantic disappointments. I always have ‘The Man that Got Away’ playing somewhere in my brain on a continuous loop. During my Masters, I discovered academics who shared my obsession: finding Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical by Steven Cohen in Robarts library sent me into giggly fits of delight.

But, somehow, I had missed Gypsy. The 1962 movie, based on the 1959 Broadway show, was a huge hit when it came out and thought of as the definitive backstage musical, and arguably one of the best. It recounts the rise to fame of real-life actress and burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, pushed into showbiz by her mother, Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mom.

Mama Rose initially put all of her attention on her Shirley Temple-ish younger daughter Baby June with Gypsy playing back-up (I had no idea how much of how much the opening section of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was indebted to Gypsy). But when Vaudeville goes caput and Baby June runs off with a dancer, Mama Rose decides, rather than throw in the towel and live a “normal” life, to turn her shy, elder daughter into a star. It is at this point, stranded at a foggy country railway station, and delivered to her frightened daughter, that Mama Rose sings the famous ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, a song which I never knew had ironic undertones.

Rosalind Russell, fresh from camp-orgy Auntie Mame, was cast as Mama Rose despite not being a singer. The film editors did an incredible job of mixing Russell’s voice and that of contralto Lisa Kirk. I was surprised to learn that Natalie Wood, who had been dubbed in West Side Story by workhorse Marni Nixon, used her own voice as Gypsy. The part of Mama Rose had been originated by Ethel Merman on Broadway but the belter, in the grand tradition of Mary Martin and Carol Channing, had been denied the film role which she had made famous on stage. Although it’s a shame, I think that Merman’s performance would have been too broad for the film, always aiming for the backrow even with microphones, and Russell managed to bring out the character’s grating determination as well as her pathetic desperation (Mama Rose has been called musical theatre’s King Lear).

My dream casting would be Judy and daughter Liza Minnelli, whose ages were been perfect in 1962. It would have been the ultimate art-imitating-life, as Liza knew what it was like being raised in a performing family, and Judy, who started on the Vaudeville stage with her sisters as a toddler, had an intricate understanding of that world and its pressures. Indeed, Mama Rose might have been potentially too similar to Judy’s determined mother Ethel Gumm and playing her may have brought up childhood demons best left undisturbed.

After her mother’s futile attempts to turn her into incarnation Baby June, Gypsy’s career spirals downward until ending up at the Wichita Opera House, which turns out to be a theatre of the burlesque. At first, Mama Rose puts her foot down and refuses to let her daughter perform, but the lure of money and a little fame eventually smothers any ethical concerns. In real life, Gypsy Rose Lee never set out to be a strip-tease performer, but the cheers that accompanied an accidental slip of a shoulder strap inspired her. Although three-quarters of the movie had recounted (often painfully slow) their false starts, once Natalie Wood starts stripping her rise to fame is summarized in the tradition three-shows-each-in-increasingly-glamorous-theatres montage. Wood’s performance is stylish and sexy (and her gowns, tailored to come off in sections, are amazing) and you wonder why, given the return of burlesque via Dita von Teese, Gypsy hasn’t been rediscovered by a new generation.     

Now that she’s famous with all the perks (personal dressing room with gold star on door, ridiculous pink feathered dressing gown, sessions with French photographers in bathtub) Gypsy has little time for her meddling mother, and brushes off the woman who dedicated her life to her daughters’ careers. (Ethel Gumm, after her estrangement from Judy, worked at an airport and died in its parking lot).

“Why did I do it?” Mama Rose asks Gypsy, distracted with posing for pictures in a corseted bathrobe.

“I thought you did it for me,” Gypsy replies.

The movie ends with the incredible ‘Rose’s Turn’, a stream-of-consciousness song in which Mama Rose grills herself over her motivation for pushing her daughters into showbiz:

Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
Give ’em love and what does it get ya?

Mama Rose realizes that it was her dreams of fame and fortune that propelled her, leading to the famous ‘Mama’s Taking Loud, Mama’s Doin’ Fine!’ chant, familiar to Arrested Development fans from Lucille and Buster Bluth’s record-playing. (Lucille’s line, “How do you like those eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?” is also from the musical and one wonders about the Bluth family-Gypsy connection). I was familiar with this song from the Bernadette Peter’s tragic rendition from a Broadway revival and Kurt’s version on an episode of Glee. I can picture myself belting it in front of my bedroom mirror for years to come. But again, I wish Judy had sang it. There were only a few songs which fully utilized her vocal and acting talents simultaneously, and who knows, by placing herself inside the world’s most famous stage mom, she may have finally forgiven hers.