Favorite musical sequences in non-musicals
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I liked your “Favorite musical scenes in musicals” AVQ&A. The next question seems obvious: What are your favorite musical scenes in non-musicals? I’d have to give my vote to Bill Murray and ScarJo rocking some karaoke in Lost In Translation. How about you? —MJ
There are so many levels to my enjoyment of the performance of “Baby Boomer Santa” in the Glee parody Christmas episode of Community. In the scene, Troy and Abed entice Pierce to join glee club by pandering directly to his misplaced sense of Baby Boomer importance with sloppy, hodgepodge references like communists giving polio to Doris Day; smoking acid while fighting at Woodstock; and a refusal to accept irrelevance. (I especially love this because my parents are Boomers.) The best part, though, is that their ploy works, as evinced by Pierce’s looks of cool smugness and then magnanimousness as he accepts credit for “everything in the world.” Visually, it’s a delightful performance, as Donald Glover and Danny Pudi act out several decades in one small frame, with unnamed PAs handing them props from off-camera. And I love Danny Pudi’s little pipe-cleaner legs kicking as he dances. Even though it’s a seasonal song, I sometimes listen to it a few times in a row for fun, because in addition to the clever scene and interesting staging, it’s just a happy little sing-along ditty to boot.
I expected very little from Forgetting Sarah Marshall in the run up to its release, and the pleasant surprise of its hilarity is probably why I watch it whenever I see it on cable. A lot of that goodwill comes from the musical touches littering the film—Jason Segel’s drunken, sad-sack rendition of the Muppet Show theme, foreshadowing his own Muppet film, is certainly a highlight. But my favorite is the solo piano sequence at his character’s lowest point, and the beginning of his recovery. Beginning with a self-loathing and mildly psychotic conversation song as Peter tries to convince himself to seek help for his depression, it’s an uncomfortably hilarious circling-the-drain moment. But that bottoming out leads to a slow recovery, and a montage of house-cleaning, running on a treadmill, and writing at the piano pairs with a reprise of “Dracula’s Lament.” That forms the lynchpin moment for Peter as well as the film, and earns the ridiculous musical finale.
I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb with this one, since it’s a musical number which revolves around lip-synching rather than actually singing. But the first thing that came to mind was Jon Cryer’s performance of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” in Pretty In Pink. It’s easy to look at the character of Ducky at various times throughout the film and see precisely why he’s a social outcast among the popular kids, but for those moments when he’s strutting and emoting his way through Trax’s aisles and up and down its steps, he’s almost cool. Or, given how exhausted he is by the end of it, maybe he’s trying a little too hard. Either way, it’s still a scene that served to introduce most of the ’80s generation to Otis Redding, so it’s a winner in my book.
It’s always seemed strange to me that it wasn’t until late in life, when Mel Brooks’ movie career was essentially over, that he started making full-blown musicals (by adapting his old movies to Broadway shows), because even in his prime, his movie comedies tended to just take off into the stratosphere when the characters suddenly began to sing and dance. The “Puttin’ On The Ritz” number from Young Frankenstein remains a personal favorite, but it’s a model of genteel restraint compared to the Spanish Inquisition production number in History Of The World, Part One. Bad taste never tasted so good.
I resolved a few years back not to write here about the books I’ve written, in an attempt to not be that obnoxious, self-promoting asshole constantly shoving his work down people’s throats… But when I was writing my memoir, The Big Rewind, I decided that if it were ever adapted into a film (the rights are still available!) it would end with an elaborate production number set to “Things Are Looking Up.” So you can only imagine how surprised and thrilled and a little spooked I was that Whit Stillman’s charming, somewhat strained newfangled screwball comedy Damsels In Distress ends with, yes, an elaborate production number set to “Things Are Looking Up.” It’s a wonderfully whimsical, gleefully anachronistic way to end the film. I was on the fence throughout Damsels In Distress, finding it lovely and sweet, but a little thin and forced. Still, this final song in an otherwise non-musical film put me firmly on the side of the fans.
I’m pretty mixed on (500) Days Of Summer, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s dance to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” is the stuff of movie magic. The way it builds is pretty phenomenal: At first, viewers don’t understand that they’re watching a musical sequence. It just appears that director Marc Webb has selected some music to reflect Gordon-Levitt’s euphoria after sleeping with the girl of his dreams. But bit by bit, the reality of the world around him changes, and the camera captures that transformation step by step. First, Gordon-Levitt sees himself as Han Solo in his reflection. Next, he’s high-fiving people who are happy to share in the moment. Soon, a full marching band is accompanying the film’s soundtrack. There’s simply no better way to demonstrate his inner emotions at this moment than this surprise musical number. The animated bird that lands on Gordon-Levitt’s shoulder is ridiculous. But then again, so is love.
The segment in Magnolia where the cast sings Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” is such a massive bum-out that it’s almost comical. Director Paul Thomas Anderson works through his sad ensemble, with each member singing a line or two while staring off into space sadly, sitting in some sad apartment, car, or, in Jason Robards’ case, on the bed on which he’ll soon die—sadly! The scene wouldn’t be effective if Mann’s song weren’t such a punch in the gut: The titular charge to “Wise Up” comes from realizing that even getting everything we want can have unintended consequences that prevent true happiness, so the only way to be less miserable is to give up. Just in case anyone misses the point, Melora Walters sets the tone for the sequence by snorting coke off her coffee table and berating herself for being stupid. She’s one of a group of people who desperately need some tiny measure of hope to survive, yet spend three minutes singing about how they shouldn’t hope for anything. In a film that already has its share of heartbreaking moments, “Wise Up” may take top honors. So naturally I love it.
