Annie: How Jay Z gave the orphan a hip-hop makeover

Why did it take so long, wonders lifelong fan Nicola Christie

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The Independent Culture

The red mop of curls has been replaced by an Afro, everyone's been cleaned up a bit (including Sandy), and New York looks a nicer place to live in. But other than that, not a lot has changed in the world of Annie. What a relief.

She started life as the star of a comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, on 5 August 1924, in the New York Daily News, by the pen of Harold Gray. It was such a big hit, running until just 10 years ago, that the late Mike Nicholls spotted a stage life for her. His Broadway musical of Annie opened in 1977 and ran for six years, setting a record for Broadway at the time. And then, in 1982, a movie emerged.

Annie hasn't looked back since.

Perhaps the question isn't why Sony has remade the movie musical Annie, rather what took the studio so long? The appetite for Annie 2014 is dizzying in its reach. Thirty and fortysomethings, like me, who watched it as a child and fell in love. Seventysomethings (my dad), who recall fondly their children's addictive viewing. And, critically, now, pre-teenagers, teenagers, and twentysomethings, now, who get their own new go at it.

If early sightings are anything to go by, this new audience won't be deprived, they might even get an improvement. The movie came about because music producer Jay Z (Mr Beyoncé), and his equally music-loving friend Will Smith, wanted to take something that was precious to them and put a new spin on it.

Hip-hop. The entire score of Annie, originally composed by Charlie Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics), has been rebuilt with beats and cunningly updated lyrics. Sia's new anthem-like take on "You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile" is even more infectious than the original. She chants "Hey America… your clothes may be, Chanel, Gucci…" And we all know, already, what Jay Z has done with "It's a Hard Knock Life".

The genius of the concept is not just to shift the musical language into new territory, but also to give the music to its rightful proponents: black foster kids on the streets of Harlem, naturally. There's still Duffy, Pepper and Molly but they've been urbanised, given the Jay Z treatment. Daddy Warbucks, too, has been recast as a black man: Will Stacks, a New York mayoral candidate who needs an orphan to help his campaign, played by Jamie Foxx.

The story of Annie has been so thoroughly transposed to today's world, from the 1930s Depression of the original, that it's likely to help the first audience get over the fact that they're not watching Albert Finney, Carol Burnett (Miss Hannigan), and Aileen Quinn (Annie), anymore. Rather, they're in the hands of Cameron Diaz (Miss Hannigan), Rose Byrne (Grace) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). That's a good thing because nobody, and I mean nobody, could deliver Miss Hannigan like Carol Burnett did; all that sloshing and skidding around the screen in her drunken, lascivious frenzy. Good on Cameron Diaz at having a go, but it's hard to imagine her meeting Burnett even halfway.

Quvenzhané Wallis, as the new Annie, looks and sounds pretty swell, and she's already been Oscar nominated for Beasts so it's safe to say that she'll deliver. Jamie Foxx will be Jamie Foxx and that's perfect and right for that character but, again, Albert Finney's ticks and swings from rage to heart-on-your-sleeve love will, probably, always be unmatchable.

So thank heavens we have them enshrined on the screen for ever. And it's likely that once everyone's got over the hoo-ha of the new Annie, they'll check out the old one again, or for the first time. They'll discover joyful, exuberant choreography by our very own Arlene Phillips; songs with such perfect lyrics that one wonders how Jay Z and Will Smith had the guts to up them ("Little cheeks/ Little teeth/ Everything around me is little/ If I wring/ Little necks/ Surely I will get an acquittal" – Miss Hannigan, on the fate of running an orphanage); and a fairy-tale story that's timeless in its appeal.

They'll also discover a movie musical by director John Huston that everyone wanted to dislike but nobody really did. In the words of the New York Times critic Vincent Canby who reviewed the 1982 film, "Annie almost knocks itself out trying to give the audience its money's worth. They don't build movies like this anymore." Well, maybe they do.

'Annie' is released on 26 December

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