Tom Hooper’s Adaptation of Cats Gets It All Wrong…Oh So Wrong

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy from Cats (Universal Pictures)

Tom Hooper’s 2019 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is bad. Mind-boggingly bad. The kind of bad that is hard to watch. Cats is not destined to be a cult classic. It doesn’t horseshoe from being so bad it becomes good. It doesn’t become camp (though it does try). It won’t be resurrected as a cult classic. It won’t be revisited as an underrated gem. It’s a bad film made with such good intentions that it feels churlish to criticize. So many critics slammed the film, citing its terrible special effects or bad performances as the main reason why the film doesn’t work. And those critics are correct – the rendering of the anthropomorphic cats is gross and disturbing – but the problem isn’t just Hooper’s interpretation of Cats, the problem is the source material. Though Lloyd Webber’s stage musical is a blockbuster, it’s a pretty shoddy show. The plot – if one could call it that – is nonsensical and tedious to follow and the music is repetitive and dull.

As the film opens, we become well acquainted with the film’s major problems immediately. The admittedly catchy score is dated – its sickly synths – introduces the lean score. The visuals feel off. It looks queasily real and animated, a confusing landscape that resembles a video game. As we see a faceless somebody fling a pillowcase into a jumbled alley, we see the true obstacle of the film: it’s the cats. I don’t know what Hooper thought when he allowed for the cats.

In the Broadway musical, the cast members were dressed in Lycra and tights, with tufts of fur and stylized makeup. They didn’t look like real cats, but that wasn’t the point. They looked like an 80s MTV-pop version of what dancing cats should look like: harlequinesque makeup, bushy wigs, fuzzy legwarmers. Costume designer John Napier allowed the costumes to be stylish and abstract with splashes of color and shapes that informed the characters. In Hooper’s version, the actors are CGI’d into anthropomorphic cats and it gets strange and confusing. The human faces look shoddily copy/pasted and because the actors engage in intricate dance sequences, they’re obviously bipedal, but then when they do walk on all fours, they’re on their hands and knees? They have human hands and feet. I mean, it all looks odd and ugly as if Cats is taking place on the Island of Dr Moreau. Also, the film tries to get clever by sizing the cats to scale, but then the CGI seems to get that wrong too because sometimes the cats seem too small. None of it is right.

Some of this could be saved if the performances are good, but unfortunately, the cast – made up of some pros like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Idris Elba, and Jason Derulo, flounder mightily. Dench is laden down with furs and she seems to be heaving herself around; McKellen is odd and strange (and barely looks like a cat); Wilson and Corden are on hand for some (alleged) comic relief but neither comedian does well. The only decent note is Hudson, who as Grizabella, gets to sing the show’s big hit theme, “Memory” and does so beautifully. She tears into the maudlin pop ballad with a fiery passion that is at odds with how ridiculous she looks. The rest of the cast is made up of stage dancers and singers and the dance sequences are admittedly well done: Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is good and the dancers, ingenue lead Francesca Hayward in particular, do solid work, despite looking so awful.

Upon its release, Cats bombed mightily. Critics savaged the film and audiences found it bewildering. I watched the film with some perverse curiosity. Could a movie be that bad? Yes it can. It’s a mystery as to how this movie got made and more crucially, how it got released in its current state. If the CGI was junked and the production went back to essentially filming a stage performance, it wouldn’t have been such a gigantic disaster; granted, the actors would still have to sing the terrible music but it would have lent the surreal, absurdist imagery some plausible suspension of belief.

Instead, we’re left with this shambolic mess that takes itself way to seriously to dip into ridiculous camp a la Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room. Instead, it collapses underneath the weight of its far-reaching pretensions and shoddy, rushed work.

Liza joins some pros in a game attempt at a comeback with Stepping Out

Liza Minnelli, Steppin’ Out (dir. Lewis Gilbert, Paramount, 1991)

I always said that Liza Minnelli was born in the wrong generation. Had she been a star when her mother, Judy Garland was making movies, from the 1930s to the 1950s, she would have been a much bigger movie star. But she became a movie star in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the New Wave of Hollywood changed the tone and direction of mainstream cinema. Minnelli was an odd fit. She was too sincere. Too enthusiastic. Too much. Stars like Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Estelle Parsons, and Al Pacino brought a gritty reality to cinema and Minnelli’s smiling-through-tears, go-for-broke persona was out of step. Though she made a huge splash early in her career, winning an Oscar for her excellent work in Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical drama Cabaret, the rest of her career was a series of disappointments (tellingly, Minnelli’s star shone brightest on Broadway)

Throughout the 1980s, Minnelli’s film career relied more on her celebrity than her talent. Though 1981’s Arthur (directed by Steve Gordon) was a big hit, star Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud benefited most from its success. From there, she made a few cameos before returning to a starring role in the ill-fated 1988 comedy thriller Rent-a-Cop, in which she plays a prostitute opposite Burt Reynolds (that year, she also reunited with Moore for a flopped sequel to Arthur) So during that decade, she starred in only three feature films, whilst focusing on her stage work as a Broadway actress and concert performer.

In 1992, Minnelli starred in what was hoped to be a comeback hit for the performer, 1991’s musical comedy, Stepping Out. Based on the hit West End play written by Richard Harris and directed by Lewis Gilbert (Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita), Stepping Out gave Minnelli the kind of role that could have been mistaken for one like Sally Bowles in Cabaret or Francine Evans in Martin Scorsese’s musical drama New York, New York (1977). Stepping Out was a film that seemingly worked to Minnelli’s strengths: it was a light comedy, with some tender moments, a rousing, climactic end, and musical numbers written by her longtime collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb. Gilbert had a solid track record of making films that were pulled from the stage: the three films he did before Stepping Out (1989’s Shirley Valentine, 1985’s Not Quite Paradise, and 1983’s Educating Rita) were all films that had stage origins. He also proved with Valentine and Rita, that he was an empathetic director when it came to working with plucky, likable leads.

And Minnelli’s role seemed tailor-made for her. Gutsy, sassy, and optimistic with loads of talent, it was the kind of role that was created to allow for Minnelli to show off her gifts and give the audience that ole razzle dazzle. The original play was transformed into a musical and Minnelli’s character – the has-been Broadway hoofer-turned-dancing-teacher, Mavis Turner – was made the focus of the film, with the eccentric supporting players behind.

Along with a good director and an energetic lead, the film also boasted a supporting cast of some great character actors. Film legend and two-time Oscar-winner Shelley Winters appears in what feels like a Shirley MacLaine battleaxe role as Mavis’ friend and pianist, Mrs Fraser; Minnelli’s fellow Broadway baby, Ellen Greene is one of Mavis’ students, as is legendary clown Bill Irwin. Gilbert reunites with his Educating Rita muse, Julie Walters, who plays the wealthy, dithering and self-involved Vera. Canadian film veterans Sheila McCarthy and comedy genius Andrea Martin also are part of the cast. And Carol Woods is the sole actress from the original Broadway production to appear in the film. And future TV funny woman and song-and-dance gal, Jane Krakowski is also featured.