I have a soft spot for Spider-Man 3. I don’t think it’s a good movie—the third act is a horrible mess, the Sandman plot never goes anywhere, and in general, there’s just too much going on for any of it to be very satisfying or make much sense—but there’s enough of a raw, weird film buried under all the flopsweat that I can’t help loving it a little. And one of the sequences I love the most is one that set a lot of fans’ teeth on edge: Peter Parker’s temporary transformation into an emo asshole, a story arc that climaxes in a jazz bar, with a quick, utterly ridiculous music and dance number. The whole thing is unabashedly silly, as Emo Pete attempts to humiliate his ex-girlfriend by dazzling a date (the luminous, underused Bryce Dallas Howard, who looks like a Jack Kirby drawing come to life), and when disaster strikes, it does so pretty much by accident. Which makes sense; Tobey Maguire’s Parker was always such a thoroughly good-natured nerd that of course his big dark fantasy would seem to spring out of the smokier segments of a Gene Kelly movie. It’s a great change of pace from “edgy” superhero turns; just a shame the rest of the movie never makes its disparate pieces work.
Not being super-familiar with the conventions of Bollywood movies at the time I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I was kind of surprised to see an extended, synchronized dance sequence at the end of the movie, complete with stars Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto in the lead. To that point, the movie had been so heavy with the drama of Patel’s character reliving his short but hard life in the slums of Mumbai while answering question after question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, that the sequence seemed to come out of nowhere. But upon further consideration, the scene wasn’t all that out of place; the song, “Jai Ho,” was one of the best things about the movie, and it made sense that Pinto and Patel would be celebrating the victory of Patel’s character and the triumph of their characters’ love at the same time. It was just surprising that they would celebrate in a choreographed dance. Dance numbers like this are SOP in Bollywood movies, even ones as dramatic as Slumdog, and Danny Boyle was wise in using the dance number as a tribute to the style of movie he was trying to create.
It seems really unlikely that no one has yet mentioned Justin Timberlake’s surreal lip-synching routine to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in Southland Tales by now. So I’ll claim it; what’s not to like about a bloodied pop star wandering around a video arcade with a kickline of white-wigged nurses, in the middle of a film that otherwise lacks musical performances? That said, it’s an easy, obvious pick and we’ve written it up for numerous Inventories and AVQ&As and other pieces already, so here’s a couple extra choices just so I don’t feel too obvious: One is “You Just Got Slapped” from How I Met Your Mother, where Jason Segel smacks the hell out of Neil Patrick Harris and then sits down at a piano to musically describe what just happened. (There isn’t a good version of the sequence online, but here’s a ridiculous fake music video of him singing the same song.) And I’ve always had a soft spot for the nightclub performance from Shaolin Soccer. The film features Hong Kong comedy star Stephen Chow as a shaolin master trying to figure out how to promote his chosen martial art to the masses. Before realizing he can incorporate shaolin into a popular sport and field a winning team, he tries other, significantly less successful tactics, like dressing up (poorly) as a shaolin monk and taking his message (poorly) to a nightclub, where he and his martial-arts brother Wong Yut Fei sing (poorly) about the virtues of martial-arts training, while periodically cracking up at the ridiculousness of it all. Meanwhile, an appalled audience stares them down, and eventually starts hucking beer bottles.
I don’t think I had a more memorable time at the movies in 2012 than at Holy Motors, which swerves from one genre-defying sequence to the next and somehow manages to knit them all together through Denis Lavant’s extraordinary starring performance. But probably the most arresting moment of the film is the one no plot can contain: a deliberate interlude (billed as an entr’acte) where Lavant leads a band of accordion players and assorted musicians in a rousing cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride.” At this point, the film’s puzzling format has probably begun to make sense to the audience, so the accordion break serves as a powerful jolt of confusing energy just in case viewers are getting too settled. After that, the audience should be prepared for anything Holy Motors can throw at them—including another song, sung later on by Kylie Minogue, which I won’t spoil, but which has the same enrapturing effect and is just as surprising when it comes out of nowhere.
Monty Python turned out a surprising number of classic musical sequences over the years, but none are as near and dear to my heart as “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life,” from the otherwise non-musical Life Of Brian. There’s just something so simultaneously horrific and uplifting about a crucifixion song-and-dance number (well, there’s some head-bobbing and toe-tapping; hard to do much actual dancing up there on the cross) that I find it irresistible. When I first saw it in high school, I think it mostly appealed to my blasphemous sensibilities, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate it for the way it transcends irony and works as a genuine celebration of life’s glorious highs and shitty lows. I hope if I ever find myself nailed to a cross, I can dig deep and still find the beauty in the fact that hey, at least I’m still breathing… for the next few minutes, anyway.
Wait, have we really gone this far without someone mentioning a Simpsons musical number? It’s like I don’t even know you people anymore. Say it with me now: Monorail… monorail… monorail…. (Running a close second: “See My Vest.”)