Straz Recommends: 10 Must-See Performing Arts Movies

By guest blogger Alex Stewart, Straz Center media relations manager

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A lot of us are looking for ways to feel good right now, and nothing lifts the spirits quite like a bit of song and dance – and maybe a good-looking performer or two. I asked the Straz Center staff to share their favorite performing arts-related films, guilty pleasures included, to give you the pick-me-up you need.

So, slip into your favorite jammies, pull your unwashed hair back, grab your snacks and makeshift microphone and get ready to sing and dance along with these performing arts films from the comfort of your home.

 

Fame

Well, I guess you can’t poll the staff of a performing arts center and not have this one be the most recommended. Fame is a 1980 teen musical drama that chronicles the lives of students at the New York High School of Performing Arts. This film is everything.

So, here I must shamefully confess that until I was given this assignment, I’d never seen Fame. Upon the popularity of this film in the responses I received from our staff–including the question, “how do you even work in the performing arts?” after I mentioned I hadn’t seen it–my husband and I bought it on Amazon for six whole dollars. And I have to admit: that first full music and dance scene in the cafeteria is worth the watch alone. What I didn’t expect was how deep this film got into issues like suicide, abortion, homosexuality and illiteracy. And while the film gets a bit heavy, it’s hard to beat those musical numbers, especially if you were a teen in the 80’s.

“It was one of the first soundtracks that really made an impact on me,” says Joseph LaCrue, graphic designer at The Straz. “I didn’t realize that there were schools for the performing arts before that movie. It wasn’t really glamorous either – the movie had grit and addressed several social issues.”

If you can’t get enough of the original, you can also check out the television series that was adapted from the film, as well as the loose remake of the original film that came out in 2009.

 

La La Land

Not feeling the 80s? Check out this romantic 2016 Los Angeles movie starring Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress. They meet and fall in love. The film pays homage to old Hollywood musicals and won six Academy Awards, including Best Director for Damien Chazelle, making him the youngest director in history to win the award. As a drummer, Chazelle was already interested in musicals but wanted to create one that was based more in the real world, where things go wrong and don’t always work out.

The film has some excellent song and dance scenes, including a musical bit complete with tap dancing called “A Lovely Night” filmed atop the Hollywood Hills during sunset. The number, and the film itself, is heavily inspired by Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Gosling’s character even swings around a lamppost during the number.

And if you watch it for no other reason other than to see the hunky Ryan Gosling play piano, that’s fine with me. Yes, that’s really him playing. He learned by practicing for two hours a day, six days a week for three months, and ended up not needing a hand double or CGI. Even John Legend was jealous.

 

Singin’ in the Rain

We’d be remiss if we included a film inspired by Singin’ in the Rain without including the film itself. Only a modest hit when it was first released, it is now regarded as one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. The film is a 1952 musical comedy directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, starring Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.

Set in Hollywood in the 1920s, it focuses on three performers caught up in the transition of silent films to “talkies.” Contrary to other musical movies of the time, Singin’ in the Rain was not based on a stage musical. The script was written just for the movie and used old songs that were written by producer Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Herb Brown for other MGM musicals. At the time, Freed was producing the film An American in Paris, and he got the idea to build a script around old songs that had nothing in common other than the people who wrote them (a style you might now know as a “jukebox” musical.)

“You can never go wrong with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds against the backdrop of movies going from silent pictures to talkies,” says Kim MacCormack, publications manager at The Straz.

The film is included multiple times in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 years series, including coming in at #1 on their list of The 25 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time, and Gene Kelly also comes in at No. 15 on the male side of AFI’s list of the 50 Greatest American Screen Legends.

 

Grease

One of my personal favorites and my pick for this list, Grease is also on AFI’s list of the 25 Greatest Musicals of All Time, coming in at #20. A classic good-girl-meets-bad-boy romance musical, the film follows Danny and Sandy as they try to figure out life and romance in high school during the 1950s. Until recently, Grease was the highest grossing movie musical of all time. It’s now the fourth, knocked out by Disney’s recent live action movies Beauty and the Beast (#1), The Lion King (#2) and Aladdin (#3).

Grease will always hold a special place in my heart. I grew up watching this movie with my late mother, who took me, along with a few of her best friends and their daughters, to see the musical in Detroit when it was on tour in the 90s. We all dressed up in 50s costumes and participated in a dance contest they held on stage before the show, which we ended up winning. We got to go backstage after the show to meet the cast, thus cementing my love for live theater experiences at a young age.

 

Sister Act

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, this musical comedy film follows Deloris, a lounge singer, who is forced to join a convent after being placed in a witness protection program. Struggling to adjust to her new life and disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, she gets caught sneaking out to a bar and is forced to join the convent choir as a punishment. Giving traditional songs a pop or rock-and-roll twist, and transforming pop song lyrics into religious ones, Deloris turns the failing choir into a success. And with musical arrangements by Tony, Emmy, and Grammy winning Marc Shaiman, you can’t go wrong.

Sister Act was one of the most financially successful movies of the early 90s, having grossed $231 million worldwide. The success resulted in a sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, starring Lauryn Hill, and a Broadway musical.