The plot is wafer thin. Mavis is a dancing teacher who is in charge of trying to get a messy group of amateurs to look like something. Each character has a backstory and the dancing class works as an escape. Most of the stakes are pretty mundane, though Andi (Sheila McCarthy) is the victim of domestic violence – a rather jarring plot on an otherwise genteel and fluffy film. Mavis is a frustrated and slightly embittered performer, someone who tried to make it on Broadway but instead ended up teaching in a church basement in Buffalo. To make it more Liza! the script gives Minnelli an opportunity to sing. In a nightclub setting, she croons a jazzy version of the standard “Mean to Me” in a smokey, dingy bar. She also gets a snazzy solo dance number in the film, too. And the finale includes a group performance, with Mavis and her troupe of amateur dancers letting it loose at a talent show, performing to Kander & Ebb’s newly-written title tune.

“Stepping Out” is the centerpiece of the film. The moment when Liza conjures up all of her Liza magic. It’s an odd moment in the film because it’s so old-fashioned in its straight forward depiction. Since the 1970s, musicals often acted in response to the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Stepping Out is simply staged as a musical number without any critique or commentary on the musical film, despite Minnelli’s storied history with the genre. For a rinky dink talent show in Buffalo, New York, Mavis gets a pretty elaborate musical number. It starts off in a bright pink room setting – like something out of a live version of The Simpsons. She’s dressed in pajamas, with pink fuzzy slippers, and a pink terry cloth robe. The song – not Kander & Ebb’s better ones – starts and stops and Minnelli croons, getting flattering closeups. It’s an odd number – one that is meant to reaffirm Mavis’ Minnelli-like talents. As she sings, she struts behind a Chinese screen, doffs off her sleepwear, and then appears, triumphantly, in a glittery top hat and tails ensemble, reminiscent of her look in Cabaret as well as somewhat similar to her mother’s look in “Get Happy” in Summer Stock. She’s joined by her dance troupe, all matching her snazzy outfit. In something out of A Chorus Line, Gilbert frames his dancers simply, capturing their dancing as they work in sync, creating a tableaux in which the characters become indistinct from each other.

Minnelli, Stepping Out (Paramount, 1991)
Minnelli, Cabaret (Allied Artists, 1972)
Garland, Summer Stock (dir. Charles Walters, MGM, 1950)

When the line breaks up and we get individual performances, we see the theatre backgrounds emerging. Krakowski is easily the best dancer of the bunch and when Irwin joins Minnelli, both performers cease being their characters and are simply two pros doing their thing. Irwin is allowed to do his rubber-limbed clowning bit and Minnelli does her Liza bit. It’s an indulgent sequence in the film – slightly too long – that both highlights the film’s weaknesses as well as its potential. It’s a bit of a messy film in that the Liza Minnelli starry stuff that is shoehorned in the film feels at once intrusive and unsatisfying. She’s energetic in the film, especially in her dancing numbers, but the dramatic bit with the students stalls. Instead, Gilbert should have simply pulled a Fosse and created a musical TV special around his star a la Liza with a Z. As seen in the “Stepping Out” number, Minnelli hadn’t lost any of her star power nor any of her talent or charisma; but she feels ill-served by the dramatic bits of the film.

Part of the problem is that in Stepping Out we’re supposed to buy Liza Minnelli as a down-on-her-luck has-been dancer who cannot catch a break. Minnelli doesn’t have the range to play working class and she cannot seem to shrug off her diva persona. Toiling away in some anonymous church basement, trying to get some bland misfits to learn how to tap seems crazily beneath her. At least with characters like Sally Bowles or Francine Evans, Minnelli was able to bend her extravagant, eccentricity to the script. In Harris’ script, Minnelli is a bit of a drag, her life a humdrum. It’s not that characters in film have to be fabulous, but if it’s Liza Minnelli, yes, her character should be fabulous. That’s the whole point of Liza.

As a comeback vehicle, Stepping Out couldn’t bring Liza Minnelli back to her 70s glory days, but at that point in her career, that wasn’t important anymore. By the 1990s, her concert career essentially became her full time job. As of 2021, she hasn’t been in a starring role in a feature film, instead lending her celebrity to some television projects as well as goofy cameos in 2006’s The Oh in Ohio and most notably as the officiant of a gay wedding in Sex and the City 2, in which she gaily (and gayly) warbled Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”. It wouldn’t revive Minnelli’s film career nor would it revive the movie musical, but that’s fine because Minnelli’s stardom and celebrity was never attached to just one thing that she did: instead, she’s a star who doesn’t need to be in a hit movie. So, in the end, Stepping Out feels superfluous.

Barbra Streisand mines the archives for some hidden gems with Release Me 2

Release Me 2

Barbra Streisand is a prolific recording artist with over 60 albums to her credit. With that kind of history, it makes sense that there were some songs that were left on the cutting room floor. Now, in her 6th decade of performing, she has dipped into her considerable archives to gift fans with songs that they’ve never heard. The span of Release Me 2, the sequel to her first compilation of unreleased tracks, runs from 1962 to 2014. It’s interesting to hear the stylistic choices and changes she’s made in the 50 years (it’s also interesting to hear just how strong and powerful her voice has endured in that time).

For Release Me 2, Streisand turns to mainly contemporary pop songwriters like Paul Williams, Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and Barry Gibb. Of course, because this is Barbra Streisand, there are also nods to the Great American Songbook with Harold Arlen’s and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s “Right As Rain” from the 1944 musical Bloomer Girl and longtime Streisand pals/collaborators, Michel Legrand, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman are repped with “One Day (A Prayer)” – both songs were recorded in the 1960s when the singer was a freakishly talented up-and-comer. But the bulk of the 10 tracks are from her fruitful 1970s period when she was scoring top 20 hits and she was looking to contemporary pop to sustain her career.

When assessing the quality of the songs on Release Me 2, it’s a bit surprising that they were left off the albums. The songs all work well with Streisand’s talents and none of the songs are too stylistically different for her comfort. She sounds best with the songwriters who are influenced by traditional and vocal pop, so it’s no surprise that when the passionate “Once You’ve Been in Love” (written by Legrand and the Bergmans) from 1973 sounds gorgeous (Streisand’s arguably at her vocal peak on the tune). Streisand also does wonders with Carole King’s “You Light Up My Life” that was meant for her 1974 album ButterFly (one of Streisand’s worst studio LPs – and honestly, her rendition of King’s tune is better than anything that ended up on the album). And though Streisand has recorded a lot of duets in her career, she isn’t the most generous duet partner, but she’s absolutely charming trilling sweetly with Kermit the Frog on the classic “Rainbow Connection” (which was cut from her 1979 water-logged concept album Wet) Streisand’s laid back charm and ease with the iconic song shows that she could’ve succeeded putting out a children’s record. On the first Release Me album, Streisand, did a revelatory rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Newman’s “Living without You” is given an excellent reading, as well, being able to do a great job telling the song’s story about loneliness and lost love.

