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SOUND OFF/FLASHFORWARD FRIDAY: Bites of BURLESQUE

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It's Burlesque

This week we are taking a look at the trailer for the upcoming movie musical BURLESQUE starring Cher and Christina Aguilera - consider it FLASHFORWARD FRIDAY a day early - as well as checking out two of Christina Aguilera's solo songs from the soundtrack - one classic Etta James cover featured in a new clip just released from the film and an especially exciting, entirely new composition "Spotlight" written exclusively for Christina for the film - in the backstage tuner that is currently set to be released nationwide on Thanksgiving. The film also stars Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell, Alan Cumming, Julianne Hough, Cam Gigandet, Peter Gallagher and Eric Dane. Though last Christmas brought the unfortunately unsuccessful $80-million-dollar NINE, perhaps this year's quotidian singular musical entertainment from Hollywood will fare far, far better - it certainly could not be much different in casting, content, style, tone or marketing from what we have seen so far and can see here! But, be forewarned: looks can be deceiving... and what deceptively delicious looks we have here to sample courtesy of Pussycat Dolls headmaster and director Steve Antin and BURLESQUE!

You Can't Keep A Good Diva Down

One shot. That's all the breaks Broadway seems to get in Hollywood per year: one movie musical. Sure, in the 00s, following the Oscar-winning success of CHICAGO - which took home 5 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones in '02 - there was the odd chance of a double-decker year here and there, but, always - without exception - one ended up being a big bomb (example: THE PRODUCERS). Some have been smash-hits like HAIRSPRAY, some have been successful enough to keep the genre alive such as DREAMGIRLS - which also nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Jennifer Hudson as well as one for sound - and there are even prestige projects like Tim Burton's masterfully macabre re-imaging of the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. There have even been a few really spectacular television musicals, most notably the Showtime production of REEFER MADNESS which starred Christian Campbell, Kristen Bell, Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer and Steven Weber. Spike Lee even filmed PASSING STRANGE on sixteen HD cameras live in the theatre on the closing performance and released it in select cities to much acclaim a few years back. Additionally, two brilliantly visionary and daring directors turned the genre on its head with their innovative jukebox musical takes on the song catalogues of, respectively, The Beatles, in Julie Taymor's ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and Bob Dylan, in Todd Haynes's I'M NOT THERE. Then there are the also-rans - OK, let's be blunt: the losers. Besides the aforementioned calamity of THE PRODUCERS, there was also the Chris Columbus abomination of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning RENT (though it admittedly has sporadic moments where Larson's vision shines through, such as in "I Should Tell You" and "Finale B"), as well as the good-intentioned NINE (albeit cutting 2/3 of the score was the first mistake of many). With TV's GLEE ending the 00s on a musical-theatre-awareness high note and leaving America - and the world - breathlessly awaiting their Broadway fix to be abated, the time seems ripe for a movie-musical a bit unlike anything that has come before, something truly twenty-first century. Something new. The time seems right for BURLESQUE.

Looking like the lovechild of SHOWGIRLS, CABARET and CHICAGO, the trailer for BURLESQUE seems to contain every cliché known to moviegoers and moviemakers familiar with the movie-musical genre in American cinema in the last eighty years. Is it camp, then? Not quite. Homage? Not really. What, then? As with all such subjective samplings of an entire entertainment event such as BURLESQUE, it is elementary to establish that dissecting moments in a trailer in the traditional sense can be ultimately futilely fruitless so perhaps the tone, the style, the look and the overall vibe is the best element to assess at first. Based on looks, this gets close to a 10 - and dance, well, far from a three - cribbing a phrase from A CHORUS LINE which itself find itself as one of the biggest celluloid fiascos of the last thirty years when Richard Attenborough tried (and failed) to turn it into a film. As Donna McKechnie told me in our InDepth InterView awhile back, "That movie set dancers back twenty years". Hopefully, a sexy and fun re-telling of an age-old story with some of the brightest talent in the universe will be enough to get movie musicals going again on the big screen and not just on the small one. The stage sets look stark and stylish. Since Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhower are responsible for the lighting - stay tuned for their upcoming InDepth InterView in which they discuss their incomparable career on Broadway, as well as working on the film versions of CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS and, of course, BURLESQUE - just the fleeting glimpses of their work that we can glean from this trailer are enough reason to get excited for at least a visual feast - and surefire striking silhouettes! And what exists of the costumes looks dazzling.

