musical

Worst Best Picture: Is The Great Ziegfeld Better or Worse Than Crash?

the great ziegfeld

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1936 winner The Great Ziegfeld. Is it better than Crash?

Before we talk about the three-hour musical The Great Ziegfeld, I’d like you to revisit the most iconic scene in the film. It’s gone down in history as the most familiar scene in any musical (possibly any film) and thus this might not even be the first time you’re seeing it today. I speak of course of the eight-minute epic “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” and I’m totally kidding what the hell, y’all:

It’s tough to be respectful of something like this. It’s so grandiose and so much bigger than it needs to be, but then again, that’s the idea. This was one of the most expensive scenes ever filmed at the time (adjusted for inflation, the set alone for this one scene would run you 3.7 million dollars today) and it was supposed to be a monument to excess. It’s the big, showy center to The Great Ziegfeld, the sorta-biopic of a showman in the early 1900s. Movies were just starting to take the place of stage shows, but one man believed in the cause enough to want to put on a last great show and prove to the world that enormous groups of people singing and dancing in sync were more interesting than any “plot” or “story” that you could show through a dumb ol’ movie.

The movie is mostly fine, but there’s huge chunks like this that could be cut. It’s a musical, but there’s also a twisting love story and lots of setup to each song, all of which contributes to the 177-minute run time. It’s disastrously long at three hours, and it must have felt long even at the time. Most movie theaters had only been air conditioned for a few years in 1936, so maybe people just liked a chance to cool off. That’s the only explanation for the sixth 10-minute song or the third repetitive “twist” in the fortunes of the main characters. Maybe you could stomach it all just to not be outside.

The characters are mostly interchangeable to the point that describing them doesn’t matter. Ziegfeld is brash and confident and the movie follows his successes and failures as he tries to develop the perfect performance. Modern eyes won’t recognize it when he “does,” however, since his greatest accomplishments are to “glorify the American girl.” The result, his “glorified Ziegfeld girl” is totally undefinable. It appears to be a woman that has hair of any color (but not skin of any color, it’s 1936), looks any way, has no personality that matters, and sings and dances. If there’s a point, I missed it entirely. Everyone acts like he’s doing some great work, but everything seems the same as everything else.

There’s really no draw here. It’s deeply, deeply boring, maybe beyond the abilities of anything else on the list. It would feel long at half the length, and there’s nothing to really sink your teeth into. The characters are all essentially the same (aside from Ziegfeld, who is zany enough to be interesting) and every scene feels like you just watched it. His fortunes fail and he’s forced to take drastic measures… again and again.

I’ll accept that I can’t really offer up a critical view of this movie’s place in musical history. There’s something to be said for a hugely expensive musical that set the standard for how big and how flashy you could be — the other early, early musical winner The Broadway Melody feels almost cheap by comparison — but that’s hard to be impressed by, now. The spectacle is still there, but without anything behind it the whole production feels hollow.

The Best Part: I actually like the first 20 minutes or so. Ziegfeld and his great nemesis have to find the perfect act to steal each other’s crowd away, and Ziegfeld decides to go with “The World’s Strongest Man, Sandow!” Both Sandow and Ziegfeld are real people, and this is the only part of the movie where everything feels cohesive and well-paced. It’s an interesting little bit of 30s film, but I think everything goes to hell after that.

The Worst Part: All of this music has fallen by the wayside. Some of the songs are in the “Great American Songbook” of sorts, but there’s nothing in here you’ll recognize. Even The Broadway Melody, another weird, dated musical from the early Oscar days has a few songs that feel somewhat familiar. A musical without songs to enjoy is a really tough sell, and that’s why it feels 27 hours long.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Where is the comparison between a musical from 1936 that feels dated and a drama from 2004 that feels dated? It’s right there. Both of these movies feel ridiculous and they’re both two hours too long (Crash is 112 minutes the joke is that Crash shouldn’t exist).

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Oliver! Better or Worse Than Crash?

oliver

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1968 winner Oliver! Is it better than Crash?

This is the next-to-last musical on my list. I put it off because I figured, yeah, yeah, “Food, Glorious Food,” got it, thanks. I saw Oliver! once on a date, and I believe it’s the only musical I’ve ever seen in person. I’m not sure why I picked Oliver!, but I liked it, and I expected this would feel mostly like filler.

That’s not terribly far off. Oliver! is an adaptation of Oliver Twist, of course, and the story is well-known. Oliver lives in squalor and when he asks for more food (you know, “please sir, I want some more”) he’s met with anger. He’s sold into service and lives a terrible life until he escapes and joins up with the Artful Dodger and a bunch of other child criminals. You know, a normal, everyday group of child criminals.