After the 1980s, Streisand’s recording career became far more sporadic and spotty, as she would indulge in some ponderous, overproduced adult/contemporary pop production. This issue is illustrated with a 1994 tune “Sweet Forgiveness” written by schlock masters Walter Afanasieff and John Bettis. Streisand’s performance is typically spotless, but overly cautious and the song is boring; and “If Only You Were Mine” with Barry Gibb for her 2005 album Guilty Pleasures is a swinging trifle that is so light and inconsequential that it practically disappears. But her 2014 duet with country icon Willie Nelson is very good (it’s weird that it was left out of the final product). Yes, it’s overly slick and polished (Afanasieff and Babyface poured buckets and buckets of studio gloss over the song), but the lyrics are quite clever (referencing both icons’ histories) and the lilting, waltz-like country swing is pretty and sweet.

One of the unintended consequences of having Streisand release songs from her past is that it highlights just how much her recording career had suffered as her superstardom grew. Though her voice kept up through the years, she seemed braver more idiosyncratic and distinct in the 1960s and 1970s; one hopes that she’ll be inspired by flipping through these audio memories and go back to these simpler kinds of songs that flattered her beautiful voice and peerless interpretive skills.

A Qualified Success: Martin Scorsese’s Concerted Efforts to Revive the Movie Musical with New York, New York

In a way, it was a matter of trying to come to terms with a reality that I sensed from these movies that I’d seen from 1945 on to 1957. But I did away with the convention of the time.

Martin Scorsese

When assessing Martin Scorsese’s career, most will cite Raging Bull, Mean Streets, or Goodfellas as his greatest achievements. Reading through a series of top ten lists, and the predictable entries appear: The Wolf of Wall Street, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Departed, Mean Streets. The most controversial entries could be Casino or The Age of Innocence. Few people will mention New York, New York, his foray into the movie musical, which saw the director try to introduce the traditional Hollywood musical to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Like much of his work, the film carries themes of anger and ambition – though instead of framing it in the crime world, he couches his concerns in post-war show business. Urban decay is an important thread throughout his films – the decay that brings about organised crime, but in this case, Scorsese wards off urban blight in his hermetically-sealed fictional world that at-times resembles a lush box of Valentines Day candy. It was his first big-budget spectacular that found the director helming a project that cost over $14 million, a seemingly instant ascent from his more modest productions. Despite the resources and talent involved, New York, New York is sad case of a brilliant director with a brilliant idea that almost pulls it off.

l to r: Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, New York, New York (dir. Martin Scorsese), United Artists, 1977.

New York, New York is Scorsese’s attempt to bring Vincent Minnelli or Stanley Donen into the 1970s, whilst still maintain the verisimilitude of his filmmaking style. It’s an uneasy marriage because Minnelli, Donen, Busby Berkeley, Charles Walters filmed in a highly stylized, artificial manner. Their movies suspended reality. Characters would break into song in the middle of conversations, with extras joining in intricate choreography, while invisible orchestras back them up. The costumes were often grand, and the acting was pitched higher, as if they were performing on a Broadway stage. Aesthetically these movies looked different, too, because they were often filmed on sets simulating cities like Paris, New York, or Los Angeles. And these sets presented these urban landscapes as being tidy, clean without litter, homeless people, fights. MGM’s exaggerated aesthetic also followed into how the characters dressed and looked – the makeup was heavy, lips were ruby red, cheeks candy apple-hued, hairdos were elaborate and constructed.

Scorsese was part of a film movement that purposely moved away from this artifice. His critical success in the 1970s saw a reaction to the old Hollywood system and it was moving away from the antiquated studio system. The studio system had been crumbling for quite some time, done in by the rise of television as well as changing tastes in audiences, influenced undoubtedly by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, as well as the Vietnam War. Scorsese, along with his peers including Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, and Michael DePalma confronted the raw, ugly, violent realities that plagued urban settings, and explored the societal and emotional causes of the violence. Because the New Hollywood was free from the Hays Code era, these films were free to depict violence as well as once-taboo subjects like prostitution, rape, abortion, murder. The violence was confrontational, and audiences weren’t allowed to escape it.

So, in some respects, New York, New York is a brave film in Scorsese’s canon because it’s a film that looks to unite the disparate movements in film. Scorsese makes a loving Valentine to the MGM musical, leaving visual cues and homages throughout the film, as well as, reaching for the kind of grand spectacle that he hadn’t tried before (he never dealt with a film that boasted hundreds of extras and a lavish score and an army of backup dancers) It’s his A Star Is Born or Singin’ in the Rain and he shows his love, not just for old Hollywood, but for music and performance. What the movie proves is that Scorsese is very good at staging a musical number. And Because Scorsese was prone to take risks, he not only set out to make a postmodern Hollywood musical, but an epic one at that, which clocked in at nearly 3 hours, and boasted a 10-minute musical number in the middle. He trusted that his audiences would be drawn into the spectacle.

If New Hollywood rejected the artificial trappings of Old Hollywood, Scorsese showed he had a nostalgia and a love for it. Because the film was such an undertaking and a novel one, Scorsese had no precedent to look to. It’s borrows heavily from Minnelli and Donen, particularly in some of the obviously artificial street settings which are painted backdrops, but he didn’t want to abandon the emotional truth that New Hollywood achieved. Scorsese had a hard time encapsulating the film, demurring, “I don’t know how to define it. I mean, I had an idea, on the one hand to embrace the artifice in a good sense, the artifice and the beauty of the old Hollywood, with room enough for a new way of looking at life.”

As mentioned earlier, New York, New York is a product of Scorsese’s cinematic upbringing and a clear influence on this film is George Cukor’s 1954 showbiz musical drama A Star Is Born. Scorsese’s plot resembles Cukor’s in that both films deal with a marriage that disintegrates due to fame and fortune. The film looks at the fractured relationship of two talented performers, who struggle to stay together because of warring ambition, ego, and a terrible clash of personalities. As their fame grows, so does their inability to be married. And despite Scorsese’s efforts to embrace the Old Hollywood aesthetic, he also presents an unflinching view of domestic rancour and domestic violence that are a seeming bad fit for the idealized world of a Hollywood musical. It’s this unexpected juxtaposition that gives the film its intended emotional power – musical numbers are inherently joyful and there are sharp tonal shifts when the film moves away from a musical number to a scene of domestic strife.  

The plot of the film is straight forward: On V-J Day in 1945, brilliant, but mercurial saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) spots comely USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) from across a crowded nightclub and he instantly falls in love. The world is rejoicing the surrender of the Japanese, and the film’s open shows lots of possibility and optimism. It’s here that it’s most like an old Hollywood musical. Scorsese has wide shots of rapturous celebration on sets that are obviously fake (Scorsese would become famous for filming on the streets of New York City), and cinematographer László Kovács works with the director to create a lush, sumptuous look to the film that resembles flattering glamour shots.

