Whilst dance was used in the classic musical to resolve any trace of conflict between the characters, contemporary musicals began questioning the therapeutic powers of this activity, often stripping it of its soothing abilities or even eliminating it entirely from the narratives.
Since then, dance has reappeared in only a handful of musicals, perhaps without the complexity of the West Side Story choreographies, but maintaining enough vivacity to move and surprise viewers.
Today, we bring you five of the best choreographies from recent musical films:
5- ‘We both reached for the gun’ from Chicago (2002, Marshall)
The choreography in this scene is minimal, but the little there is creates one of the best musical sequences of the film. A common motif in the musical is the comparison between law and show business, and in this number an impish Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) gives a majestic class on how to control the media to the defendant’s favor by turning them into string-puppets.
Make-up, lightning and stage design work wonderfully to produce the illusion of watching reporters become dancing marionettes while being manipulated by Flynn’s blatant lies, and the transition between the real world and the theatrical counterpart carries here an interesting symbolic relationship.
4- ‘Cvalda’ from Dancer in the dark (2000, Von Trier)
One of the few uplifting moments from this heartbreakingly tragic musical, Cvalda provides an interesting take on choreography by turning every factory worker into part of Selma’s (Björk) childish mind. Every employee turns into a dancer, and they join Selma’s celebration of musicals by producing an old-style number inspired on the movement of the machines.
It’s a rare moment of positive communal unity which will later turn against the innocent female lead and destroy her –as in other Von Trier films such as Dogville. To atone for the simplicity of the choreography, it relies heavily on a fast-paced cutting and a lively music which derives from the sounds made by the objects surrounding the characters, thus becoming the perfect playground for peculiar singer Björk.
3- ‘Run and tell that’ from Hairspray (2007, Shankman)
Late film critic Roger Ebert defined Hairspray as just plain fun. Indeed, Hairspray is one of the most jovial, well-done musicals from the latest years. It might lack the transgressive spirit of John Waters’ classic, but it makes up for it with cheer and excellent performances from most of the cast.
Since it targeted the teen audience, the movie depends on dancing, a classic narrative and transparent, pop visuals. One of the best numbers of the film is performed by two of the most talented dancers and singers of the movie: Elijah Kelly as Seaweed, and Taylor Parks as Little Inez. Both are engaging, energetic and have outstanding moves, proving that the casting choices were spot-on in this stage-to-screen adaptation.
2- ‘Cell block tango’ from Chicago (2002, Marshall)
Chicago was originally set to be a film project directed by late choreographer Bob Fosse, with Liza Minnelli, Goldie Hawn and Frank Sinatra as the main protagonists –we’ll let that sink in for a bit. However, the death of the Cabaret director halted the production and the project was eventually shelved, until the 1996 Broadway revival spurred it back to life once more.
The Cell block tango scene is one of the most perceptibly Fosseish numbers of the entire movie. It is sensual, violent, and the lightning, color and costumes are vaguely reminiscent of the decadent world created by the choreographer in Cabaret. Catherine Zeta-Jones is brilliant as Velma Kelly, and the symbolic construction of the choreography is truly exquisite. Marshall understands the artistic possibilities of the fast-paced cutting introduced during the seventies and eighties, and uses it magnificently to create the most memorable scene from the movie.
1- ‘Le tango de Roxanne’ from Moulin Rouge! (2001, Luhrmann)
If the essence of the meaning of dancing in musical films had to be exemplified in a singular scene, the best choice would arguably be Le tango de Roxanne from Moulin Rouge!. Luhrmann, a fan of musicals with a background on stage and opera, proves in this film that he understands the obscure connection between emotions, song and dance.
In this stunning moment of the movie, Christian’s pain, Satine’s hesitation and The Duke’s anger acquire an almost manic, viral quality, infecting every courtesan, dancer and musician from the Moulin, throwing them into a passionate carnival of sinister experiences: jealousy, fear, violence and even death. The choreography is beautiful, the dancers are superb, and the fast-paced cutting and fleeting, numerous frames–this scene alone has about four hundred!- create a cinematic experience that captures the spectators, involving them enthusiastically in the ill-omened fate of the characters.
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