Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
THE MUSIC MAN (1962)
Seventy-six blah blah, it’s The Music Man! Scheming salesman Harold Hill (Robert Preston) has a plan to sweet-talk the simple folk of River City, Iowa into paying for marching band instruments and uniforms, but unbeknownst to them, he’s going to skip town before they learn to play a single note! Can he pull it off? And is it any fun finding out? Let’s break down this pile of shipoopi!
I love a good con man story. Sadly, this isn’t one.
I’m over the Hill.
It’s unfortunate that this film has such an aggravating conclusion that I will definitely be complaining about in detail shortly, because the set-up kicks ass. Harold Hill tricks a bunch of hicks into buying musical instruments through fear, charm, and good old-fashioned bullshitting. He claims he’s got a bold new teaching method called “The Think System,” he butters up the parents with loads of false praise for their untalented brats, and he whips the whole town into a goddamn frenzy over the thought of what their youth could get up to if they weren’t off at marching band practice.
Are your teens chalking the stick? We’ll tell you what it is, tonight at 11.
If you’re like me, first of all, sorry, but second, that is a killer premise and you’re instantly hooked. So, where does it lead? What unpredictable twists come Harold’s way, and how does he use his cleverness to weasel out of them? Well, certain people… doubt him… and he… talks to them… and then… he’s caught in his lie and… he has no plan to get out of it whatsoever. He’s handcuffed and given a baton and he walks up to the band and employs The Fuck It System.
Surprise! Everybody in the audience is such a delusional nightmare parent that they all think their own kid is playing brilliantly! Harold is the best and he brought the townsfolk together and everybody 76 trombones their way through River City riding the high of a shared hallucination! This ending is so irritatingly unsatisfying to me that I’m going to pretend there’s a deleted scene where Harold slipped drugs into the water supply.
I’ll admit that I don’t always feel qualified to judge actors other than saying they were “cheerful” or “intense” or “stunning” even though that last one is me getting around saying I found them ridiculously sexy. However, I have a very strong opinion on Robert Preston’s performance as Harold Hill: I think the role was horribly miscast. I just felt like his character needed to be both sharply cunning and irresistibly charming, and he mostly came across as a blandly normal guy. Even turning up just one of those traits would have made him stick in my mind; the charisma of Gene Kelly or the quickness of Don Adams would have been a vast improvement. I’m not saying he’s a bad actor, and he’s definitely a fast talker with a fun demeanor, but he feels like he’s reciting a script rather than craftily pulling the strings of the River City rubes.
I’m sorry this bothered me so much. Let’s move on.
Hey, did you know there’s a love interest in this movie? Wondering why she hasn’t come up until now? Shirley Jones IS Marian Paroo, the local librarian and piano teacher, and the script really doesn’t benefit from having her around very much. While her arc is predictable as hell (Marian want love, Marian meet guy, Marian realize guy is rotten, Marian realize guy is okay, Marian love guy), Shirley makes the best of a stock role and is delightfully sweet. She’s basically a living beam of sunshine and I daresay I would describe her as… stunning.
Hey! Buddy Hackett! He’s here too! He plays Harold’s old friend Marcellus Washburn and is funny in scenes in which he appears!
Here’s one now!
Honestly, most of the rest of this movie is a smattering of bumpkin side characters and they’re all fine. There’s the mayor and his wife and a barbershop quartet and some unbearably precious little kid that directs Apollo 13.
From the Wells Fargo wagon to the vomit comet.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
You know what? This is my third musical in a row that’s over two-and-a-half hours, and I’ve got two more ahead of me. This genre is getting too bloated for me to cover every song. (I long for a five-tune flick like Road to Singapore again.) So, in the interest of space, I’m skipping the mediocrity for this section. If I can’t recall the chorus of a song, I probably won’t have much to say about it anyway. Luckily, the first song is fucking amazing. It’s called “Rock Island” and it features a bunch of salesmen talking at triple speed in time to the sounds of a locomotive. It may be the catchiest opening number of any musical I’ve seen this year.