Francine and Jimmy get together and despite her initial frostiness, she falls for him. She unwillingly tags along to an audition that goes badly because of Jimmy’s temper, and she saves it by urging him to play to her crooning. The two discover that they share an easy chemistry that eventually translates to a successful touring act. As their careers progress their love becomes doomed by their talent, ego, and competitiveness, and eventually their marriage falls apart. After Francine gives birth to their son, Jimmy abandons them, and goes on to a distinguished career as a jazz musician, whilst she becomes a successful musical comedy star and entertainer. Scorsese employs neon-soaked montages to show us the growing success of Jimmy and Francine’s act but slows down the action to individual moments of tension and rancour to highlight the ruptures in their union – including an anxious scene in which the two are rehearsing in front of a band and their strained relationship spills over to how they interact with their band musicians. 

As the film reaches for stylistic goals – namely, successfully blending two disparate movements in cinema as well as a panoramic and epic scope for a director who never worked at this scale before, Scorsese tried to inject some of his signature features into the film, namely the raw, seemingly improvised nature of the actors’ performance. One thing that must be said about the Hollywood musical is that it appears staged and meticulously plotted. With New York, New York, Scorsese avoided this tactic namely by confining the musical numbers to diegetic performances in the film as opposed to gigantic musical numbers in which characters randomly burst into song.

This reach for a more urgent, spontaneous tone in the context of a gigantic production like New York, New York was difficult to pull off. The intimate scenes between his lead actors managed to retain some closeness but Scorsese struggled with successfully mingling the two styles. “Basically,” he said, “I tried to deal with the style I was experimenting with…I wanted to push the improvisation more.” This proved difficult though because during the colossal production, “sets are being build or dismantled and you got 500 extras,” making it hard for Scorsese to his improvised method.

But he does manage to pull it off in isolated parts of the film, namely due to the chemistry he shares with his frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro, who matches Scorsese’s New Hollywood aesthetic. Unlike matinee idols of Old Hollywood, DeNiro was an actor who looked and sounded like a real person, removed from the idealized notion of masculine beauty. He rarely played heroes and his acting was informed by the Method style which resulted in idiosyncratic work that often felt dangerous, nervy, and prone to sudden explosions. Scorsese was able to work with DeNiro to give New York, New York a volatility that is usually lacking in a Hollywood musical. Ronald Reagan, a former actor himself, though a consummate product of the Hollywood system, once decried Method acting as “dirty” and in a certain sense, he’s right. Because Hollywood musicals require a certain stylized reality, gritty, emotionally complex performances like DeNiro’s are rare and subvert the standards of a Hollywood musical. When DeNiro is on screen, especially in his discordant scenes with Minnelli, Scorsese coaxes a performance that is akin to a tight spring that threatens to jump at any moment. He’s at once menacing, yet beguiling, and manages to cut through the thick, lacquered gloss and remain real even if he’s pacing on a train platform with a painted train in the background.  Scorsese’s goal was to explore the tension that arises with the “kind of naturalistic behaviour of the actors within the confines of an artificial-looking film.”

And the film does look very artificial at times. When the film opens to the celebration and the crowd of revellers, a spotlight lingers on a pair of saddle shoes that trod on a filthy newspaper, heralding the surrender of the Japanese. The camera pans back to take in the large crowd that is surging through the New York street, it looks fake – the sidewalks too uniform and new (no cracks or pockmarks), the buildings on the side of the street to fabricated and flat. The proportions look off, which Scorsese did deliberately, finding slight details like street curbs being too high or the Manhattan skyline being painted part of the challenge when trying to impart sincerity in an artificial setting. There’s a scrubbed, polish look to New York, New York that is a marked difference from Scorsese’s other films from the 1970s.

And if DeNiro is Scorsese’s way of disrupting the artifice with gritty realism, the casting of Liza Minnelli is an homage to that artifice as well as to the lore of the Hollywood musical. Not only is Minnelli a musical star like her character, but she’s a direct link to the Golden Age of Hollywood – her parents Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland are two of the era’s most important figures. Unlike DeNiro, Minnelli doesn’t convey a deep and profound authenticity. She’s patently showbiz in the way that she delivers her lines – her nervous smiles and comic delivery feeling forced and rehearsed as opposed to her co-star’s more instinctual performance. Minnelli isn’t an actress so much as a personality and therefore Scorsese does wonders with her when he directs her in the musical numbers as he is able to show her off at her best, when she is singing and dancing. It’s when she’s called upon to face DeNiro that Scorsese’s attempt to marry two disparate modes of filmmaking makes the film truly fascinating because DeNiro’s work is so authentic that he appears to just be, whilst Minnelli’s more affected showbiz work feels stylized and exaggerated. And because Scorsese is so interested in looking at the tension between these two ways of acting, the film actually benefits from this clash.

The other thing that must be looked at when examining New York, New York are the musical numbers. Scorsese isn’t a natural for musical films, but he was more than up to the task when he took on New York, New York. Because of the film’s length and its challenging material, it’s clear that Scorsese was not only interested in making an interesting musical, but an important one. This is clear because he also includes a long, 10-minute musical number that breaks up the film and signals Francine’s success as a musical comedy star. As mentioned earlier, New York, New York owes a lot to A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. Both older films are also considered “important” musical films, and both have extended musical numbers that act as centrepieces in the film. In Cukor’s A Star Is Born, it’s the “Born in a Trunk” medley, in which Judy Garland’s character, a Vaudevillian, tells her rags-to-riches story through an extended musical number that runs over 15 minutes and acts as a showcase for Garland’s singing, dancing and performing talents. In Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, we see this in Gene Kelly’s “Gotta Dance” number – an extended bit that is a fictional Broadway show that Kelly’s character stars in, that again serves to highlight the star’s prodigious musical talent.

The key musical number, “Happy Endings” is part of a film-within-a-film. At this point in the plot, Francine and Jimmy have split up, and Francine’s gone on to become a major star. The fictional film is a vehicle and the musical number serves as a vehicle for Minnelli as well as for Scorsese to show his versatility and ability to helm a large and spectacular sequence. Never has Scorsese had so many elements to join on the screen. There are dancers, musicians, and actors, with large elaborate sets as well as intricate choreography. Filming these kinds of sequences is difficult because so much of the impact of these moments depend on how the visuals come off, and Scorsese scores handsomely. The sequence starts with Francine’s character playing an usher who imagines herself to be a musical comedy star, and she’s discovered by a smooth-voiced crooner who steps out of her way just as she’s about to ascend into superstardom. As is common with these long medleys, there’s a choppiness to the proceedings, but Scorsese handles these shifts in between songs and scenes masterfully, ably aping the kind of smooth work that his predecessors have done. And even though Scorsese thrives on depicting gritty intimacy, he’s also a master at showing off a spectacle, as seen in the finale of the “Happy Endings” sequence when the camera pans to a large staircase, with Francine descending slowly and gradually being inching closer to the camera. She’s wearing a red, over-the-top evening gown, and she’s flanked by dancers in sequined ruby. The colours come off, popping, as Scorsese chooses deep, jewel tones for his palette to mimic the extravagant colours of the Hollywood musical (without resorting to the drippy, juicy garishness of Technicolor).

