With Rocketman opening strongly this past weekend at 3,500 theaters, and with a dozen other music-driven movies huddled at the starting line, one movie milestone is being studiously ignored: the 50th anniversary of Paint Your Wagon.
At its opening, Roger Ebert called Paint “a lump of a movie.” Its failings, he wrote, display all that could go wrong in the music genre – a comment that should resonate with Celine Dion, David Bowie, Boy George, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Carole King, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland and, yes, even the Beatles, all of whose stories will be immortalized in upcoming musical biopics.
Having lived through the production of Paint Your Wagon, I’m more than a little surprised by this sudden musical gridlock.
Some context: Fifty years ago, with box office dwindling, Hollywood turned to the musical genre in the hope of re-awakening a golden era. But instead of discovering a new Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the studios ended up hearing Clint Eastwood “talking to the trees,” with Lee Marvin croaking back to him, and Paint Your Wagon went down as the mega musical that killed the genre.
Now that Bohemian Rhapsody is flirting with the billion-dollar mark, however, there’s no mystery why the genre finds green lights flashing. If filmmakers can re-ignite passion for Queen, why not also venerate Elton John? Or re-connect with Elvis?
The devil is in the details, of course. Dexter Fletcher, who took over Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer got axed, was determined to design Rocketman as a thoughtful biopic, not a jukebox musical. Inevitably his movie lacks the sizzle of the Queen epic (its opening-weekend gross of $25 million compares with $51 million for Rhapsody). Rocketman’s narrative hovers around a group therapy session, and while Rhapsody culminates in a stirring anthem, Rocketman’s last act is more like a commencement speech.
Given its $120 million cost (production and marketing) and carrying an R rating (reflecting graphic gay encounters), Paramount’s promotion efforts are stalwart. Its website encourages fans to upload photos of themselves to a Paramount site, thereby discovering what they look like in flamboyant Elton John togs and eyewear. “Show the world you were never ordinary” is the tagline.
It’s too early to predict how far future musicals will go to avoid being “ordinary.” Netflix’s new biopic The Dirt, based on the “confessions” of Motley Crue, was labeled “tone deaf” by the Los Angeles Times because of its “debasement of women.” Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle, is a fantasy about a young singer-songwriter (Himesh Patel) who, after a global blackout, discovers that the Beatles never existed – but he owns their library. This conceit has already stoked controversy in advance of its June 28 release: Will the Beatles’ repertoire be enhanced or debased by the film?
The usually garrulous Baz Luhrmann has not talked much about his Elvis movie, other than to say that he wants Tom Hanks to portray Col. Parker. Some fans have already registered alarm about a possible “Elvis-trapped-in-Moulin Rouge” narrative. Intriguingly, a new book titled Elvis in Vegas, by Richard Zoglin, argues that Elvis’ return to Vegas 50 years ago has been falsely described by pop historians. Rather than launching him into a drugged-out downward spiral, his Vegas shows in fact actually “saved” Elvis, while Elvis, in turn, effectively saved a then-fading Vegas. Luhrmann hasn’t committed to this upbeat narrative but it might in fact fit neatly into his extravagantly operatic style.
Question marks also surround other projected movies. Will the mythic Hamilton some day translate to film? Will the possible biopic on Leonard Bernstein planned by Bradley Cooper work for filmgoers who may already be satiated with Steven Spielberg’s re-creation of Bernstein’s West Side Story?
To be sure, an aura of pre-natal optimism surrounds all these projects, as it did even for Paint Your Wagon. The movie, after all, was based on a hit play by the infallible Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick (Fritz) Loewe. How could the team capable of My Fair Lady fail to deliver on a hit musical comedy-drama set in a mining camp?
Doubts were triggered when director Josh Logan, also a Broadway veteran, proposed his curious ménage à trois casting of Eastwood, Marvin and a hot young actress named Jean Seberg. Shooting on a dusty, ramshackle set in Oregon, the three stars woefully lacked chemistry and seemed instantly bored. Marvin growled out his lyrics while Eastwood nervously crooned.
As a then-executive at Paramount, it was my dubious responsibility to review each day’s output -– “the dailies” — and my discomfort was increased when Seberg’s French husband, Romain Gary, invited himself to join me. An excitable diplomat and novelist, Gary watched her deal with Eastwood and Marvin, then commented, ”I think the best solution would be for me to fly to Oregon and kill them both.”
He didn’t kill them, and miraculously, the movie didn’t either.