Edinburgh Festival `98: Tasteless, shameless, timeless

The movie musical has long been dismissed as kitsch. Now it's back, and out to cause trouble. By Liese Spencer
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
`All art constantly aspires to the condition of music," claimed Walter Pater, the cultural essayist, but it's been a while since film aspired to the condition of the musical. Sure, there's been the odd attempt to resuscitate the genre - Alan Parker's Evita, Woody Allen's Everybody Says I Love You - but for the most part, its toe-tapping artifice has been quietly consigned to the cultural rubbish bin of kitsch anachronism.

So it's intriguing to find the musical making a come back at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. From France comes Jeanne et le Garcon Formidable, a Jacques Demy hommage about love and Aids, starring Demy's son Mathieu. From Italy, there is Roberta Torre's Mafia musical, Tano da Morire. Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's dark millenial fable The Hole erupts into Technicolor Fifties cabaret numbers, while Australian Stephan Elliot follows Priscilla Queen of the Desert with Welcome To Woop Woop, a deliriously tasteless take on the musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein.

When he spoke of music, Pater was striving to define the timeless transcendence of great art. Crafted for a mass audience and churned out by studios on a production line, the classical Hollywood musicals of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties were never accorded such status. Popular entertainment, they were regarded as low-cultural cousins to serious cinema. If there was any transcendence, it was a cheap escapism, a sugary pacifier for the masses.

Following on the heels of more recent works of the Seventies and Eighties, such as Cabaret and the small screen works of Dennis Potter, the new crop of musicals in Edinburgh rework such outmoded views of the genre by choosing to articulate often sombre concerns through an all singin' all dancin' aesthetic. Recognising the subversive quality of the musical, they channel contemporary anxieties surrounding mortality, violence and alienation into wide-screen spectacle and a ravishing excess of costume and design. No mindless eye-candy for mass consumption, these films suggest instead an efflourescence of fin de siecle screen decadence, as auteurs challenge the conventions of an already self-reflexive genre.

Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's insoucient Aids musical Jeanne et le Garcon Formidable, for example, pays tribute to Demy movies such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by creating a gleaming Paris in which characters suddenly break into song routines. But the film's vibrant look only serves to underline the gravity of its message: that death is something we must always face alone. Rather than trivialising or romanticising Aids, the film-makers claim that "in showing life's vitality", their musical serves to better underline the tragedy of the illness.

Slick and seamless, Jeanne et le Garcon Formidable conforms to the traditional template of the musical. Based on real events among the Sicilian mafioso, Roberta Torre's Tano da Morire, meanwhile, contrives a different kind of "authenticity". Unreeling like an unholy cross between John Waters and an MGM musical, with elements of The Godfather thrown in for good measure, this pokes fun at a mythic Mafia by presenting it in all its seediness.

With an impressively ugly cast sporting wigs more dangerous than their guns, Tano revels in a low-rent, white trash aesthetic, using a carnival of coarse bodies to flesh out numbers from disco to rap. By perverting Hollywood notions of glamour, and striving for a feel of "amateurish" hyper-realism, Tano da Morire is, as it claims in its press notes, "a Mafia story produced and recounted by people for whom the Mafia is an everyday reality".

If Tano da Morire's lurid chorus-line of singing housewives and rapping gunmen critiques the musical's idealised notion of community, then The Hole offers a more austere investigation into dislocation. Set in a dark, rain-sodden Taipei plagued by a mysterious virus, the film centres upon a man and a woman living alone in identical flats, linked only by a ragged hole. Isolated from each other and the outside world, these silent figures take refuge in the chi-chi numbers of Fifties chanteuse Grace Chang. Making no attempt to integrate them into the rest of the film, Tsai Ming-Liang uses these flights of musical fancy to suggest the neccessity of fantasy if one is to survive in an apocalyptic present. The mournful coda to his film simply suggests that in the year 2000, we are grateful that we still have Grace Chang's songs to comfort us.

Closer to Tano da Morire in its abundance of stylised grotesquery, Stephan Elliott's outrageous Welcome to Woop Woop follows New York con man Teddy (Jonathan Schaech) to the Australian outback, where he's kidnapped by nymphomaniac tomboy Angie and forced into a shotgun marriage in the forgotten town of Woop Woop, a town constructed from "tinnies" and beer bottle-tops, where residents spend their days turning kangaroos into dog food and their nights watching endless triple-bills of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. "You're off the map here, mate," Rod Taylor's tatooed town elder, Daddy- O tells Teddy when he arrives. But this is no Brigadoon. Rather, it's a nightmare perversion of escapism, in which the small town community of the classical musical becomes a claustrophobic dystopia. Elliott, who describes himself as "a subversive sonofabitch" says Woop Woop is a film about contemporary Australia. "At the moment everyone's terribly PC," he says. "They love the minorities, they love their cappucinos. But at the same time, this nationalist party is growing called One Nation which wants Australia to get rid of all the blacks and get back to what it was."

The first and most influential film Elliott ever saw, he says, was West Side Story. "But the big, bad musical was The Sound of Music. That was three hours long, and perfect for my Mum to leave me there while she went off and did the shopping. She dumped me there about 18 weeks straight, with Maria and the children. That's where it all started going wrong.

"When I made Priscilla," he continues, "I didn't start off wanting to make a film about drag queens travelling across the outback, I wanted to make a musical. But I needed to re-educate an audience who weren't used to seeing people just burst into song, so what I did was to show someone pressing the play button on the tape-recorder before the big numbers.

In his latest film, Elliott creates Radio Woop Woop. After showing the needle going down on the first of many Rogers and Hammerstein LPs, he shows the cast singing to numbers such as Getting to Know You. After seeing the film, Elliott says, one critic suggested he had a "pathological hatred of Rogers and Hammerstein". He maintains the opposite. "I just tried to use the music in the most subversive way I could. So I played Happy Talk for the scene at the "roo mincing factory. For the first time I'm using music against the images. A cornucopia of crudeness, Woop Woop's aggressive satire plays like an hallucinogenic Castlemain XXXX ad, but beneath the sex and fart jokes, Elliot offers his own modern perspective. Giant pigs on leads, 20 foot kangaroos, dog shootings: Elliott's vision has had preview audiences in the US "running for the exits". For Elliott, however, the musical will always be his favourite film medium. "Suddenly people start singing, sets split open and you have these fantastic choreographed numbers. To me musicals are the last bastion of surreality."