There are visual cues in the musical number in which Scorsese also harks back to the classic Hollywood musical. These bits are subtle, but unmistakeable. Most notable is how he recreates a version of the “Gotta Dance” sequence from Singin’ in the Rain, that featured Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The famed musical number took place in a bar with bright red walls that matched Charisse’s outfit. Scorsese pays homage by having part of Francine’s number take place in a nightclub that is also blood red, with dancers in the background gyrating rhythmically to the jazzy big band music.

It’s these stylistic choices that make New York, New York work despite it all getting away from Scorsese’s control. Because the film is a love letter to a bygone era, it slightly tips into corny area – especially when we’re seeing Minnelli on screen. Her scenes when she’s performing are unabashed showbusiness, and Scorsese indulges in his ardour for that more stylized type of direction. When he’s filming Francine’s recording session of “But the World Goes Round” he lovingly frames her in a dramatic spotlight, the world nearly pitch-black around her. She’s dressed in a (relatively) simple outfit of a white top, with sparkly jewellery at her shoulders and throat, and she’s heavily made up, with the period hairdo, and it’s here that Scorsese is really trying to recall Judy Garland. Minnelli’s singing – a throbbing, vibrato-laden belt – is reminiscent of Garland’s and the two look eerily alike in the number, and Scorsese pulls off a neat trick in getting Judy Garland (or at least a decent facsimile) to perform in a film in the 1970s. It’s his homage to Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born, in that he reaches for a moment – through a torch song – to move the plot forward by emphasising both the song’s optimism as well as melancholy (which are two qualities that define Minnelli’s screen persona) to narrate how the two characters are forced to adapt to their difficult circumstances – alone, away from each other – and despite it all, the world does move on. It’s in the “But the World Goes Round” number that Scorsese really taps into emotional intensity of the film’s message about perseverance. The song starts of slow, a shuffling pop ballad that becomes increasingly frantic as Minnelli starts to build up crescendo – it’s as if Scorsese doesn’t really believe in the message of perseverance and wants to convince himself and the audience by having Francine turn the number from a bluesy pop song into a full-throated anthem, which has Minnelli practically roar near the end (when she belts out the word “sound” so overcome is she with both the song’s message and her leather-lunged voice, she grips her head as if it were about to explode). Scorsese reaches transcendence in this moment and New York, New York doesn’t feel like a canny pastiche anymore. As beautifully as “Happy Endings” comes off – and it’s a masterful job – there is a feeling of effort behind the number, as if Scorsese wants the audience to know the gears moving behind the production. But he achieves seamlessness with “But the World Goes Round” showing off a stylish and rakish quality to his work that is far removed from its usual harsh grittiness.

In interviews, Scorsese talked about his love for films, especially when he was growing up. He came of age as a film goer during the Golden Age of Hollywood, consuming MGM and Warner Bros musicals but he’s become one of the most important figures of New Hollywood. But he doesn’t approach the older style with smugness but true affection which is why New York, New York should have worked. It isn’t snarky and though it’s mean at times (this is especially true in the DeNiro scenes), he doesn’t mock the Hollywood musical. He would take on the theme of entertainment later on his career – The King of Comedy is a notable example of his take on showbiz and celebrity culture – and his previous film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is also about a fledgling singer (though one with far less natural vocal resources) and so much of New York, New York is about wanted to achieve a certain goal and being frustrated. It’s a fitting theme to parallel Scorsese’s reach in making this film. Like Francine and Jimmy, Scorsese is a talented individual who is a master at what he does, but he also has an oversized ambition that threatens his output. At times, the film feels like a challenge or a dare that Scorsese has done on himself, to see if he can make the kind of film that Stanley Donen or Vincent Minnelli were able to.

The end of New York, New York is interesting because he again he wants to lovingly mesh the realism of contemporary filmmaking with the glossy fabulousness of a Hollywood musical. Usually in a Hollywood musical, the film ends on a high note – literally, if the musical signs off with a musical number. Often the cast will gather at the end to belt out the final tune (often the title tune) and we’re almost treated to a curtain call. The classic Hollywood musical was usually a musical comedy – something to work as escapist entertainment to distract audiences from the Great Depression or WWII. Though audiences sought escapist entertainment in the 1970s, Scorsese wasn’t interested in distracting his audiences, which is why New York, New York comes off so strange.

In the final sequence, we have Minnelli perform the title tune, written by her long-time collaborators, John Kander and Fred Ebb (who penned the songs for Minnelli’s Oscar-winning turn in Cabaret) By the end of the film, both Francine and Jimmy are established in their respective careers. He comes to see her at a nightclub and she’s singing the theme song. The song’s lyrics speak to the kind of cockeyed – sometimes foolish – optimism that people hold on to when they move to a large city like New York. It’s a city that is fabled to be a city of opportunities. People from nowhere appear there and with some luck and hard work, they can become successes. That is what happened to Jimmy and Francine who become big stars, despite the many obstacles (most self-induced) that get in their way. Like with “But the World Goes Round,” Minnelli invests the song with her brand of razzle dazzle showmanship. It’s here that we don’t really see Francine anymore, but are watching Minnelli. Unlike the optimism in “But the World Goes Round,” the optimism in “New York, New York” is sincere and hard-won. In the former musical number, she’s working overtime to convince herself and her audience, and she’s always near failure; but with “New York, New York” it’s far more of a triumphant call. Again, Scorsese shows his facility with filming musical numbers, though this scene is far simpler and less infused with meaning than “But the World Goes Round.” It works as a red herring, to reassure audiences that they’ll have a happy ending. But Scorsese wisely subverts this convention by having Jimmy and Francine stay apart. Jimmy wants to get back with Francine and leaves her a note, but she responds by ignoring it, leaving him waiting for her, until he realizes that she’s not coming back. Therefore, the musical ends on a bit of a deflating note, as we don’t close out with another rousing number – one in which our star pumps her fist in the air in victory – but instead we see two sad people, resigned to their fate, move on.

