Classic Cult: Musicals

Musicals as a genre within film have been approached somewhat apprehensively in recent years and yet they formed an integral part of the formation of modern cinema. The transition that occurred in the 1930s from the silent films, popularised by luminaries including Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to a new form of entertainment made possible through the arrival of sound marked the beginning of the musical feature.

However, beyond the success of the early musicals that were made between the 1930s and 1960s (and a handful released each year in the following decades) it has remained a relatively unappreciated genre. Away from smash hits such as Singing in the RainThe Sound of Music, and the animated films of Walt Disney, there have been a surprising number of cult musicals which cannot be overlooked when considering this distinct genre.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the ultimate cult musical. With much of its success generated from midnight screenings featuring hundreds of dedicated followers clad in transsexual attire, it has gone on to harbour some of the most bizarre instances of audience participation. Projectiles of toast, toilet paper, water and rice alongside answering back to the screen and mass reproductions of the “Time Warp” make this not just a cult film, but a cult experience.

Numerous famous musicians have featured in cult musicals that have developed a devoted fan base often years after their initial flop. The Wiz is an urban retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring an all African-American cast set in a fantasy version of New York City. With Diana Ross as Dorothy, reconfigured as a Harlem school teacher, and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, It illustrates a combination of soulful song and dance numbers written towards the end of the blaxploitation movement.

Few cult fans will be unaware of Labyrinth, a fantasy film directed by Jim Henson, starring David Bowie as the beleaguering Goblin King, Jareth. Its combination of puppetry, human performances and Bowie crotch shots – which have sparked pages of critical analysis – mean it remains one of the best cult musicals ever made. Rock opera Tommy, based upon the album of the same name is a musical by British band The Who. Starring Who lead singer Roger Daltrey as a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard, and featuring terrific cameo performances from the likes of Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner. It is a surrealist production that features one of the most innovative soundtracks of the genre.

In recent years, cult musicals have received less acclaim, generally staying predominately under the radar. However, Lars Von Trier’s Palme d’Or winning Dancer in the Dark, starring Icelandic singer Björk has redefined the musical genre by introducing an extreme emotional aspect to what is generally frivolous escapism. It is clear from examples like this that it is anything but a dying genre. Still retaining merit in what is often a prejudiced art form, musicals are constantly reassessing the necessary requirements for entertainment.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 4th 2011.

Interview with Muppets Producer Martin G. Baker

Within the film and television industry, there are a number of people who often go unrecognised by the general public. Whilst directors and actors get the lion’s share of the praise and recognition, it is the producers who are integral to a production’s success – but they often go unnoticed.

Martin G. Baker is one of those people. As a television and film producer, he has worked on a number of productions that have become loved by people both young and old. His affiliation with the Jim Henson Company  lasted 20 years, and he saw The Muppet Show rise to fame, received an Emmy for his work as a producer on The Muppets Tonight, produced three Muppet feature length films and was an associate producer for the feature film Labyrinth.

After introducing a number of the films he has worked on as part of a Jim Henson retrospective at the Filmhouse, I caught up with him to ask a few questions about the Muppets legacy and on working with such a unique creative force as Jim Henson.

Baker first met Henson in the ’60s, when working on a weekly variety show called the Tom Jones Show where he recalls, “One week we had an act called the Muppets, nobody knew who they were, nobody had a clue what they were about. Jim Henson and Frank Oz arrived with Rowlf the dog and that was my first introduction to the Muppets.”

But it wasn’t until 1974 and the creation of The Muppet Show that Baker, after working on various other variety shows, began directly working with Henson.

“This time I knew who Jim was,” he notes. “He asked me, along with a few of my other colleagues, to be a part of The Muppet Show production team. That’s how I got into the Henson world, and through that Jim went on to ask me to come and work for him as we came to the end of The Muppet Show in 1979. So I took the leap and went to work for Jim and I was there for 20-odd years.”

The atmosphere surrounding a studio run by Henson seems to have been an incredible experience to be a part of. “It was total madness,” Baker comments, “but it was the best time. Jim’s ethic was all about working hard but having fun whilst you’re doing it. He believed that if you’re not having fun, then we should call it a day and go home. This permeates to what you see on screen: when you watch those shows and today when you watch Muppet stuff, you’ve got to believe that people are having fun making it, because otherwise, I don’t think we could do it.”

Baker is currently involved in the first muppet film to be made since 2005, which finished production two months ago. Although he doesn’t want to reveal too much information about the upcoming release, he affirms, “It’s going to be a wonderful movie, with Jason Segal and Amy Adams as the stars. It takes place in Hollywood and we have a new character called Walter, who’s not a Muppet but a puppet character we created who’s Jason’s best friend. The story takes them from their small town USA into Hollywood and how they hook up with the Muppets.”Whilst Jim Henson is best know for his work with the Muppets, his feature films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, show that there were clearly two distinct sides to his work. But as Baker comments, “He was equally comfortable in both arenas. You couldn’t get two more distinct identities than The Dark Crystal and The Muppet Movie but they were very much a part of who Jim was, he was just such an amazing man creatively. He was able to span that spectrum from the esoteric fantasy world of Labyrinth to the warm and wonderful world of the muppets, but he had earned the ability to do that on the success of The Muppet Show and creatively he was given that freedom. Trying to make The Dark Crystal 20 years before, he most probably wouldn’t have got the money.”

When asked about the future of the Muppets, he remains positive: “Personally I’d love to see them back on television in a sustained presence, but it depends on how one thing does that leads to another thing.”

Clearly the possibility is there for more collaboration, and fans can but hope that Baker will remain a part of this much loved franchise.

The Muppets will be released in the UK on February 17.

Taken from The Student published Tue May 3rd 2011.