Bjork - the new Doris?

Better buy some earplugs. The film musical, long in disrepute, is on the verge of a major revival. But this time tradition's got nothing to do with it, says ADAM MINNS
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If Shakespeare In Love took liberties with the Bard, Kenneth Branagh's big-screen musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost will have purists reaching for the smelling salts. "And when love speaks," Branagh thesps at one point in the film, "the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony." Cue music. "Heaven," he croons, "I'm in heaven..."

Forget Woody Allen's low-key attempt at musical in Everyone Says I Love You, Branagh is reviving the song 'n' dance spectacles of film-makers like Busby Berkeley, when cameras rather worryingly swooped between the legs of endless processions of grinning chorus girls. Cut to the small Swedish town of Trollhaettan, and even Danish auteur Lars von Trier, idiosyncratic director of Breaking The Waves, is preparing to shoot Dancer in the Dark, an equally epic musical. Starring, ahem, Bjork.

It is a scale and style that has rarely been seen since the flat-footed Hello, Dolly! buried the Hollywood musical in 1969. Let alone with abridged but unchanged Shakespeare or Bjork writing a score that combines a 90-piece orchestra with the sound-of-factory pistons.

"In the late Eighties, I was despairing of the musical; all film-makers were doing was exhausting the rock musical," says Adrian Wootton, director of the London Film Festival and co-author of Celluloid Jukebox. "But it hasn't turned out like that. It's great that people are still experimenting."

Waiting in the wings are enough big-screen musicals to launch a thousand coach excursions. Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Mariah Carey and Diana Ross are among the stars, singers and assorted glitterati who are lining up to star in more conventional musicals: the prospect of Antonio Banderas taking the film lead in The Phantom of the Opera already has Michael Crawford loyalists up in arms, while Cats, Chicago: The Musical and Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat are also in the works.

The prospect of a musical revival may horrify anyone who has seen a student union full of tanked-up undergraduates in drag doing the Timewarp. But in commercial terms, it could be the next big winner. Part of the appeal for Hollywood is the desire to attract older audiences. This is not just the so-called grey pound, but anyone old enough to remember life before Scream. For those who don't, the likes of Footloose proved that younger audiences (despite the presence of Kevin Bacon) could be courted by music- driven "product". And just occasionally, they will even buy into an era before they were born. Grease was indeed the word; every teenager had the album to prove it.

But Branagh and von Trier are no doubt driven more by creative ambition than a desire to flog soundtracks. Von Trier has never made a conventional film in his life, while Branagh's innovative approach has not just freshened up Shakespeare; it has given him a bath, a haircut and sent him out on the town in a tux. The actor-director recalls what must have been a tricky pitch. "I started to explain about setting it in the Thirties - or rather, an impression of the Thirties - where we could cut some of the play that's hard to understand and replace what it was doing with songs."

Love's Labour's Lost does seem a clever choice for a musical. One of Shakespeare's earlier works, it possibly lacks his later narrative drive, allowing Branagh to introduce a plethora of classic songs without breaking up the flow - even if the show-stopping numbers include seeing Alicia Silverstone singing while performing synchronised swimming, or Timothy Spall crooning away suavely as he flits from airport to airport. (In an ensemble cast which includes Broadway star Nathan Lane, Spall apparently acquits himself well vocally after a stint in Mike Leigh's forthcoming film Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Branagh sees the play and the music as a perfect fit. "There are endless references in Love's Labour's Lost to song and dance," he says. "It has a story which is the stuff of light romantic comedy with a heartbreaking twist. The wit and brilliance of the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Gershwin and company seem like a perfect accompaniment to such a sexy, touching love story."

Von Trier, for his part, is approaching large-scale set pieces on Dancer in the Dark with a technological ambition worthy even of Stanley Kubrick. Critics may have thought that they had the director pegged according to the "vows of chastity" of his Dogme school of stripped-down film-making - minimal script, no music and an end product like Thomas Vinterberg's cinematic portrait of a familial Last Supper, Festen. But, as if to flummox the buffs, he has decided to film a musical with dance routines involving a hundred cameras built into the set.

Part of the appeal of the project, says von Trier's long-time producer Vibeke Windelov, is the fusing of music and film. The combination has always produced more than the sum of the two parts, but Windelov argues that only in the musical are the two inseparable. There is also an appeal in exploring - and no doubt subverting - the naivete of the genre. In what is the third part of a trilogy of melodramas (the others are Breaking The Waves and The Idiots), Bjork plays a woman who travels to America because of her love of musicals. There is an obvious "eyes of a child" subtext in that she is going blind from an illness but toils away in a factory to save enough money for an operation for her son, who is suffering from the same disease.

"All the films in the trilogy are informed by that kind of sentiment, by this kind of fairy-tale world," says Windelov. "We all like to dream."

But von Trier seems equally to just like experimenting. "Lars wants to explore every genre of film," notes Windelov. "I had a choice between making an action film and this. I was very happy."

Windelov and von Trier can book their hotels for Cannes 2000 now, as the prospect of this audacious project actually working makes for one of the most anticipated events in European film circles. The musical genre may be highly flexible, but it is torturous, costly to perfect and littered with failures. Musical stalwart Alan Parker, director of Evita, Fame and Bugsy Malone, claims he has never made a film that lost money. But then there was 1993's Swing Kids, where swingbeat met the Nazis. At the time, some in Hollywood went so far as to champion musicals as the next big thing. "A bad idea whose time has not come," retorted a Washington Post critic.

Meanwhile, 1994's I'll Do Anything, starring Nick Nolte, Joely Richardson and Anne Heche, was so bad that the film-makers cut out all the music. Others, like Absolute Beginners, didn't (more's the pity).

Wootton argues that faltering attempts to revive the musical over the past 25 or 30 years have largely produced films that are the precise opposite of timeless, being based inextricably in the music and style of their day. "There was a classic period in the Fifties and early Sixties but then it faltered. They tried to revive the musical during the Seventies with disco. Absolute Beginners tried and failed in the Eighties. Then all you got were films that might have been extended rock videos."

Yet there is every reason that von Trier or Branagh or whoever comes next could find an audience today. When Death Wish blew audiences away, jaded critics declared that modern tastes had changed: all the public supposedly wanted was psychopathic, misogynist juvenilia. Director Michael Winner dismissed this, noting that another top-grossing film of 1974 was the re-tread of MGM classic musicals, That's Entertainment!

At the very least, Wootton applauds the artistic ambition of von Trier and Branagh. "The films may not be conventional, and they may not work, but film-makers are experimenting with different forms of music, whether it's classical or rap, and doing something different. If Lars von Trier is doing a musical, my view is more power to his elbow. It shows that we are not all MTV braindead in terms of responding to the musical form."

Adam Minns is chief reporter at `Screen International'.

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