Back in 2009, perhaps the biggest showstopper of the Academy Awards was the musical number they performed to celebrate Mamma Mia! becoming the highest grossing movie musical of all time. Its leads were Hugh Jackman, who hosted the ceremony that year, and Beyoncé. And the behemoth of a ceremony performance was directed with all the “bigger is better” attitude by none other than Baz Luhrman. Next to Michael Bay, I would say that Luhrman is one of my least favorite directors. This is because he does not know when to say “no” or “that’s enough”. He has fantastic ideas, but he always goes over in his execution. Make a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Julie”, retaining the dialogue? How nifty! Ah, but let’s add explosion, gun fights, and what I think is “visual panache. Use contemporary pop songs to tell a tale of La Boehme? That’s awesome! Let’s add even more “visual panache” and make it an assault on your senses!
Admittedly, I did love his first film, Strictly Ballroom, a theatrical, flamboyant, and funny independent New Zealand film. But, it kind of went to hell from there. Apparently, what modest flamboyancy he could contain in that film, he wanted to really up the ante in his others. But, yes, he was hired to arrange and direct “The Musical is Back”. Actually, I don’t remember it really going anywhere since 2003, when Chicago won Best Picture at the Oscars. And then there was The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd, and Hairspray. But apparently, it needed to be brought back.
I guess if there is a distinct thing about Luhrman is that he starts fairly minimalistic and simplistic andthen he jumps into it head on. And he does the same with this number. Hugh Jackman starts off the number in front of the stage, the curtain closed, singing Irving Berlin’s “Putting on my Top Hat”. Hoofing his way across, he embodies the class (that he “reeks” of), the effortless smoothness, and gaiety of the stars like Astaire, Kelly, and Crosby. You can tell that Luhrman wanted to be faithful to the musicals of yore, for even the choreography is reminiscent of films like Top Hat and Singin’ in the Rain. Dressed to the nines, the curtain opens up and it reveals a large staircase. And this is where it starts getting bigger. However, it remains just fine for now.
A legion of dapper dancers dressed in the same costume come out to the top of the moving staircase to join Jackman in his number. All in all, they remain kind of a side piece, something to look at, but not truly engaging. It makes sense, since all eyes should be on Jackman, and it could merely be the camera work of the telecast, but nevertheless, it leaves one wanting more. Jackman then breaks out into the chorus of Singin’ in the Rain, but stops, when he realizes that “something’s missing”.
That “something”, of course, is a female lead. Making an impactful entrance, Beyoncé utilizes her big, brassy vocals to burst in with “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity. It’s perfect for her choice, and I guess the sequence is supposed to be a small narrative between Beyoncé and Jackman, but it’s a strange song selection. The film version of Sweet Charity was released in 1969 with Shirley McLain and was directed by Bob Fosse and is fairly unknown o the general public. The original musical that starred Gwen Verdon is better known. Jackman returns, calling out her name in much bravado, singing “Maria” from West Side Story.
She also sings “Putting on My Top Hat” and her vocals are flawless. In enter the female dancers, who are dressed in a skimpy and more questionable costume than the men, but in the same style. As if to reflect how he feels, Jackman sings “You’re the One that I want” from Grease, and the background dancers are at a standstill, leaving us to marvel at the pair and what seems like a love game. Some of the notes that Beyoncé hits are really amazing. They’re smooth and controlled, but added is her R&B know how and her deliciously sexy style.
And then, for some reason, Jackman sings “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” from The Sound of Music. It doesn’t technically make sense if this is supposed to be some off kilter narrative, something that was equally troubling in Moulin Rouge!, but perhaps he’s questioning her leading him on? I’m not sure.
Perhaps my favorite part of the number, the lights turn blue, maybe to reflect Jackman’s mood, and Beyoncé croons the sexiest version of “All That Jazz” from Chicago I have ever heard. She makes it suggestive and sultry, and these tasty vocals are matched with equally suggestive choreography. In a slightly narcissistic move, Luhrman interjects this nonsensical number with “Lady Marmalade”, which was used in his Moulin Rouge! To no one’s surprise, her voice is perfect for the song, but it’s unnecessary, and makes her “Maria” sounds like a questionable prostitute. She is joined by teen stars Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens from the High School Musical franchise and Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried from Mamma Mia!, where the women look especially…slutty. I understand that the outfits are supposed to be a sexier black tie version of the men’s costumes, but it doesn’t work. And personally, I don’t think the four of them should have been at the ceremony at all. They’re tween stars, and the only one I feel who has acting potential is Seyfried, and possibly Efron (since he did the indieMe and Orson Welles), but really. Just to draw in more viewers, I say.
