Movie musicals are back, but think MTV

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Oscar, that fickle golden statuette, hasn't gone home with a musical film since 1968, when "Oliver!" won Best Picture.

Now, the surprise box-office success ($173 million worldwide) and Best Picture nomination of "Moulin Rouge" have raised the prospect of more of Hollywood's biggest names bursting into song and dance on screen. "Chicago," based on a hit Broadway musical and starring A-list actresses Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, is scheduled to light up movie screens next Christmas. A big-screen rendition of the hit Broadway dance musical "Contact" is in the works, too.

To be sure, a big hit musical on Broadway doesn't automatically translate into a Hollywood film. Miramax just took "Rent," a Tony Award winner, out of development. And though movie studios own rights to nearly every musical that's opened on the Great White Way, actually making a movie musical remains a gamble.

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Then there's the fact that "Moulin Rouge" has nothing to do with the Broadway genre. If it becomes a model for Hollywood studios, as some industry insiders predict it will, the movie musical of the future will draw more heavily from MTV than from "My Fair Lady."

" 'Moulin Rouge' is the ultimate MTV musical," says Howard Fine, acting coach to some of Hollywood's biggest stars. "It was designed for a short attention span, and the younger generation has embraced it with a passion."

Indeed, its box-office success ($173 million worldwide) came in large part because "Moulin Rouge" was embraced by teens – the much-coveted audience that drives so many decisions about which movies get made.

Indeed, though there's no apparent rush to revive old-fashioned movie musicals, various hybrid offspring already abound on the screen. Teen pop stars Mandy Moore and Britney Spears, for instance, both just headlined movies in which they sang their own songs. Rap star Ice Cube is in multiplexes now, acting to the rhythm of his own tunes in the movie "All About the Benjamins." Will Smith will release his latest album to coincide with his coming "Men in Black 2." Rap artist Eminem is scheduled to star in and produce the soundtrack for the coming semi-autobiographical "8 Mile," a film directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") and starring Kim Basinger as his mother.

"The rap MTV community is where all this is happening right now," says Annlee Ellingson of Box Office magazine. "A musical for today almost has to have a video tie-in of some sort."

The success of "Moulin Rouge" is in no small measure due to the video, released on MTV at the same time as the film last May. It did not feature the film's stars, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, who are primarily actors, not singers. Rather, it starred some of the biggest names of the MTV generation, such as Pink, Christina Aguilera, and Lil' Kim.

That video helped build a young audience for a film that otherwise might not have appealed to teens, Ms. Ellingson says. "This is the [way to do] a musical for today's MTV generation."

Baz Luhrmann, who directed "Moulin Rouge," disagrees with those who see his film as geared to a narrow youth audience. While some critics have called the film a self-conscious melodrama that relies on flashy, quick cuts to reach the MTV generation, Luhrmann says the story is the real appeal of the movie.

"The greatest thing in life is to love and be loved," says the Australian director, repeating a key line from the film. "Shakespeare wrote about this for adults and children. This is just theatricalized cinema, but the primary things in life don't change."

In an industry eager to copy success, some say an Oscar win for "Moulin Rouge" could give studios the confidence to do big musicals. In a too-tight-to-call Best Picture race, a victory is not considered impossible. The quirky love story – set in an 1899 French burlesque theater but incongruously brimming with familiar modern pop songs – already has won an armful of best-picture honors from organizations such as the National Board of Review and the Producers Guild of America, whose winner has also grabbed the Best Picture Oscar in nine of the past 12 years.

But some worry Hollywood executives may learn the wrong lesson from the success of Luhrmann's movie. Musical-theater veteran Maurice Hines has been developing a hip-hop musical with an eye to making it into a film. The success of "Moulin Rouge," whose songs are a pastiche of familiar pop tunes, will make selling studios on a film with an original score harder for him, he says.

"The fact that 'Moulin Rouge' is a big hit means they'll try to clone it to death," says Mr. Hines, who is touring in the lead role of a new production of the musical-theater classic "Guys and Dolls." "They'll say, 'No, you have to get hits. You can't have original music. Look at 'Moulin Rouge.' You know [studios are] going to do that."

In the end, success on screen isn't about genres, whether the film is a musical or a comedy, a historical drama or futuristic sci-fi. "On a list of possible factors that could influence how well a film does with the audience, the genre or concept is about No. 10," meaning that it's so small as to be almost imperceptible, says Chris Lanier, founder of Motion Picture Intelligencer, an industry analysis service.

"If it tastes good, it doesn't matter what cooking rules you broke to make it," he says. "If the movie entertains, people will go."

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