The child acting is better than you’d expect, especially from the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role and had a… let’s go with “troubled” life afterwards). The adults mostly shine as well. Fagin (Ron Moody), the leader of the intrepid children, is especially delightful as a not-so-bad bad guy in comparison with the dark Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) and his sad girl Nancy (Shani Wallis).

Oliver and Dodger get themselves into a dicey situation and Oliver gets nabbed. He’s adopted by a well-to-do family that the film thankfully doesn’t spend much time on. The second act focuses on the conflict of Fagin and Bill being worried that Oliver will reveal their crime ring and Nancy worried that Bill will kill the boy (or her) to keep him quiet.

It’s dark, especially for what amounts to a children’s movie. Bill’s really terrifying, and Oliver Reed deserves a lot of credit for playing him menacing but very quiet. It’s all grimaces and explosions of rage, and it would be easy to do that like a cartoon villain rather than the specific character that Bill Sikes is. Nancy and Fagin even play into the terror of Bill Sikes, since both of them seem content in the end to let Oliver live out his life in adopted splendor rather than trying to apprehend him. It’s a tough life for everyone involved, and Bill won’t let anyone leave.

The poverty of Oliver! is meant to be the star, really, and it is. No matter how much you steal, you have to steal more, and the thefts themselves erode your character in a way you can’t return from. Nancy is Bill’s girl (see: “As Long as He Needs Me,” the saddest “love” song) and Fagin is a career criminal (“Reviewing the Situation,” which is genuinely funny rather than musical-funny) and neither of them have any place to go, even if Bill would let them leave. The cycle contributes to the cycle. Even though songs like Nancy’s “It’s a Fine Life” contribute to a sense that everyone involved knows they’re stuck in this life, no one says they have to be happy about it.

The Best Part: Tough call, but I’d say it’s Fagin’s song with the kids, “Pick a Pocket or Two.” He explains how to steal and why it’s necessary to Oliver through a fun little ditty that Oliver doesn’t seem to understand, because Oliver is a dumb kid. Honorable mention goes to Nancy’s song “Oom-Pah-Pah” which was stuck in my head for a week after I saw this and I don’t care who knows. Get at me.

The Worst Part: I struggled to come up with a worst part because I think Oliver! is pretty cohesive. There’s no one part that’s any worse than any other, really. My answer here tends to be “it’s too long, waaah” too often, but 153 minutes is a bit of a slog for a kid’s movie/musical, even though the journey is worth it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? They’re both about worlds that desperately need change to break a cycle. Crash suggests that the world cannot overcome bigotry and Oliver! suggests that some people can’t escape their baser urges. Oliver! is pretty light on morals beyond that, and it’s mostly just a vehicle for some fun (and real, real sad) songs. It isn’t the best musical of all time, but it’s entertaining and has better acting than your standard musical, so that’s a nice treat. The performances elevate a run-of-the-mill movie, whereas Crash has some weird performances in what would just be a bad movie without them.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver!

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is My Fair Lady Better or Worse Than Crash?

my fair lady

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1964 winner My Fair Lady. Is it better than Crash?

Sometimes you’ve got to get some perspective. When I reviewed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I talked about the tone-deaf strangeness of negative reviews of the movie that seemed to think that Peter Jackson invented Middle-earth. People were writing these damning pieces about how the idea of elves wasn’t “believable” and it made them seem like they didn’t have any idea what they were watching. I’m certainly not the most informed person on musicals, so when I went to watch one of the all-time greats, I had to ask some folks. I didn’t want to come at this with a “psh, boring” attitude and look uncouth, which, when you think about My Fair Lady, is pretty funny.

My Fair Lady is the classic story of Eliza Doolittle (Aubrey Hepburn), a Cockney flower seller and Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a refined elocution educator who can’t stand people who don’t speak proper English. Higgins bumps into Eliza in the street and bets an acquaintance that he can coach her to speak like a high-class member of society and pass her off as a woman above her station. It’s a bet, as they say, and hijinks ensue.

Eliza is charming and absurd as a Cockney character, and Aubrey Hepburn plays her at a 13 out of 10 all the time. She has to live with Higgins for this all to work, apparently, and a scene where she doesn’t understand what taking a bath entails is as silly and broad as anything you’ll see in a Will Ferrell movie. She’s extremely fun through her transformation into “high status” which helps her seem less put-upon and more like someone who doesn’t know why all this fancy stuff matters, but she’ll do it anyway.

