The Cotton Club (1984)
Written by William Kennedy, Francis Ford Coppola, and Mario Puzo
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
It feels like it cannot be emphasized enough, but for Francis Ford Coppola, the entirety of the 1980s and some of the 1990s was shaped by the failure of One From the Heart. Many of his decisions of which projects to take were driven directly by the massive debt he accrued by spending his money on that critical & box office disaster. His old producer Robert Evans (The Godfather films), brought him to The Cotton Club.
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The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
Undeniably, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a perfect masterpiece of filmmaking. But…I sort of loved The Young Girls of Rochefort more. Rochefort is a comedy in the classical sense, as opposed to the definition of a tragedy. Cherbourg is a serious story with a down ending, while Rochefort is very upbeat and does allow its characters to have a happy ending. Now one of those endings is more ambiguous than most films would deliver, but that makes it feel like a Demy movie. We don’t see our characters living happily ever after; we see them happy right now. Sometimes that’s the most you can ask for. Stories have to end, meaning we’ll never know if these characters stay happy. If it’s anything like real life, there will be a series of ups and downs, and you eventually learn how to appreciate the good moments.
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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
Masterpieces don’t happen all the time. Sometimes they happen, and people don’t realize they are looking at one. Other times, they know right away when they see it. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a true masterpiece of filmmaking. The script alone is a perfect plot, no fat; everything moves the characters forward, whether getting closer to their goals or having it complicated. There’s not a single second of wasted time on the screen, which says a lot for a film that is also spilling over with style. Oh yes, and every word in the movie is sung, starting with an exchange between a mechanic and a customer talking about the status of a car. Damien Chazelle boldly claimed this is “the best film ever made.” But is it?
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Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Written by Brian De Palma and Paul Williams
Directed by Brian De Palma
The rock opera is primarily a 1970s film genre that is still around in some form, but certainly not at the cultural zenith it had fifty years or so earlier. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is arguably the queen of them all, but many others achieved their own levels of cult status. Among them is Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a picture with a deceptive title because it is not a rock opera adaptation of Phantom of the OPera. Yes, elements of that story are here, but it’s a mishmash of so many other things that it can be muddled. However, the film is saved by the music of Paul Williams and some amusing & clever performances. It’s not always perfect, but it’s constantly entertaining.
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Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
Written & Directed by John Turturro
When an actor turns to directing, it is always a risk. They could be pretty talented like Bo Burnham or Jordan Peele. Or they might not. I think that is sadly the case with John Turturro. This was the actor’s third film in the director’s chair and his first written solo. My takeaway is that directing isn’t a strength of the storied actor. I love seeing him in the movies of talented filmmakers, but he doesn’t seem to have the chops to make something that isn’t totally muddled and embarrassingly poor. Romance & Cigarettes has some pieces that would make for a great film. Yet there is a lot here that would inevitably ruin any movie, and as the director, it was Turturro’s job to make sure everything worked.
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Into the Woods (1991)
Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
Directed by James Lapine
For a minute, I thought about rewatching the Frank Marshall-directed version of this musical, but the idea of watching James Corden turned my stomach enough to find an alternative. So I decided to finally check out this film of the original Broadway cast’s performance. It may not have the digital effects and “star power” of the 2014 motion picture, but it is the complete musical being done by highly talented people, and I loved it. I was able to see the entire story, all the scenes and songs deleted from the Disney movie, and the result was a story with much more cohesive themes and a maturity the film ultimately lacks.
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Written by John Logan, Stephen Sondheim, and Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Tim Burton
Sweeney Todd is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s best work. It’s a transgressive, bleak Broadway musical that goes against everything the art form had built itself up to. Most audiences are familiar with Rodgers & Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Weber and other popular composers within the modern musical. As a result, there’s a certain expectation from these productions that they will have lavish sets, present memorable songs, and provide thought-provoking but ultimately cheerful endings. Oklahoma dips its toes in darkness via Judd Fry but makes sure it ends things on an upbeat note. Sweeney Todd embraces violence and a dark worldview to deliver a story that stays with you, like a haunting.
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Written by Leonard Spiegelgass, Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Gypsy Rose Lee
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91 in 2021. He left behind 16 full-length stage musicals and penned songs for both film & television. I can’t say I was ever a theater kid, but I did grow to have a deep appreciation for Sondheim’s work as just a fan. While I do not have the musical vocabulary to talk about the complexity of his work, I can address it as an appreciator of his clever lyrics and stories centered on people. His work has such maturity compared with many popular Broadway shows, particularly his writing in the 1980s when the industry was leaning into spectacle over quality. His stories refused to end on “Happily Ever After” sentiments and instead made audiences confront the nuance of being alive in the modern world. I don’t think someone like Sondheim would ever happen in today’s corporate Broadway musical landscape.
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Written by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Leos Carax
Directed by Leos Carax
Annette is a movie whose fans won’t simply like this picture, but they will adore it. The film is the brainchild of eccentric musicians Sparks (brothers Ron & Russell Mael), who have been itching to get into cinema for decades. In the 1970s, they were on the verge of collaborating with French comedic filmmaker Jacques Tati until he took ill. Now they have produced a film that most certainly their own, full of strange musings on death & love, all suffused with a wry sense of dark humor. I can’t say I loved this movie, but I certainly appreciated what a unique production it was; it’s genuinely unlike anything else coming out right now.
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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Written by Melvyn Bragg & Norman Jewison
Directed by Norman Jewison
I hate Jesus Christ Superstar. This is mainly because of Dame Sir Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber (shout out to my Comedy Bang Bang Fans out there). I cannot stand this man’s musical theater work. I don’t like Cats or Phantom or Joseph or any of the stuff he’s ever made. It feels grossly over-produced and gaudy in a way that is a complete turn-off to me. Jesus Christ Superstar (or JCS) has not aged well and feels like a relic of the 1960s/70s hippie movement. Even then, it doesn’t feel genuine, but a co-opted facsimile of the hippies. I don’t think the film does much to redeem the musical. It looks fine, but it is certainly not one of Jewison’s best.
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