Armchair Cinephile 

MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC

A Chorus Line (MGM) West Side Story (MGM) Copacabana (Artisan) 24 Hour Party People (MGM) I'm Trying to Break Your Heart (Plexifilm) Style Wars (Plexifilm) 8 Mile (Universal) I Just Wasn't Made For These Times (Artisan)

The new disc of A Chorus Line (MGM) reminds us what we had buried: By the mid-'80s, a filmed version of a Broadway hit had to be wax-slick and shiny as gold lamé. Thick-headed electric guitars belted out melodies, leg-warmer-clad dancers wore split

 
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Aaron Salas dances to the sounds of House Nation during the Night to be Free II party organized by House Nation and Mi Casa Su Casa at Space on East Commerce. Photo by Mark Greenberg
whore/naïf personalities. The idiom had become so removed from literal or emotional reality that stuff like Chorus Line fueled The Simpsons parodies for years.

But MGM has another kind of musical in its vaults. West Side Story is what Hollywood historians will offer when asked by high-culture snobs, "Where are your Puccinis?" There are a dozen levels on which to love the movie: from Jerome Robbins' stunning street-meets-ballet choreography to the way the camera captures it; from Leonard Bernstein's immortal melodies (which have lived on in too many contemporary versions to count) to the garish color scheme that cages two warring gangs within the same turf. This is the movie musical as transcendent emotional statement; this is the neighborhood Rouge ached to explore - and that Chicago, delightful as it is, walks a dozen city blocks to avoid.

Back when musicals were a dime a dozen, Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda teamed up for Copacabana (Artisan), a silly little number that's mainly worthwhile as a grab-bag of Groucho one-liners. The musical numbers are cornball, though Miranda comes off less as a novelty act than you would expect, and the songs grind the story to a halt (contrast with West Side Story, where song and dance are completely integral to the plot), but this makes as good an example as any of how much Woody Allen learned from Groucho's style.

Not all musical movies are set in Manhattan. Last year's 24 Hour Party People (MGM) tells the short but brilliant tale of Manchester, England's Factory Records, the company that brought us Joy Division, New Order, and (heaven help them) the Happy Mondays. On a commentary track, real-life Factory manager Tony Wilson wishes he hadn't been made the story's focal point; after seeing him portrayed by Steve Coogan, though, it's impossible to imagine the scene without him. Wilson is an astounding, and astoundingly charismatic, egomaniac, a man who could stand over the open casket of Joy Division's lead singer and try to convince a music critic to eulogize the band in print. He's lovable for his candor (addressing the audience directly in the wittiest fourth-wall-breaking scenes in ages) and for his self-delusion (insisting that the Mondays' Shaun Ryder was a poet

 
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on par with Yeats). Strangely, the film doesn't bend over backwards to make newcomers fall in love with the bands it chronicles - but whether you love the musicians or not, it's hard to dislike the story.

That's not so much the case with I'm Trying to Break Your Heart (Plexifilm), Sam Jones' recent documentary about Wilco. If you're not already interested in the band and convinced that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a work of serious pop art, you'll likely find their depiction here a little pretentious; the bandmates aren't shy about their artistic ambitions, and the squabbles within the group lay some members' self-importance bare. (Of course, Wilco is one of the most important bands going right now, which is why you're watching the movie.) Whatever you think of the band, though, the actual story here - of a band who makes a record for a label, gets dumped by the label, then sells the record to another label in the same corporate family - is a hilarious tale of American capitalism at its best.

Plexifilm also just released Style Wars, an early hip-hop documentary that focuses on graffiti artists. It's a month or two too late for this column's hip-hop extravaganza, but certainly worth noting. Ditto for the Eminem-as-Rocky saga 8 Mile (Universal), which includes a featurette in which a few of the film's extras get to go one-on-one with the star in live rap battles.

If I'm Trying tells a single album's tragicomic tale, then I Just Wasn't Made For These Times (Artisan) is the macro version, centering on Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson. Sad, funny, and mystifying, it's an odd film for an odd man; Artisan recently paired the doc with another about the Beach Boys - that film's happier, but there, Brian insists on being interviewed while lying in bed. You don't have to study the psycho-musical worlds of West Side Story or Moulin Rouge to connect Wilson's bittersweet songs to the complex emotional states that control his life - but it doesn't hurt. •


More by John DeFore

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