Watching New York, New York, one must admire Scorsese’s chutzpah in choosing to make such a strange film. The concerns of the film, mainly succeeding in show business while trying to maintain a self-destructive marriage doesn’t necessarily feel like a Scorsese film. He will go on to become synonymous with hard-bitten crime dramas that chronicle urban blight and urban decay, particularly the violence that results from urban blight, but he would also stretch himself again, surprising audiences by directing a lush period drama, The Age of Innocence or the grand historical epic, Kundun. But New York, New New York stands apart because of its audacity and nerve. The movie musical was facing an identity crisis in the 1970s as it was having to compete with gritter, more substantial fare, and critically and commercially, the film failed to find a large audience (though it has a small, cult following) A major hallmark of Scorsese’s filmography is about characters being too real and too recognizable; too much is shown. His characters are rarely ideals, and in fact, they often operate as either anti-heroes, villains, or as avatars to highlight moral depravity or destruction in an urban setting. New York, New York is an outlier in the film because rarely did Scorsese reach for such visual pleasure in his films. He wanted New York, New York to look beautiful, in its oft-deco splendour, and eschewed much of his usual themes of destruction and decay. He wanted the film to be a genuine addition to the genre’s canon and not operate as a dated, antiquated relic, but be vital in the landscape of 1970s cinema. That is why along with shedding much of his grittiness, he also avoided much of the genre’s squeaky cleanliness. Instead he pioneered a combination of two – something that has rarely been done before. And even if the film has a few more misses than hits, it’s still an admirable achievement to appreciate.

Can They Do It? Hoping Against Hope with Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman

l to r: Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Waiting for Guffman (dir. Christopher Guest), Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996.

While studying in college, I joined an improv group in Chicago. Along with being a member of this improv group, I also joined a theatre troupe, indulging in my inner performer, hoping that I’d either I unearth some deep acting talent or even better, that I’d be discovered on stage and become a star. The appeal of prospective stardom, no matter how humble the situation, drives many amateur performers to the stage. Though I was a liberal arts major, walking through my general education requirements, joining these acting groups gave me license to call myself an actor, no matter how low stakes my performing career was.

That is why I identify with the characters of Christopher Guest’s 1996 comedy Waiting for Guffman. The story – written by Guest and Eugene Levy – is about a small Missouri town about to celebrate its 150th anniversary. To commemorate this auspicious occasion, a group of amateur actors put on a show, led by the ambitious, but frustrated, theatre director Corky St Clair (Guest). Under the passionate – if misguided – enthusiasm of Corky, locals join the production of Red, White, and Blaine, a musical that charts the history of smalltown Blaine, Missouri.

Corky assembles a gallery of dedicated amateurs who look to Red, White, and Blaine to inject some excitement and culture in their bucolic and prosaic lives. Local dentist Dr Allan Pearl (Levy), travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), and Dairy Queen waitress Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) looked to the show as an opportunity to showcase their talents; Dr Pearl and the Albertsons in particular are wannabe performers who hope that someday their artistic talents will lead them to showbiz success. With Libby, the story is somewhat more poignant: Libby sees possible stardom as a way of leaving Blaine and shrugging off the grim life of a smalltown Dairy Queen waitress. It’s not just that these characters love being on stage, they bank a lot of emotional investment in the play, being able to set aside any nagging snatches of reality that expose their endeavor for what it really is: a hokey, local production of a mediocre play in an obscure American hamlet. 

The plot of Waiting for Guffman is inspired by the series of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals of the 1930s. In those films, the formula is set: Rooney and Garland are a pair of fresh-faced youths who find themselves confronting some obstacle that can only be solved by an old-fashioned musical. Corralling a group of preternaturally talented friends, Rooney and Garland stage a musical and the town is saved. Of course, in Waiting for Guffman, the characters’ musical skills are nowhere near Rooney’s and Garland’s. Never is that clearer than in the hilarious audition sequence in which the denizens of Blaine, including our heroes, perform with heartbreaking sincerity. Among the townfolk who show up at the local high school to try their hand at the Blaine version of the Great White Way, we see Libby warble an off-key yet hopelessly coquettish version of the Doris Day classic, “Teacher’s Pet”; Dr Pearl valiantly struggles through “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”; and the Albertsons – who bill themselves the Lunts of Blaine, do a mind-boggling smash up of Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” and an homage to the Taster’s Choice instant coffee commercials. The characters power through self-doubt and lack of talent to impress Corky, the seemingly urbane sophisticate who breezes into Blaine with his Broadway-level vision.

Waiting for Guffman is a film about want. Most screenwriting teachers instruct their students that when writing scripts, the key is to make sure that their scripts work off characters’ motivation. Characters must want something to make the story compelling. In Waiting for Guffman, the characters want to put on a good show. But more than that, they also want to escape the dreariness of their smalltown lives, even if it’s for a couple hours when they’re performing on stage. Corky, like his actors, is also a character who is living off a desired dream, one in which he isn’t a failure. Though he’s an off-off-off-off Broadway veteran, he’s able to indulge in modest pretension in Blaine, being able to charm the locals who seem awestruck by his flamboyance and his gung-ho attitude towards the theatre. And when he promises an actual Broadway producer for the opening night of Red, White, and Blaine, suddenly the stakes are much higher, and the actors dreams of stardom suddenly seem attainable. The tension suddenly is heightened as we see the actual production of Red, White, and Blaine and we can revel in its surprising competence when throughout the whole film, all we saw was how inept the actors – and Corky – really are.

Waiting for Guffman is a film about want. Most screenwriting teachers instruct their students that when writing scripts, the key is to make sure that their scripts work off characters’ motivation. Characters must want something to make the story compelling. In Waiting for Guffman, the characters want to put on a good show. But more than that, they also want to escape the dreariness of their smalltown lives, even if it’s for a couple hours when they’re performing on stage. Corky, like his actors, is also a character who is living off a desired dream, one in which he isn’t a failure. Though he’s an off-off-off-off Broadway veteran, he’s able to indulge in modest pretension in Blaine, being able to charm the locals who seem awestruck by his flamboyance and his gung-ho attitude towards the theatre. And when he promises an actual Broadway producer for the opening night of Red, White, and Blaine, suddenly the stakes are much higher, and the actors dreams of stardom suddenly seem attainable. The tension suddenly is heightened as we see the actual production of Red, White, and Blaine and we can revel in its surprising competence when throughout the whole film, all we saw was how inept the actors – and Corky – really are.

With Ron and Sheila Albertson we see a pair of veteran Blaine thespians who manage to intimidate the other Blaine actors with their fragile egos and misplaced confidence. Part of this confidence comes from living in a small town with severely limited opportunities. When introduced to Ron, the audience gets an immediate peak into his good-natured bluster that is simply a gloss over his desire to “be something and be somebody.” Though they run a travel agency, the Albertsons have never travelled outside of Blaine and in Blaine they can act out their ‘big fish, small pond’ life, which is largely buttressed by their theatrical dreams.

Like the Albertsons, Dr Pearl is a local professional – a dentist – who also nurtures dreams of stardom. Pearl’s introduction is as sad as the Albertsons, the dentist admitting that at school, he would not be considered the ‘class clown,’ but he boasts that he sad ‘beside the class clown’ and ‘studied him’. He goes on to admit that as a teen, he lifted the schtick from a funnier, more gregarious classmate. Dr Pearl is even given a theatrical history, as we learn through his interview that his grandfather was a performer with the Yiddish vaudeville in New York City.

