Singing a different tune

"Across the Universe"

A number of daring, wildly unconventional musicals are redefining the storied genre

Music is in the air -- especially the air surrounding current moviegoers, whether they find themselves in art houses or multiplexes. A surprisingly varied blast of music-based features has pumped through theaters this year, from revivals of the traditional movie musical form such as New Line's "Hairspray" to rock-driven tales such as the Weinstein Co.'s Joy Division biopic "Control." Perhaps most striking is a group of films that resist easy classification -- movies that are music-centric but don't follow the established conventions of the classic song-and-dance picture: Call them the maverick musicals.

Films such as Fox Searchlight's "Once," Sony's "Across the Universe" and "Romance & Cigarettes," the Weinstein Co.'s "I'm Not There" and Warner Bros.' "August Rush" all feature music at the core of their stories and include musical performances by their actors, but all take decidedly unconventional approaches to the creation of a movie musical world.

"Once" is the rare musical that requires no suspension of disbelief, with its music stemming believably from the "real" world its characters inhabit. "Across the Universe" turns the songs of the Beatles into a soundtrack for a story that sets young love against a pop-cultural history of the 1960s, while "I'm Not There" deconstructs the music and persona of Bob Dylan with a lead character split among six actors. "August Rush" unfolds as a sophisticated fairy tale in which characters are defined by the music they perform, and "Romance & Cigarettes" creates an urban fantasia in which the actors' performances of pop songs reveals the private soundtracks for their characters.

"I think it's great to be exploring some new approaches to the form," says John Turturro, who wrote and directed "Romance & Cigarettes," which made the festival rounds last year and had a European release before a U.S. release this fall.

"If you look at literature or painting or almost any other art form, there's not just one way for things to be presented," adds Turturro. "But movies get stuck and do the same thing over and over again. I think it's OK to ask the audience to use a little imagination, and if you have a great story to tell, they're not going to mind if you take some chances and do things differently."

Turturro credits the work of Dennis Potter (1981's "Pennies From Heaven") as a strong inspiration for his approach to music in "Romance & Cigarettes." In the film, a cast that includes James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken sing along with tunes by everyone from Engelbert Humperdinck to James Brown, with production numbers working as a kind of window into characters' motivations and desires. "Music is a way of escape and fantasy and memory, and we all access that through whatever's in our cars and on our iPods and what we sing in the shower or the basement," says Turturro. "It's a big part of our private lives, and that's what I was interested in. But I'm not thrilled when I see musicals that try to capture the polished style of a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly film. I wanted people dancing in their underwear in their bedroom, and I wanted the musical elements to be very grounded in a simple, honest reality. I wanted to have a musical based on humanity rather than fantasy."

John Carney, writer and director of "Once," also took a reality-based approach to his tale of a struggling Irish songwriter and a Czech immigrant who connect through their music. "The very first thought I had about this film was that I wanted a musical that didn't ever step into fantasy," he explains. "I was thinking about creating a musical that felt as natural as a Ken Loach film, where the people are singing because they're musicians and the music is part of their life. I was interested in a musical where you didn't need any kind of contrivance to have people sing."

The film took an extra step toward reality when Carney cast his friend and ex-bandmate Glen Hansard in the lead role and had Hansard perform his own music. "Most of the songs were written for the film through a lot of back and forth with Glen," says Carney. "And the songs don't serve the traditional musical purpose of moving the plot forward, because not that much happens. The songs are there to add dimension to the character. So when it came to casting, after looking at some actors who could kind of sing, I decided it was better to build the film around a singer who could kind of act."

"Across the Universe" worked the other way, pulling strong musical performances from a young cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson. The film also took the highly unusual step of recording the vocal performances live to camera, rather than having the actors lip-synch to prerecorded tracks. But the most distinctive element of the film's music is that its soundtrack is built around new, often startling arrangements of well-known Beatles' songs. "The goal of the film was never to mess with the Beatles music," says composer Elliot Goldenthal, who worked closely with director Julie Taymor from the film's initial conception through postproduction. "I think of the songs of the Beatles the way I do the work of Gershwin and Berlin -- beautiful compositions that can be interpreted many ways. No one ever says, 'Oh no, you're doing a Mozart cover.' In that sense, there's no reason we can't separate the brilliant work of the band from the brilliance of the songwriting."

Iconic music also presented challenges to "I'm Not There" director Todd Haynes, who chose to keep the music of Bob Dylan tied to his life story, utilizing original Dylan tracks and cover versions to present various embodiments of the enigmatic songwriter. Haynes himself isn't quite sure whether the results are as unconventional as might be assumed. "Is it a musical? Yes and no," he explains. "One of the things people frown on in traditional musicals is the unreality -- the fact that people burst into song and sing what they can't say. To me, that's radical -- that's always crazy enough to be interesting, and I'm not sure how much allegiance film has to pledge to so-called reality, as film's greatest moments have very little to do with reality. Things like (1964's) 'My Fair Lady' and (1961's) 'West Side Story' are extraordinary works, and it's not so bad to be a part of that tradition. There are a lot of ways to present characters through music and a lot of ways to explore the story with music. When you're dealing with a subject like Dylan, the excitement as a filmmaker is to try to find a visual parallel to his music, and that just opens the floodgates of creative possibilities."

For the forthcoming "August Rush," composer Mark Mancina worked extremely closely with director Kirsten Sheridan to create separate musical worlds for the lead characters, as well as a symphony performed at the film's end in which those worlds intertwine.

"The work process was really a hybrid of film work and musical theater work," says Mancina. "Normally, as a film composer I'm part of postproduction and I come in when they're cutting. On this one, I was there from the beginning, and my music actually influenced the way the story would go. The script had been written, but the music had to be realized first for the script to work. If a line of screenplay says, 'And the most amazing music is heard' -- you've got to do some work to back that up."

Director Sheridan often played Mancina's music on set before shooting a scene to help establish mood and motivations for a cast that included Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Robin Williams.

"Because the overall story has a magical quality to it, I wanted it to feel very much like it's all happening in the real world," she says. "If it wasn't grounded, the magic wouldn't work. I'm not really a fan of the old-style musicals and had a hard-line view about staying away from that feel. I wanted to see real, raw emotions, not musical emotions. Basically we were building towards a magical ending, and I felt that if that ending wasn't earned through some very human emotion it would be a musical Hallmark card instead of a musical film."

While the current wave of music-driven projects may seem to break with musical tradition, to some insiders the labels of "conventional" or "unconventional" are virtually irrelevant. Composer Marc Shaiman memorably brought an exuberantly traditional musical approach to the unlikely world of "South Park" back in 1999 with the animated feature "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut." More recently, he and lyricist Scott Wittman have lovingly embraced the oddball sensibilities of director John Waters for the stage and screen adaptations of "Hairspray."

"There's a line of Oscar Hammerstein's that's stuck with me," recalls Shaiman. "He said, 'If you want to do something different, just do something good and that will be different enough.' No matter what the form is, you've still got to have great stories and great characters and great music. If that's there, it doesn't matter how you label it. And frankly, the old-fashioned musical can actually seem fresh and unconventional at this point because the form's been forgotten for so long. Kids are embracing something like (Disney Channel's) 'High School Musical' because they're too young to know it's not cool. It seems like a brand-new idea to them."
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