Monday, February 02, 2009

Revisit: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

An MGM release 1966

Directed by Richard Lester

Written by Melvin Frank & Michael Pertwee
Based on the musical play by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart
With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

It's a shame Buster Keaton spends his last screen credit hiding in the shadows of Zero Mostel -- not that Mr. Mostel wasn't a terrifically talented performer, but this aborted fetus of a musical-comedy doesn't do either of them justice.

Released at the low-point of musical-comedy's popularity, this Forum is a stripped down version of the stage play, substituting most of Sondheim's trademark bouncy show tunes with sight gags, puns & wordplay.

I watched this because I was in the stage version in high school and wanted to see how it translated to film. I got my answer: it doesn't. Without the songs, there simply isn't much to go on; stripping to the show to it's essence you sort of realize slavery, prostitutes and Greek tragedy aren't that funny. Add in tons of jokes that are more stale that Roman fresco and you've got yourself one cornball comedy. Likewise, the directorial 'flashes', including jump cuts and the kind of dance sequences Mel Brooks liked to spoof, don't add much flavor.

The cast is terrific -- Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and Mr. Keaton all working hard to elevate the material. They are a pleasure to watch. But it's just not enough. This is a story meant for the stage -- where you can feel the energy -- not the screen.

Revisit: Tommy

A Columbia Pictures release 1975

Written & Directed by Ken Russell
Based on the album by The Who

A deaf, dumb and blind boy becomes a master pinball player and the object of a religious cult.

Ken Russell's 1975 adaptation of the classic Who concept album is a psychedelic kaleidoscope, a smattering of elaborate set-pieces, insane costumes and cartoon colors set the tune of Pete Townsend's windmill licks. It's a lot of fun in that tripped out, self-important yet actually silly & superfluous 70's way. It features the band along with several name actors -- Oliver Reed, Ann-Margaret (in an Oscar nominated turn), Jack Nicholson -- as well as other musicians -- Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tina Turner -- as they tell the story of Tommy, the famed deaf/dumb/blind pinball wizard.

What strikes me most about this film is how it jumbles the story and song out of sequence from the album to bring its vision to life. They make a lot of changes to the source material and take the story down a path I had never truly envisioned in my own head. Tommy was my favorite album growing up -- I used to listen to it every night as I went to bed -- so you could say I have some personal attachment to it. Little details, like the fact that the song "1921" was changed to "1951" so the setting would make sense, seem like strange and unnecessary compromises, while other songs, like "Cousin Kevin", are put to image perfectly. Overall it's a fun film and certainly engaging visually (as Ken Russell films usually are), so it's worth a watch if you're a fan of The Who.