In both these early interviews, we see a distressing tableau of dissatisfaction and yearning. Some of Guest’s work (as well as that of his actors) feels a bit smug and condescending towards smalltown America – much of the comedy of Waiting for Guffman wouldn’t work without the creeping pity that Guest feels for his characters – but the pathos is well-earned as all these people want to do is put on a good show despite being hopelessly untalented at performing.

As the film chugs along, we see moments in which the importance of this play is communicated to the audience. We see scenes of rehearsal with Corky’s directing style – which is a tossed salad of pretentious nonsense – and we also see how clearly invested these characters are in the fiction of their artistic venture. These scenes build up by creating new layers of absurdity as we see just how ridiculous and useless these actors, and their director for that matter, really are. Corky’s grand vision for Red, White, and Blaine outstrips both his troupe’s ability as well as his own. But because the characters are sympathetic – mainly due to the mesmerizing work of Guest’s company of actors – we start to empathize with their dreams and hope – against hope – that they’ll be able to pull off a good show. 

The opening night is important because Guest does a lot to manage – and confound – expectations of his audience. Throughout the film, we see bits and pieces of Red, White, and Blaine, and frankly, it’s confounding. The elements include alien abduction, a stool factory, and a love story – the plot of Red, White, and Blaine feels like a collage of high school productions. When Corky’s request for more money from the town council is bluntly denied, we are sent into another spiral crash as the production is imperiled by Corky’s increasing panic and disillusionment. When he temporarily quits the show, sequestering himself into his flat, his actors disperse, unmoored and undone by the disappointment of not putting on Red, White, and Blaine. Though a raucous comedy, there are few scenes in cinema as pitiable as a resigned Libby grilling a single chicken wing on a backyard barbecue grill, in front of a rather distressing clapboard house, sucking on a cigarette and musing about going back to work at the Dairy Queen. When finally convinced to return, there’s a renewed energy in the actors’ rehearsal as they saw how close they were to losing this chance.

Because the buildup to the opening night is marked by so much goofiness, it’s a bit of a surprise to see who professional this little town is about its theatrics. As we see the citizens of Blaine make their way to their seats in the theatre, we see the orchestra, tuning its instruments, prepping itself for the show. The sight of competent musicians wearing tuxedoes and looking like a real orchestra is a shock, really. And once it launches into the overture, we’re duly impressed with where this is all going. Though we’re rooting for this team as they bumbled through rehearsals, we feel as if this is doomed to be ridiculous, but on opening night of Red, White, and Blaine, we feel that maybe these kooks can pull this off.

It’s during the performance that we start to believe that Corky and company would prevail. Red, White, and Blaine is an affectionate pean to Blaine, Missouri. Do the actors suddenly become the Royal Shakespeare Company? Of course not. But they all manage to channel their enthusiasm into shockingly proficient work, the Albertsons reining in their hammy showboating, Libby displaying a winsome charm, and Dr Pearl finding surprising dignity and gravitas in his performance. Though Corky is refused his injection of $100,000, the production value of Red, White, and Blaine is solid. And the music – written for the film by Guest and his regular collaborators Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as well as award-winning composer William Ross – is engaging and heartily performed by Corky’s troupe. When they throw themselves into the square-dancing sequence of “Covered Wagons Open-Toed Shoes” we see all of the hard work pay off to the merriment of the happy audience members. But more than just their good work, we are utterly charmed by the sheer joy on their faces. The unbridled delight comes from not just the thrill and excitement of performing on stage but with the promise of impressing the titular Mr Guffman and wowing their local townspeople. 

What makes Waiting for Guffman so ingratiating is the way that Guest’s actors fully realize the kind of star-eyed wonder of the townspeople. Red, White, and Blaine is a way for the folks from Blaine to come together to not only celebrate the anniversary of their town but also to indulge in momentarily feeling like Broadway or the West End. Dr Pear, the Albertsons, and Libby all are working out their love of local theater on the stage and their zeal is infectious. When councilman Steve Stark (Michael Hitchcock) is beside himself with admiration for Corky’s work as well as envy and desire, he gushes during the intermission:

You know, I knew that Corky could act, and he could direct, and he could produce. But who knew that he was going to act and sing and dance? You know he can just do everything there is to do. And there’s only one other person in the world that can do that, and that’s Barbra Streisand. He is – uh – I don’t know, an inspiration to this town, that’s what he is

His enthusiastic monologue is capped with a frustrated, “God, I wish I was in the show!”

The ending of Red, White, and Blaine ends on an appropriate note with a patriotic musical number, with the cast marching out in Yankee Doodle Dandy drag to a John Souza-like march and we’re hooked. As the cast parades off the stage into the cheering audience, balloons drop and we’re simultaneously relieved and entertained by how good the show is. And we see that Mr Guffman’s reserved seat is occupied by a distinguished gentleman who joins in the festive reception of the play at its conclusion. Because Red, White, and Blaine went so well, we actually believe it when the gentleman agrees with Corky that the show has the potential to go to Broadway; when we learn that Mr Guffman – Corky’s theater critic failed to show up and the nice gentleman was merely a theatre goer – we’re crushed like the characters because we – like the characters – became convinced that the show was a hit.

The postscript catching us up to the Red, White, and Blaine castmembers three months later show us that despite the disappointment of Mr Guffman’s no-show, the showbiz bug bit our friends. Dr Pearl left quaint Blaine for Miami Beach to become an entertainer at a retirement home; the Albertsons traveled to Hollywood to find their fame and fortune, finding themselves nameless extras. When Dr Pearl pronounces that his experience on Red, White, and Blaine taught him that he has a need to entertain, which reminds me of my times as a wannabe sketch comic and actor. Like Dr Pearl, I threw myself into my acting, my enthusiasm far outstripping my talent, but I was intent – along with my fellow actors – on putting on a good show. Against all odds, people like Dr Pearl, Libby, the Albertsons, or Corky rally, summoning up all of their (meager) talents and (boundless) enthusiasm to put on a good show. That is what makes Waiting for Guffman such an engaging watch. If Corky was a brilliant director and if his actors were brilliant hoofers, we wouldn’t be worried about whether the show would be any good and we wouldn’t be as invested in the potential high or crash that these wonderful characters are facing. By the end of the film, we want Red, White, and Blaine to do well and we’re just as moist-eyed with joy when it does.

12 Days of Christmas: ‘A Rosie Christmas’/’Another Rosie Christmas’

On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day. 

