Can You Feel the Musicals Tonight?

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Rick Borovoy, a graduate student at MIT who's a former college classmate of mine, called me at the office the other day with an urgent message. He wanted me to investigate a phenomenon he had observed: the movie musical moment.

"You know that moment in 'Almost Famous' where all the characters are on the bus and everyone starts singing [Elton John's song] 'Tiny Dancer'?" he said. "That happens a lot in films. You should look into it."

I immediately put aside the five-part series on soft money and presidential politics I was working on and got right on it. This was news!

As it turns out, this autumn is a kind of post-musical musical moment. There are a number of films out now or coming out soon that really want to be musicals but don't want to actually admit that they are musicals. Musicals just aren't seen as cool and hip enough these days. Hey, I still think "Fame" is a way cool movie. But maybe there's a reason it's not available on DVD.

The Coen Brothers' upcoming film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is one of these musicals in disguise. The characters — even the one played by George Clooney — break out into folk, country and bluegrass standards like "Man of Constant Sorrow" that are strung throughout the movie. Set in Depression-era Mississippi, the movie even has a scene which features marching Klansmen and a singing Klan leader. Actually, I could have done without that sequence. The only thing creepier than a singing Klan leader is... well, let me get back to you on that after I see the re-released, uncut version of 'The Exorcist." It‚Äôs pretty hard to beat a singing Klansman in the old Department of Truly Offensive Gags That Never Should Have Been Attempted (I'm sure Ted Danson is calling the department even as we speak and asking for his blackface incident to be downgraded to number two). I'm just hoping that, somewhere in Hollywood, there isn't some agent, inspired by "Brother," pitching a musical remake of "Birth of a Nation."

Bjork's new Cannes-approved, Lars von Trier–directed film‚ "Dancer in the Dark," is a sort of ironic commentary on musicals. Or maybe it's a musical commentary on irony. Actually I'm still trying to figure out Lars von Trier's last film, "The Idiots." The only thing I'm certain about is that it wasn't a musical.

For the most part, though, Hollywood films, instead of blossoming into real musicals, content themselves with slipping in a musical moment, a singing epiphany. This is usually a scene where all the lead characters, or at least a large number of them, get together and sing in an otherwise non-singing movie. In "Magnolia," the characters suddenly forget they're in a drama and start singing along to the Aimee Mann soundtrack. In "Beautiful Girls," Timothy Hutton leads his pals in a rendition of "Sweet Caroline." And in "My Best Friend's Wedding" — and this scene is a classic of the genre — Rupert Everett spurs a roomful of folks to sing "I Say a Little Prayer." In the forthcoming "Remember the Titans‚" starring Denzel Washington as a football coach, a locker room of white and black kids join together in a rendition of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Denzel, Oscar-winning smart-guy actor that he is, doesn't join in. Of course, if I had delivered the performance that he did in "Malcolm X" in 1992 and still lost out to Al Pacino for his annoying role in "Scent of a Woman," (Hoo-hah!) I wouldn't be in the mood for singing for, oh, the rest of my natural life.

There are a few key ingredients to a musical moment. It's a cathartic moment, where we all let go a little bit, drop our guards and our standards. The song involved has to be slightly cheesy or overly familiar, but nonetheless a guilty pleasure, the kind of tune we sing in our showers when there are no people around. They can also feature the kind of songs we sing in our showers when there are people around, because if you're the sort of person that takes group showers, hey, you're not going to get all self-conscious about belting out the chorus to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

Hollywood, still fearful of actual musicals, is coming up with new ways to relabel them. Q-Tip is working on a hip-hop musical called "Prison Song." But Tinseltown can't hide the truth. "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," was a musical. Sorry to burst your bubble.

"Duets"? A musical. "Coyote Ugly"? A musical. Except for Tyra Banks — I think she was in a tragedy. And "The Perfect Storm"? Should have been an old-style '40s musical. Then it would have come out a few decades before my birth and I never would have had to see it.

Hold up, hold up. I think I'm having a musical moment.

Come on Eileen... oh I swear... at this moment... You mean EVERYTHING....