Maybe to represent the specialness of the evening, they break out in “One Night Only” fromDreamgirls, which is only fitting in style because of the previous track and its salacious rhythm. I think it was from that Moulin Rouge! song that it got out of hand. It just gets bigger and bigger, and more annoying. The cast then obnoxiously does, not exactly a mash up, or even a medley, but a layered number of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” fromJesus Christ Superstar. It doesn’t really work, with the loudness and intensity of “You Can’t Stop the beat” taking over and distracting from the tenderness and perfection of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. The latter song only makes the narrative worse.
And then, the mood lighting sets in again, with Jackman saying a really awful line: “the best part of breaking up is getting back together again.” What the hell? It’s not even from anything. Singing another not-technically-a-song-from-a-musical, Beyoncé purrs Etta James’ “At Last” (which was featured inCadillac Records). This seems to have been chosen just to show off Beyoncé, which wasn’t really needed since she has already done enough, like with “Lady Marmalade”. And then Efron and Hudgens sing over her with “Last Chance” from High School Musical 3: Senior Year. Yet another stupid song choice, chosen merely because of its stars. Really, by now, it’s getting a bit much with the song selections.
Jackman jumps back in with “Maria” as the other two stars continue singing their song, and then it transitions slowly with “Mamma Mia!”, from the eponymous movie, and then, trying to salvage the narrative, Beyoncé sings a couple bars from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita. Basically, too much is going on here. They are singing four songs at once and trying to maintain focus on each one, and it fails abysmally.
“Mamma Mia” goes into full swing, but in a really weird way. It’s sung partly in the form of a drum line, with strange choreography. It looks and sounds terrible. I guess it makes a little sense to use the song, since Jackman introduced the huge number because the movie had made more in England thanTitanic or something, but all in all, it’s kind of a weird selection.
The finale is a conclusion of the beginning song, and it ends with Beyoncé singing the final bars of “Over the Rainbow” form The Wizard of Oz and Jackman singing the final bars of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. It’s all very loud, but Beyoncé sounds good. And it ends, thank god.
I can say that the beginning of it, and up to “All That Jazz”, was fine, even very good, but it got out of control. I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice, for, as trained as it is, it’s not smooth. It’s hampered by vibrato and a shaky quality that probably appeals to people my mother’s age, who think that Gerard Butler made the perfect “Phantom” and that Rod Stewart is still popular. (Though, Rob Stewart doeshave a helluva sexy voice.) The only other star who manages to shine, regardless of the wretched material he’s given, is Zac Efron. Having proven his chops in Hairspray, he seems to be a veritable cast member. Cooper, Seyfried, and Hudgens all fail to sing above a whisper. It’s a testament of whether you’re made for the stage or not if you can sing above everyone else and manage to make some sort of impact. But those actors do not. I honestly wasn’t a big fan of Cooper in Mamma Mia! when he sang “Lay All Your Love on Me”. Seyfried’s voice is very frail, but it’s melodious.
Besides it being a general pain inducing onslaught of sensory massacring, the biggest problem to me was the song selection. This was supposed to honor the greatest musicals the screen’s ever known, right? Then why go with songs from High School Musical, Evita (the song is memorable only for its stage production), Sweet Charity (ditto), and Dreamgirls? They certainly haven’t made the impact on the musical that Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story have. Why not choose something from A Chorus Line, Rent, or My Fair Lady or Cabaret? The former two won Pulitzers for their stage productions and received good reviews, and the latter two won Best Picture. Also, were they or weren’t they trying to create a narrative? What was with that? Addressing Beyoncé as Maria, using songs about love and leading on, Jackman’s horrid line about breaking up…none of it made sense with the other songs. The layering mash ups become cumbersome to listen to. It makes one question whether they were pulling songs from a hat or trying to create some linear if abstract narrative or plot or relationship dynamic or simply trying to get the most memorable songs from musicals. They, or Mr. Luhrman, failed on all accounts.
Guilty of Luhrman’s “distinctive theatrical” brush, this gigantic musical number was a miserable piece in Academy Award Ceremony history. IT really was just awful. No wonder why it was one of the lowest rated telecasts in 9 years.