From 1996 to 2002, Rosie O’Donnell hosted her own morning variety talk show. The Rosie O’Donnell Show was a cultural phenomenon, making the host a superstar, even making a significant dent in Oprah Winfrey’s dominance. The show was a fun, bright hour in the morning/afternoon. O’Donnell was the perfect talk show host because she was friendly, gregarious, and a genuine fan of her guests (she was also close pals with a lot of the famous people that sat down with her). O’Donnell also followed Winfrey’s lead and used her show as a way to promote charities and good causes and she often surprised her studio audience with free gifts. The Rosie O’Donnell Show was a raucous party hosted by the funnest aunt alive. And because O’Donnell was in charge, she was able to indulge in her obsession with Broadway and a cavalcade of Broadway babies strolled on the stage, giving much-appreciated exposure to live theater.

Part of the nostalgia of revisiting The Rosie O’Donnell Show is enjoying the Christmas tie-ins she produced: A Rosie Christmas and its follow up, Another Rosie Christmas. This pair of albums had some famous late 90s/early 2000s pop stars sing pretty straightforward renditions of popular Christmas carols. The twist? O’Donnell would sometimes pop in and share the mic with the pro. O’Donnell was famously mediocre as a singer – her enthusiasm far exceeded her natural gifts. But that’s okay, because her love of music was so overpowering that you didn’t mind hearing a bum note or two. And as with so much of O’Donnell’s work, the albums raised money for Rosie’s All For Kids Foundation, a charity that raised money to help at-risk kids through grants for education, healthcare, and other urgent needs.

A Rosie Christmas

A Rosie Christmas was the first album, released in 1999. The guest list is pretty starry: Celine Dion, Cher, Trisha Yearwood, Billy Joel, Lauryn Hill, Darren Hayes (of Savage Garden fame), Elmo from Sesame Street, Gloria Estefan, Elton John, ‘NSYNC, Rosemary Clooney, Angelica Pickles from Rugrats, Donny Osmond, and Billy Porter (years before his deserved superstardom from Pose). So the song list is mostly comprised of popular Christmas tunes, mostly fun songs with O’Donnell appearing on some of the songs.

It opens with Celine Dion’s “The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone)” an epic pop ballad very much in line with Dion’s work. It’s a bombastic, Broadway-style pop song that is very sentimental and pretty. A fun bit of trivia: this song was written by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider. Because Dion’s such an overpowering, overwhelming singer (and she gets to fill the song with as much belting as possible), the song is solely Dion’s (though O’Donnell gamely joined the Canadian pop diva on a TV Christmas special to sing the song)

The second song is a remake of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Obviously, Phil Spector’s version with Darlene Love is a classic – one of the few Christmas pop songs that have become holiday standards. In this rendition, O’Donnell joins Cher for a dance-club version. This song came out during Cher’s monster “Believe” era of her career, so there’s lots of thumping beats and liberal use of vocoder, which O’Donnell benefits from, as well. It’s campy and silly, so it’s very Cher. Darren Hayes also records a dance number for the record, a remake of the Wham! Christmas song, “Last Christmas” which makes all  kinds of sense because Hayes is very reminiscent of the late George Michael.

Even though O’Donnell isn’t a great singer, she acquits herself well in the songs, thanks to: sympathetic production that works in her key, some studio sweetening, and a general feeling of goodwill. Some Christmas songs don’t rely on virtuoso voices (and some do – I’ll get to Billy Porter in a minute) and when the arrangements are playful and fun, then O’Donnell sounds great. She joins Gloria Estefan on the big band “Gonna Eat for Christmas” which is cheeky and good natured. And though Rosemary Clooney is a vocal powerhouse (despite being past her vocal peak in 1999), the jazzy arrangement favors attitude and personality over range and tone, so when O’Donnell trades verses with the jazz legend it’s a joy to hear them belt out “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

And because Christmas is so identified with childhood (and the proceeds fo the album went to a children’s charity), it makes sense that two beloved characters from kids’ tv shows are featured. Elmo, a recurring guest on The Rosie O’Donnell Show shows up with to sing a slick “Do You Hear What I Hear” with O’Donnell. The shiny, glossy urban-pop production is initially a bit jarring (it sounds like something off a Vanessa Williams or Brian McKnight album) but Elmo and O’Donnell share such a great chemistry, they overcome the overly-sanitized instrumentation. The other cartoon character is Angelica from Rugrats, the assertive – if abrasive – older sister. She’s a favorite character of mine – she’s hilarious unlikable on Rugrats, always a great foil for the other characters (who she calls “dumb babies”). She joins O’Donnell on a Dixieland version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” which is a funny hoot.

The album closes with a majestic version of “O Holy Night” by the great Billy Porter. His voice is truly a celestial instrument. Thankfully, O’Donnell chose to sit this one out, and the classy production (slightly dated in its sheen) allows for Porter to perform with his usual transcendent brilliance. The song ends with a gorgeous, heavenly gospel choir and a fantastic high note.

Another Rosie Christmas

Due to the success of A Rosie Christmas, a sequel was released in 2000. Like the first album, this one boasted another bevy of music superstars: Jessica Simpson, Smash Mouth, Macy Gray, Dixie Chicks, Jewel, Ricky Martin, Destiny’s Child, Linda Eder, Sugar Ray, Billy Gilman, Marc Anthony, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Donna Summer, and Barry Manilow. Obviously, this guest list is far more time-stamped than on the first record – there are some names on the album what will feel very Now! That’s What I Call Music 2000 and the megastar count from the last album is decidedly lower on this release and as a result it’s not as good as the first record.

The only two real duds on Another Rosie Christmas are the contributions of Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth. The tunes – produced to sound like their spiky pop-punk – date unnecessarily. The other song that ages badly is “I’m Gonna E-Mail Santa” with kiddie country singer, Billy Gilman – in 2000, email was still a relative novelty but now the joke doesn’t work anymore.

And so even though the creative level of the second record isn’t as good as the first, there are still some gems. Jewel’s “Face of Love” is stirring and Macy Gray’s woozy voice sounds surprisingly endearing on the bouncy “Winter Wonderland.” Disco legend Donna Summer offers a Hi-NRG dance anthem “Rosie Christmas” that features the usually spotless vocal performance. And Jessica Simpson is appealingly girlish and coy on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Rosie O’Donnell didn’t follow with another Christmas record and in 2002 she left The Rosie O’Donnell Show, leaving a gap in TV that was filled by Ellen DeGeneres who found gigantic success with a similarly-formatted talk show. O’Donnell would return to television a number of times, including an ill-fated try on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, as well as two attempts at fitting into the panel on The View. She also maintained her stand-up career and appeared sporadically as an actress. During the pandemic, she briefly revived the format of The Rosie O’Donnell Show remotely for a fundraiser for the Actors Fund for America.

Now, the two CDs work as genial nostalgia, a time that was simpler for a lot of people. Like lots of Christmas music, they appeal to emotion – except instead of reaching for melancholy like a lot of Christmas music, A Rosie Christmas and Another Rosie Christmas appeal to a funnier, more joyful look at the holidays and holiday memories.

 

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