BURLESQUE TRAILER - FULL HD

First off, on the backstory side of things we have the old-meets-new theme coming to the very forefront, with a legend in her own right with a career unlike any other, Cher, and a Grammy-award-winning voice of a generation who has recently had a few stumbles following the middling success of her recent music endeavors (see: BIONIC, "Not Myself Tonight"). If anyone knows the highs and lows of show business, it's Cher and her presence in this project as a central figure in the drama - this is no cameo or featured role - bodes well for the overall prospect of a sense of dramatic cohesiveness to what appears to be a somewhat chaotic and fast-moving, multi-faceted movie that treads familiar territory. Though Christina Aguilera has never taken a role in a film before, she was one of the absolute best hosts from the music world that Saturday Night Live has had in recent years (her parody of Kim Cattrall in a SEX & THE CITY skit is something of comic genius) and this role in BURLESQUE, while evidently a singing and dancing challenge - judging from both the final draft of the script by Susannah Grant, Keith Merryman and Antin, as well as Diablo Cody's earlier numbered second draft - it certainly is a far cry from Lady MacBeth or Hedda Gabbler in the dramatic department. The role is no stretch - and neither is Cher's, and Tucci is playing a variation on his DEVIL WEARS PRADA character, so the ingredients are relatively ready-made, if not wholly fresh. And who knows what relation the final film bears to the script. To see how both ladies deal with the tricky territory of showbiz speak and backstage blabber and bitchery that is at least a hallmark of the script(s), will make or break whether or not the story works and audiences will be willing to accept these stars as these slightly-less-fabulous and accomplished archetypes. They do get their due diva diligence paid, don't worry - that's what onstage songs are for! Anyway, what audiences will be waiting to see is how the story is told - and how successfully - not necessarily what the actual story being told is. (Note: I have been intentionally vague on the plot as to not spoil the story since it has some surprising twists and the way the songs weave in and out through it all should be quite enjoyable - and the concept daring - if done as it is done in the shooting script. We shall soon see.)

What we can clearly hear and see from the clips of the musical numbers is flashiness, sassiness, sexiness and pizzazz. But hold it one second: aren't the production values a little too grand for a dive-y looking COYOTE UGLY-esque club like the one owned by Cher's character purports it to be? Isn't the bartender (played by Cam Gigandet) a little too Joel Grey-as-The-Emcee in CABARET (especially the mascara on one eye)? Isn't Alan Cumming a little scary? Doesn't Kristen Bell look a little catty? Doesn't Julianne Hough look a little, well, trampy? Looks can be deceiving, but it seems quite clear that all these clichés and camp are intentional and the acknowledgement of their presence by the audience expected, anticipated and even encouraged. It's a meta-movie-musical with all the trappings that come along with that. No, it's doubtful it is going to be VALLEY OF THE DOLLS-style high camp but there will be a wink and a nod - and perhaps a bump and a grind, or four (to Fosse) - in an ode to the influences central to the enterprise, but the main tapestry will potentially be something involving, enlivening and fun - and perhaps even a little moving. Movie-musicals have to be moving - just one moment, one ballad will do - and it seems as though we have the perfect such moment in BURLESQUE judging from the scripts I have read. But, since that song has not leaked yet (though a stealing glance at it can be obtained from the trailer), I will have to remain mum on that moment for the time being. You probably can't get the title song, "Burlesque", as played in the last half of the trailer, out of your head long enough to properly absorb another song - particularly an emotional pinnacle - anyway!

A few months back, we were given the first peek of the wonderfully wicked and enticing world of BURLESQUE with the song "Spotlight", a new solo song for Christina Aguilera. "Spotlight" is one of the three or four original songs that have been penned expressly for this film - Cher's material having been written by recording industry veteran Diane Warren - and it hits on all the elements that we have come to love most about Christina Aguilera's rich and expressive vocal instrument: the rasp, the runs, the sheer force and power. Boosting the barn-burning, the producers have given it a 1940s-by-way-of-2010 aural aura that gives it bump. A little gritty, a little funky, a little jazzy; a little old, a little new, a little borrowed - and a lot of blue (as in "blue movies")! It's everything of BURLESQUE in a nut-shell - or a bowler hat! "You can't keep a good girl down" indeed!