Higgins is a little harder to pin down. At times he’s berating the people around him for speaking poorly and at times he’s confused as to why his gruff attitude makes people uncomfortable. Rex Harrison plays him as though Higgins thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room all the time, but he also removes the humanity from him completely. For everything Henry Higgins knows how to do, he’s robotic in some interactions, which makes him more complicated than just a guy in an ivory tower who is a superhero. He can’t read people very well, and while he can make anyone feel dumb, that’s not always the way to “win” an interaction.

The film is gorgeous. It is difficult to pick one shot to express that, but the racetrack that they visit to test out Eliza’s new vocal talents is a good candidate. It’s entirely colored in black and white and touches of gray, except for Higgins himself. He wants to stand out to frustrate the crowd, and he does so in a brown suit. The idea that a brown suit, the simplest of the simple, makes people aghast is ridiculous, and that really sells just how little difference there is between everyone. Higgins knows all this social status bullshit is absurd, and the fact that he has some fun with it makes his character seem less ghastly.

All that said… it’s a little gross, right? I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but the love story in My Fair Lady is predicated on the idea that Higgins is smart and good and Eliza must become better in a specific way to be appealing to him. People slam Gigi for being a sexist musical, but My Fair Lady has to be in that discussion, even though it’s beautiful and pretty fun at the same time. There’s a lot going on with this, and it’s not entirely the story of Higgins demanding that Eliza change, but it’s a complicated series of give-and-take that makes for a compelling narrative but a frustrating set of gender politics. But then again, I mean, when there are elves in the book, there have to be elves in the movie, right? I can’t blame the film version of My Fair Lady for what the story is.

It’s visually appealing and it’s sweet in the right ways, mostly. There’s some complicated emotions tied up in the basic premise with regard to class and gender, but that’s to be expected, I guess. I don’t think it’s really possible to hate My Fair Lady, and while I still say The Sound of Music is the quintessential film musical, My Fair Lady won me over.

The Best Part: He doesn’t fit into the overall plot all the time, but Eliza’s dad is a goddamned hoot. He’s penniless and happy that way at the start of the movie, and his “With a Little Bit of Luck” song about floating through life drunk and lazy is my favorite song in the whole damn thing. “The Lord above made liquor for temptation – but / with a little bit of luck you’ll give right in.” You do you, pops.

The Worst Part: At the racetrack, a high society type falls for Eliza and is equally impressed by how she seems classy and how she “breaks character” to yell at the horse she wants to win. He’s supposed to represent a foppish, uninteresting character that Eliza could potentially end up with if she’s successful in her transformation. They nail the “boring” part, but man, it’s really tough to watch someone be boring. The scene where he unsuccessfully tries to court her in the street (“Show Me,” with lyrics like “If you’re on fire / show me”) is brutal in a good way, but he’s a real dunce.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better. My Fair Lady is complicated through a modern lens, to be sure, but it’s still striking to watch and it’s a load of fun. Maybe that’s a simple descriptor for a masterpiece of musical film, but “fun” really is the word for it. The songs are campy and silly, the acting is all so broad it’s impossible to not smile at, and the pacing moves along quick enough that you can’t be bored by it. Tom Jones shows how “comedy” can be rough when it’s elevated to Best Picture level, but My Fair Lady is a deserving “funny” movie on a list of dramatic epics, and it successfully makes Crash look terrible among the ranks.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Sound of Music Better or Worse Than Crash?

the sound of music

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1965 winner The Sound of Music. Is it better than Crash?

What’s the most commonly viewed Best Picture winner? What’s the one of these that you can be sure everyone has seen? Is it a timeless classic like The Godfather or Gone with the Wind? Is it an inescapable modern movie like Titanic or Forrest Gump? I’m not sure I know, but my guess is that it’s the one from everyone’s childhood: The Sound of Music.

For better or worse, The Sound of Music is “our” musical. You can get by with a passing knowledge of My Fair Lady and West Side Story, but not so with Julie Andrews. You know Julie Andrews. If I start one of these songs around you, you will be compelled to finish it. You can’t going to leave “Doe, a deer, a female deer…” hanging out there. You’re going to have to sing about a drop of golden sun, no matter how much of a heartless bastard you are.

That’s the charm of The Sound of Music. It’s totally inescapable. For starters, the bad guys are Nazis. In most musicals the bad guys are “people who don’t appreciate someone leaving their station in life” and in The Sound of Music they are racist murderers. That’s a leg up on most stories, right there. The plot centers on Maria (Julie Andrews) as she serves as the governess for the von Trapp family, seven children and their strict father (Christopher Plummer). I feel a little ridiculous explaining the plot of The Sound of Music, since my premise here requires that this be unnecessary for anyone. Short and sweet: Maria falls in love with their father, the children fall in love with Maria, their father falls in love with Maria, everyone watching the movie falls in love with Maria, and the Nazis come to ruin everything.