Tell the conductor I am on board!
Later, Harold convinces the River City residents that the presence of a pool hall will rot the moral fiber of their children in “Ya Got Trouble.” Much like “Rock Island,” it’s less singing and more talking as fast as one possibly can, and honestly, I love it. It’s perfect for a movie about a salesman.
Debate tip: the first letter of one word often rhymes with the first letter of another!
After another round of telling people they got trouble, Harold launches into “Seventy-six Trombones,” a perfect embodiment of the sort of big, brassy symphonies the River City marching band would play if the rat bastard weren’t metaphorically taking a big wet shit in each of their fuzzy hats.
Possibly also literally? Who knows?
Then there’s some barbershop quartet and some gossiping old ladies that sound like chickens and then Harold sings “Marian the Librarian,” in which he tries to get Marian to notice him being a jackass in the middle of the library. You either love or hate that the chorus is mostly just holding the last syllable of the word “Marian” or “librarian” for a stupidly long time, and I think that I love it?
He also does a nice softshoe, because shhhhh.
Oh, good God, then there’s “Gary, Indiana” which I think was created by torture scientists. The chorus is the name of the city Harold claims he went to school in repeated over the most grating combination of notes imaginable. This song is like a drill to the brain. And it’s even worse when Travel Size Ron Howard gee shucks his way through it.
And then there’s “Shipoopi.” I did not have the balls to just write “more like shit-poopy” and drop the mic, but what the hell is this song? It’s Buddy Hackett singing about a woman that plays hard to get, which we all know from Urban Dictionary is referred to as a “shipoopi.” Okay. It’s accompanied by a gigantic dance number that’s pretty great, but at the end of the day, it’s Buddy Hackett saying “shipoopi” on a loop in his Buddiest Hackettiest voice and you can’t help but be baffled and annoyed that you can’t stop repeating it yourself.
Shipoopi. Shipoopi. Shipoopi. Shipoopi. Shipoopi.
Those are the ones I can remember… but there are 14 more. A lot of these tunes are just quick, sometimes clever asides, including a discussion that takes place over a child practicing her scales, but others seem like filler. There’s a song for a delivery truck, for shit’s sake. I skipped a few slow love songs, most of which are forgettable, though “Goodnight, My Someone” is a very sweet ode to yearning for love that Shirley Jones sings into space.
Sparking an interstellar war in 2377.
- Full disclosure, I saw the made-for-TV version of The Music Man with Matthew Broderick and Kristen Chenoweth back in 2003, but I don’t remember much about it and I had definitely forgotten the stupid ending by today’s viewing. Considering it’s still 150 minutes, I have a sneaking suspicion it doesn’t solve any of the pacing issues, and the thought of throwing Matthew Broderick’s brand of blandness at Harold Hill kinda wilts my dick.
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
While “Ya Got Trouble” has lyrics describing ragtime as “shameless music” that will fill your kids with “a jungle animal instinct mass-teria,” I’m gonna give the Worst Line award to “Marian the Librarian,” because that song’s whole deal is rhyming words with “librarian” and yet they had to go for this leap in logic to fit their own damn premise…
“If I stumbled and I busted my whatchamacallit,
I could lie on your floor unnoticed
Till my body had turned to carrion…”
There’s a special kind of irritation that comes from not enjoying a film that starts with such potential. The first act of The Music Man set me up for far more salesman shenanigans than I ended up with. It’s a con man story that’s fairly predictable but wastes time going down too many uninteresting avenues instead of adding clever twists. There are some catchy tunes, but for the most part, it is just too damn long for its own good. Trim some numbers, recast Harold Hill, and either scrap the ending or weave it more naturally into the rest of the movie so it doesn’t feel like a desperately illogical grasp at a big finale.
My Fair Lady (1964)