Christina Aguilera - "Spotlight"

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Yesterday the trifecta of BURLESQUEry was made complete with the release of the first full-length performance clip from the film with Christina Aguilera taking on the Etta James classic "Something's Gotta Hold Of Me". Performing alone, singing and dancing along to the jukebox with a broom and a chair - her high heels high up on the counter, barefoot - she conjures movie-musical magic out of thin air. This is not an easy song to sing, and even harder still to do one better than the near irreproachable original - and alone. We all remember what a rough go of it Beyonce had when she covered Etta James's other untouchable song, "At Last", in CADDILAC RECORDS. Ms. James was not amused (nonetheless, this critic was). In any event, Christina knocks this clear out of the park and the stark, unadorned filmmaking style of this number hopefully indicates that this movie musical will have some inventive camerawork for the musical numbers - particularly the dancing, which gets top-billing in the trailer - and less of the choppy MTV-style hack-job-ery of some of the big-bomb movie musicals mentioned before, as well as some of the hits (inexplicably). Considering the director of this film, we can't be too sure, but at least we know it will all be done with a stylistic purpose in mind. The style is not what draws concern, it's the content. With songs like this being used to tell the story we know we will have something to emotionally latch onto. Wail all you will.

Christina Aguilera - "Something's Gotta Hold On Me"

The Pussycat Dolls are the work of Robin Antin, Steve's brother, and this film seems to be a natural extension of the bawdy, titillating, dynamo dancing divas that the Antins have utilized so well. Steve Antin directed and Denise Faye (of CHICAGO and NINE) choreographed the film, and PCD paw-prints are all over the trailer. He has a style and he knows how to utilize it to the best advantage of his performers and the material if we are to take the many music videos and PCD stage shows by the Antins as evidence: all that's left to be seen is whether or not Steve Antin can tell a compelling story - or at least keep the audience's attention - while doing all of that razzle dazzle razzmatazz. After all, that whole characteristically black-leather/pink-satin style that has become something of a phenomena - unquestionably iconic - has its roots in an actual modern-day burlesque house in LA in the mid-to-late 1990s that had the original featured (lipsynced) lead dancers like Carmen Electra and then morphed into the ever-changing carousel of the all-girl pop group of the same name that is an international sensation. PCD has attracted beautiful and rare talent before Cher and Christina, as well: Nicole Scherzinger - lead singer on PCD's biggest hits, such as "Don'tcha" and "Buttons" - got tongues wagging this week on both coasts over her delectable portrayal of Maureen in Neil Patrick Harris's warmly received staging of RENT at the Hollywood Bowl co-starring Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Hudgens, Traci Thoms and others. She also participated in workshop readings for LOVE NEVER DIES. The Pussycat Dolls - or PCD, as they are known, if that isn't clear - are, truth be told, about style over substance. So, with a two-hour film with a cast as good as this and led by three ladies as talented as Cher, Chrstina and Kristen Bell, hopefully the spell will last the duration of the evening. It's a tricky and potentially treacherous tight-rope trope, in any event, as is any movie musical in the twenty-first century.

Anything assumed, all of this - it's all supposition, anyway. All of this analysis of what should be or could be and what magic exists or doesn't exist. Yet, to have a bite of what looks to be a satisfying slice of showbiz pie, in a bracing (and biting) backstage story told through song - with a healthy dollop of camp and cliché ala mode, and a generous sprinkling of homage - served up by the top-tier-talents of Hollywood, Broadway and beyond is enough to incite excitement in any fan of musicals, whether live-in-the-house on Broadway or celluloid in-the-can in CA. Hopefully, BURLESQUE will be the cherry on top, not the ashcan (or its contents). Either way, these appetizers are sweet, sexy and scorching and speak favorably for what is to come. For me, November 24th can't come soon enough - particularly after the season we've just had on Broadway as far as new musicals of any ilk - jukebox, meta, wholly original or otherwise - are concerned. The audience is hungry. I know I am. Let's hope they're serving up what we're all positively famished for - solid entertainment (we're not expecting Albee or Sondheim). From the sights and sounds of this trailer, this song and this performance clip: it looks like they very well could be giving us what we yearn for. Expectations are set. As the song "Spotlight" professes, "Get up, get up, / This is not a test / You gotta give me your best / Get your ass up and show me how you burlesque!" Do it, girls. Show us how it's done. We're ready.

 

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