December has always felt like a month for movie musicals. The TV schedules start filling up with them as the year winds down, while in cinemas, lavish new musicals almost always wait until the final month of the year to spring themselves on tipsy, receptive audiences. This year, Cats fills the noble Christmas-time slot previously taken by the likes of Les Miserables and The Greatest Showman.
The British Film Institute’s blockbuster musicals season (titled simply, but with apt jazz-hands punctuation, “Musicals!”), has been well timed, beginning in October but crescendoing just as everyone kicks back for Christmas. For those who can’t get to participating cinemas, however, the BFI Player offers a generous slice of the programme to stream at home – a cosier option that, for one thing, allows you to sing along as lustily as you like.
The selection ranges from obvious big, sparkly Hollywood extravaganzas to more lateral, independent interpretations. Tsai Ming-liang’s dreamily unclassifiable object The Wayward Cloud, with its shuffling kaleidoscope of erotica, watermelon fetishism and sprightly choreographed numbers, is several planets apart from An American in Paris, for example, but they fall under the same bright umbrella here. BFI Player subscribers get exclusive access to the more leftfield selections, but the bulk of the films are available on an inexpensive pay-per-view basis. (A selection of curios and British musical shorts, furthermore, can be streamed free.)
The real star attraction here – assuming you don’t need to be pointed once more to deathless favourites like Singin’ in the Rain – is Gold Diggers of 1933, the ne plus ultra in Busby Berkeley-choreographed spectacle, with its vast, meringue-like arrangements of whirling, wide-skirted dancers, marching soldiers and shimmering, gold-plated showgirls. The production numbers for the Shadow Waltz or We’re in the Money are more eye-poppingly elaborate than almost any from its era, to say nothing of now: it makes Chicago look positively Loachian by comparison. The joy of it, though, goes past the sizzle and dazzle. Made in Hollywood’s more permissive pre-Code age, its story of women on the hunt for rich husbands – amid the usual “let’s put on a show” shenanigans – is bracing in its tart, cynical sexual and economic politics, and wickedly funny too.
It would make an amusing double bill with The Boy Friend, Ken Russell’s typically full-tilt-bananas go at capturing the spirit and decadence of Berkeley’s musicals, albeit with fumes of its own era’s psychedelia. It’s doting pastiche that is now its own kitsch 1971 time capsule, staged with hilarious vampy excess throughout – with Twiggy sweetly and surprisingly radiant as a flip-haired flapper.
Or for a more bittersweet take on postmodern musical nostalgia, try Herbert Ross’s eternally underrated and under-screened version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, with a brilliantly cast Steve Martin bringing just the right edge of wry, rueful darkness to its depression-era tale of a failing sheet music salesman escaping into showbiz delusions: exquisitely shot and staged, it’s the rare Americanisation of a British property that enriches its source. (They also have the leaden, Robert Downey Jr-starring film version of Potter’s The Singing Detective: watch only for morbid comparison, if at all.)
Still, as the holiday nears, you’ll probably want less compromised musical pleasures, which the programme offers in spades. The Judy Garland retrospective we began in October can continue with the fizzy delights Ziegfeld Follies and Summer Stock, another fleet-footed Gene Kelly collaboration. Otherwise, Lena Horne singing Honey in the Honeycomb is a transcendent vision in the it’s-a-wonderful-afterlife romp Cabin in the Sky, a rare all-black musical from the studio era. Or bring things up to date with John Cameron Mitchell’s vibrant, punkish, life-giving East Germany-era transgender rock opera Hedwig and the Angry Inch: if telly falls back on failsafes like Mary Poppins this festive season, it’s good to have alternative musical options.
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s sun-gilded Los Angeles memory piece is a rambling, roving, shaggy-dog delight for two hours, with a brash, clock-stopping finale that aims to divide opinion: I checked out, but others will ride with it.
Blinded By the Light
Gurinder Chadha’s bouncily nostalgic jukebox comedy is an appealing concept — a British-Pakistani kid’s coming of age in Thatcher-era Luton, set to the roaring Americana of Springsteen — in search of slightly snappier execution.
The grandmama of golden-age Hollywood weepies, following Bette Davis’s trajectory from hard-up spinster to elegantly lovelorn society lady, gets a fully varnished Criterion Collection release: that swooning, iconic Max Steiner score couldn’t sound crisper.
Some canny seasonal counter-programming by Netflix: Penny Lane’s playful but penetrating documentary takes the devout eccentrics of the Satanic Temple quite seriously, probing the liberal ideals beneath the sinister theatre of it all.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold (Universal, PG)
File under “wow, this is surprisingly un-terrible”: this live-action adaptation of the ubiquitous kids’ cartoon has been aged up a bit into a sweet-natured family adventure with some gusto and gumption.
A sharp Blu-ray rerelease for Paul Schrader’s lean, still-powerful directorial debut, a working-class crime drama from the American rust belt that makes particularly vivid, cast-against-type use of comedian Richard Pryor.