Fall 2007

All Singing, All Dancing

The director of Hairspray reflects on the joys of a good musical and wonders why more directors don't try it.


Adam Shankman
WORDS AND MUSIC: Shankman broke into the business
as a dancer then a choreographer before becoming a
director. (Photo Credit: David James)

I love movies. I love watching them and I love making them. I even love renting them or ordering them on my hotel TV while I'm on location or junketing. I love the popcorn and I once loved the soda, though now as I am aging, I'm gravitating toward water—but the occasional vodka and soda offered by some movie theaters now, is nice. While I relish the times I have found myself sitting in an audience and gazing up at the screen as a fan, I can even appreciate the exhilaration of walking out of a theater, knowing that I am an extremely fortunate part of the filmmaking community. I know the pain of development and the rush of that first day of shooting, probably akin to a vampire tasting first blood. Even when I see a movie I don't love, I know the Sisyphean effort made in putting a film together. You take the good, you take the bad, just as long as you can be a member of this blessed and cursed community.

I entered the business first as a dancer and then as a choreographer before I directed my first film. My passion for dance in cinema grows each day, and I often reflect on those seminal moments where the moving image and the moving body combine to create something special. The sight of Gene Kelly with umbrella in hand, dancing down the street and singing in the rain—I mean, come on, people! The waiters gallop from Hello, Dolly! The hippies rolling through Central Park in Hair, or all of those terrifying beauties on chairs in Goth makeup and garter belts in Cabaret.

Classic and pure imagery, constantly finding its way into Oscar montages, and for good reason: they're really cool sequences. Frankenstein and his monster performing "Puttin' on the Ritz." The boys from South Park breaking out into a rousing rendition of "Blame Canada." These are moments in cinema history that will last forever. These are the moments that we, as directors, need to see as tantamount to the car chase from French Connection, or Atlanta burning in Gone With the Wind, for crying out loud.

Upon further reflection, it seems to me that there have been many missed opportunities by directors to capture the magic that song and dance bring to the big screen. Egregious cinematic missteps, probably nixed by some misguided development executive, too scared of the majesty of greatness, and passed over by even the greatest of directors. Kudos to you, Mr. Spielberg for adding a musical number to the beginning of Temple of Doom, and one of the greatest narrative Lindy Hop numbers ever in 1941, but could your fabulous vision not see how Jaws would have been brutally intensified and more esoteric with the addition of a simple water ballet? Imagine gorgeous swimmer after swimmer being sucked under and masticated as the crystal pure waters become ribboned crimson. Now that, my friends, would have been killer!

And did you learn nothing about gang warfare from West Side Story, Mr. Scorsese? Think of how more impactful the showdown between Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio in your passion piece, Gangs of New York, would have been if those two amazing actors had just rumbled à la Riff and Bernardo? We're talking Oscar, for sure.

What about Dances with Wolves? I can only assume that the dream ballet that the film was named after ended up on the cutting-room floor because of some bad test cards. So shortsighted are those 14-year-old males from Agoura. And yes, Mr. Lucas, your vision of a galaxy far, far away showed us a cantina with an alien musical band, but think of how exciting and lush that scene would have been with the addition of sexy alien showgirls with multiple breasts, arm-and-arm and tentacle linked, performing a kick line. I'm just saying...

Funny Business with Adam Shankman HAIRSPRAY
GOTTA DANCE: Nikki Blonsky gets her big change to dance on Baltimore's version of American
--and she's not going to blow it--in Adam Shankman's Hairspray.
(Photo Credit: David James)

Think of all those tear-jerker movies and epic dramas. Wouldn't it have all been better if Debra Winger just danced her cancer out at the end of Terms of Endearment? "Get my daughter her Capezios," and that from the world's most famous gypsy, Shirley MacLaine. That, I am certain, would have gotten the movie amazing sponsorship and tie in opportunities. Just think about how powerful it would have been, if after the first round of boxing, Hilary Swank could have just lifted herself up, center ring, after being beaten to a pulp and broken into a plaintive yet confident soft shoe? That would have really messed with her opponent's head. I know it's hard to give them the old razzmatazz with boxing gloves on, but I would have left the theater feeling just a little bit lighter.

The knife does cut both ways, however, and we are similarly offended by a rash of films that seem to laugh in the face of song and dance. Lambada comes to mind. It should have been forbidden the green light. And Showgirls, though it was the most insightful film into the world of the dancers (it was like looking into a mirror, and far too close to my own truth) I couldn't take it. I would, however like to thank the wise and prophetic studio head who was intelligent enough to put the kibosh on the Macarena movie that was in development for oh-so-many years.

And do you know what really frickin' kills me? It's the movies that have dance terms in their titles but there is not a happy foot to be found in a single frame of them. I could not have been more excited that fateful day in 1991 when I rushed to the theater to see the new Keanu Reaves movie, but when, may I ask, were they going to tell me that Point Break was not about a ballerina with osteoporosis? What about Taps? I don't remember the number between George C. Scott and Tom Cruise—do any of you? It sure as hell would have made for an awfully memorable scene, watching those great stars, electrifyingly dancing out their warmonger differences. Am I wrong?

Forgive my tirade. I get a bit excited when I talk about this stuff. It's just that, well, I want more musicals. Fine. They're so darn, well, American. And hey, Chicago won best picture. I guess I'll just have to make one someday.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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