As much as I consider myself a 360 degree cinephile, musicals really aren't my thing. Some of the ones I like are conventional classics (The Sound of Music) and some are left field groundbreakers (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), but generally speaking I don't go out of my way to watch them, and don't necessarily enjoy them enough to even go back and check out the ones I've missed. All of which is why I naturally leaped at the chance to cover The Music Man when it was released on Blu-ray earlier this month.
Warner Home Video has done a really amazing job over the last few years reissuing all different kinds of movies, but primary-color Technirama films like this one seem to shine more brightly than most, especially under their care, and this one is no exception. But is the film genuinely good, or just gloriously colorful? Two and a half hours after sitting down in front of my television, that remains the question to be answered in this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Directed by Morton DaCosta, The Music Man was released June 19, 1962. The film stars Robert Preston as a traveling salesman determined to fleece Iowa locals with promises of starting a town band, and Shirley Jones plays the no-nonsense librarian and music teacher who stands in his way. The film earned five Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction, and won an Oscar for Best Music. Additionally, it netted recognition from the Director's Guild of America and the Golden Globes, where it won Best Picture, Musical or Comedy. Currently the film holds a 93 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes as well.
What Still Works: The music, the performances and the direction all work beautifully, particularly as a cinematic recreation of the original stage show. Lighting cues are used to begin and end scenes and create transitions between different sequences, while DaCosta's deep-focus cinematography captures all of the action and choreographs the dancing and singing on screen to direct the audience's eyes where they need to be.
As a charming snake-oil salesman so effective even his fellow carpetbaggers detest him, Preston is terrific, perfectly nailing the character's indefatigable ability to improvise, come up with an answer or solution to a potential problem, and most of all, breeze through any situation with as much as a hair out of place. Jones, meanwhile, melts a little easier than one might hope for today, but she conveys strength and intelligence that is more than a match for Preston.
What Doesn't Work: Quite frankly, I feel like the kitchen-sink approach to adapting this musical for the screen comes much to its detriment as a movie. Specifically, there are so many songs that any sense of real dramatic momentum just falls apart. For example, after another traveling salesman arrives in town to tell the people that Preston's character Harold Hill is a swindler, Shirley Jones defends him and then tries to distract the salesman – via song, of course. But while that creates an interesting dramatic buildup – does she believe Preston or believe the salesman? – the scene cuts to the buffoonish (if beautifully-singing) barbershop quartet whose efforts to uncover Preston's credentials as a music teacher repeatedly end in them singing together rather than searching for answers. As a story, not as a musical, that completely deflects the momentum of the story and dissolves the dramatic tension.
Otherwise, I think in general that the process of recreating the song and dance performances cinematically meant that the script was always going to get short shrift, and on film it holds together flimsily at best. Notwithstanding the idea that Jones' character is destined for spinsterhood at 26 (she's called an "old maid" at least once or twice), the romance that blossoms between her character and Preston's is implausible at best, especially since less time is spent showing how and why she's interested in him than her efforts to investigate his background and reveal his underhanded motives. Meanwhile, Preston's excellence as a salesman makes his sleazy, always-be-closing attitude too convincing, so that by the time he's asked Jones to meet him by the town footbridge for some canoodling, we're unconvinced that he has true feelings for her.
What's The Verdict: I think to any person who already loves this movie or who wants to watch classic Hollywood musicals, this movie holds up, but other than as old-fashioned escapism, I think it seems outdated and underwhelming as a movie in today's context. Given the fact that film is a radically different storytelling medium than the stage, this is a story that works best in that deep-focus, everything-at-once environment, but that's no longer a relevant format for film musicals because emotionality and narrative are the emphasis of cinematic storytelling, and at least in this case, those are de-emphasized in favor of a faithfulness to the source material. That said, I certainly understand why it's become a perennial favorite for musical and film fans, but The Music Man is not quite the kind of tune I want to hear or see on the big screen.