On Thursday night, Chicago’s own John C. Reilly worked a packed house at the Cubby Bear to promote his upcoming comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, about a hard-livin’, hard-lovin’ fictional singer-musician (a composite of Johnny Cash and others). Swaggering and swivelling his hips in character, Reilly and his tight back-up band performed about a dozen original songs from the movie, some of which he cowrote. The music and lyrics—both ribald and nuanced, clever and dumb-funny—drive the movie, which Jake Kasdan directed and cowrote with Judd Apatow. From the robust title tune (by Marshall Crenshaw, Reilly, Apatow, and Kasdan) to the very un-P.C. ode to short people, “Let Me Hold You (Little Man)” (by Dan Bern, Mike Viola and Manish Raval), to Bern’s hilarious Bob Dylan parody “Royal Jelly” and Viola’s soaring, Roy Orbison-esque ballad “A Life Without You (Is No Life At All),” Reilly demonstrated remarkable vocal range and stage presence. (Check out a video clip from the show here.)
Both the live show and the film set me thinking about how I love movie musicals and wish there were more. Not that there’s much to complain about this past year: you couldn’t name two movies as disparate as Adam Shankman’s Hairspray and John Carney’s Once , but both charmed critics and audiences alike, as did Kevin Lima’s Enchanted. Also notable was Christophe Honore’s Les Chansons d’Amour (Love Songs), a kind of postmodern homage to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that played both the Toronto and Chicago film festivals. I have yet to catch up with Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, but I have seen Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which opens December 21. Burton, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall put a lot of sizzle into Sondheim.
So what will it take to get more musicals on the big screen? Well, it is show business, so if box office is good, with luck more will get made. Memorable songs, actors who can sing, and inventive staging go a long way—not to mention the kind of big marketing pushes given to Enchanted, Sweeney Todd, and Walk Hard. But dangling a little gold couldn’t hurt, either. Maybe the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should take a cue from the Golden Globes, which makes a distinction between dramas and musicals and comedies. If animated features have their own Oscar category, why can’t musicals?