“This is such a fun film that uses music to bring people together,” says Sarah Tellier, collaborative piano specialist at the Patel Conservatory. “The way they took pop songs and made them accessible in a religious sense is incredibly creative and they all get stuck in your head! On top of it, it just goes to show that music unites people from all different backgrounds and ways of thought.”

 

The Sound of Music

All this talk about singing nuns brings us to another classic on the list–and another favorite of many of us on the Straz Center staff.  “It’s one of my earliest musical theater memories, watching Julie Andrews sing on my TV,” explained our director of digital media, LeeAnn Douglas. “I fell in love with musicals and would watch any musical that was on after that.”

Released in 1965, but set in Austria in 1938, The Sound of Music is a musical drama that follows Maria, a young postulant at Nonnberg Abbey, whose passion for music and the mountains convinces the nuns she’d be happier elsewhere. She is sent to be the governess for a widowed and retired naval officer’s seven children, where she brings music and love into their lives.

The film is an adaptation of the stage musical, based on The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, a memoir written by Maria von Trapp. Two German films were made in the 1950s based on the memoir, but Maria had no interest in having it made into a Broadway musical as she had renounced show business to be a missionary. When she returned to America, producer Richard Halladay and his wife Mary Martin surprised her by meeting her at the docks and eventually took her to a production of Annie Get Your Gun, where they convinced her to let them buy the stage rights to her memoir.

The film received numerous awards and accolades and comes in at #55 on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, as well as #4 on The 25 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time.

 

Moulin Rouge

Since I’m already in the habit of confessions on this blog, I’ll share another one. I’m so obsessed with this movie that when I think about the song “The Sound of Music,” I hear Ewan McGregor’s voice belting out that first line in Moulin Rouge. I know he’s no Julie Andrews, but, if you haven’t heard Ewan McGregor sing, you’re missing out.

Starring McGregor, his gorgeous voice and Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge is a spectacular, spectacular romantic musical movie directed, co-produced and co-written by Baz Luhrmann. Released in 2001, it was the first musical nominated for Best Picture in 10 years since Disney’s Beauty in the Beast in 1991.

Moulin Rouge is part of Lurhmann’s red curtain trilogy, which is not a trilogy in the traditional sense, but categorizes the film as “using theatrical conventions to invigorate films to dazzling and dizzy heights.” The characteristics of Lurhmann’s specific style include taking a well-known myth and setting it in a heightened creative world in which the audience can participate. Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet are the other two films in the trilogy – and speaking of Romeo + Juliet, did you know that Leonardo DiCaprio auditioned for the role of Moulin‘s Christian? Well, DiCaprio can’t sing – and even though I’m a die-hard Leo fan, I think Ewan was a better choice.

 

Waiting for Guffman

If you’re looking for belly laughs, look no further than Waiting for Guffman. A mockumentary comedy written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, this film about the production of a stage musical features an ensemble cast that improvises their way through the story. The film stars both Guest and Levy, as well as Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard and Parker Posey and features several original musical numbers, written by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. In other words: Spinal Tap wrote the songs.

Guest is famously known for providing no script for his mockumentaries, having actors improvise based on outlines written by him and his collaborators. For this film, he shot 58 hours of footage and had to edit it down to 90 minutes, which took him 18 months.

“It’s a great comedic spoof on community theater,” says Lorrin Shepard, chief operating officer at The Straz.

 

White Christmas

We know. It’s not Christmastime. And it definitely doesn’t feel like it out there, either, here in Florida. But people are putting their Christmas lights back up for the pure joy it brings – so why not watch one of the most beloved Christmas films of all time?

“It’s just a feel-good movie,” says Patel Conservatory music director Kavanagh Gillespie. “The whole cast is dynamite, and you can’t help but sing along to all those fantastic Irving Berlin songs.”

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star as two entertainers who meet as American soldiers during World War II. After the war, they become successful producers and team up with two sisters, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, to perform a Christmas show at an inn in Vermont. While there, they run into their former commander from the war, who owns the inn. When they discover the inn is failing financially, the foursome put on a musical performance that’s sure to put the inn back into the black.

White Christmas is a classic, about actors coming together and putting on a show for the sake of the human spirit,” says Bill Rolon, the Straz Center’s director of corporate relations and sponsorships. “The arts are what feeds our souls. This film captures that and what the arts can do for our troops and us as individuals. It always brings us together.”

 

1776

For those history buffs who loved Hamilton for the story that revolves around the American Revolution, 1776 is a must-see that brings the founding fathers to life. The movie is based on the events leading to the revolution and follows John Adams as he tries to persuade his colleagues to vote in favor of independence.

Although the film was snubbed by critics, the Broadway musical was massively popular, winning three Tonys including Best Musical. And while the movie might not be a cinematic masterpiece, it could be worth a watch alone to see William Daniels, who plays Mr. Feeny in Boy Meets World, play John Adams.

“Every year, we try to watch 1776 over the Independence Day holiday,” says Suzannae Livesay, vice president of education at The Straz. “It features an outstanding cast, some outstanding scene work and a historically accurate book. Also, required viewing before seeing Hamilton.”

If we can’t convince you, take it from Lin Manuel-Miranda. He has said that 1776 paved the way for Hamilton, and he considers it one of the best musical theater books ever written.

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