I watched this movie a number of times when I was very young. I rewatched it for this review and I couldn’t believe how little I picked up as a kid. I basically remembered that Julie Andrews was really great and that there was a lot of singing, and I somehow glossed over the darkness of the film. The oldest daughter (who sings “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” which is much sadder than I remember it) experiences some troubles with her boyfriend that definitely exceed your typical romance. The main love story is almost derailed in a particularly cruel way. The entire nature of religion in the movie deserves a much longer look. There’s a lot going on in The Sound of Music beyond Julie Andrews cheering everyone up with a guitar and a positive attitude.

I typically respond poorly to “feel good” movies, but I think what works about The Sound of Music for me is that background darkness. Julie Andrews floats through the movie and consistently demands everyone just try a little bit harder to have a smile in a tough time, but she’s carrying a lot while she does that. It’s a tough sell to say that this is a “complex” movie, especially because it gets exposed to so many people when they’re 10. Most people who see The Sound of Music don’t dwell on poor 16-year-old Liesl von Trapp singing about agency between men and women or the sadness of her boyfriend’s decisions in the end, but that’s okay. Even if all you know about The Sound of Music is the actual music, that should be enough to carry it for you. If it’s too saccharine for you, I get that, but have you really listened to “My Favorite Things” lately? C’mon, grumpo.

The Best Part: Despite my campaigning for a deeper reading of “Julie Andrews Saves the Family the Movie” I’m just going to go with the sweetness of Julie Andrews. We’ve talked about a lot of snubs in this space, but it’s totally crazy that she didn’t win Best Actress for this, right? Go watch her lead a puppet show through “The Lonely Goatherd” and try not to be charmed. YOU. CAN’T.

The Worst Part: A lot of people take issue with the portrayal of the Nazis in The Sound of Music. Most of the brutality is suggested rather than directly stated, and until the end they are played mostly as an idea rather than a real threat. As a legitimate history of the von Trapp family or of Austria it surely doesn’t work, but then again, I wouldn’t show this in a history class.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Sound of Music is an iconic part of film history, but I have to admit that I get why some people hate it. Julie Andrews is probably insanely annoying for a certain kind of viewer. There’s probably too much positive energy here for some people. It’s definitely believable that the fifth song about having a good attitude every day is the breaking point for some folks. What I can’t believe is that there’s someone who thinks The Sound of Music is obnoxiously sunny, but that the tone of Crash nails it. The dourness and the ability to destroy the one good man in the world of Crash may not be the exact opposite of Julie Andrews telling everyone she has confidence in sunshine, but it’s definitely close. The “more positive” movie isn’t always better, of course, but even with Julie Andrews being a living angel The Sound of Music feels more real than Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Broadway Melody Better or Worse Than Crash?

broadway melody

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1928/1929 winner The Broadway Melody. Is it better than Crash?

If we’re being totally realistic, the first 10 Best Picture winners just don’t hold up. There are excuses to be made — Grand Hotel is charming in its strangeness, All Quiet on the Western Front and Cavalcade are chilling in their portrayals of war, and Mutiny on the Bounty has a truly great performance — but the only one of the first ten that’s worth your two hours now is It Happened One Night.

It shouldn’t be surprising that films from a century ago don’t hold up. For the most part it’s the pacing, because most of them are insanely long and nearly unedited. Cavalcade tells a half dozen stories, many of which are so tangential to the plot that it’s tough to determine why you should care about them. Cimarron and The Great Ziegfield sprawl like epics but have so little to say that they feel terribly padded. It’s important to look at this time as a whole before we get into The Broadway Melody, the second Best Picture winner ever and, arguably, the first “true” musical as we know the form today.

In comparison to the full list, The Broadway Melody fares pretty rough. The songs aren’t memorable, which is pretty damning. I know you’d think there would be some song that I could clip out here and you’d at least have an “oh, so that’s where that comes from” moment, but no dice. The characters are paper-thin. There’s Hank (actually Harriet, a woman, and the nickname is largely not explained), the street-smart, tough sister and Queenie, the beautiful, but only beautiful, younger sister. They’re trying to break into show business with a duo act, but producers only want to hire Queenie, on account of all the beautiful stuff.

There’s a love triangle, because by Hollywood law everyone in love with one person must be in love with someone else at all times, and if I’m honest it works better here than in most movies. The struggle of the smart-but-not-beautiful Hank is heartfelt, especially as she realizes she’s losing her sister to the wrong parts of show business. It is weird that they attempt to sell that actress who plays Hank as not beautiful, though, but that’s a problem in a lot of films. Whenever we are told as the audience that a woman is “not beautiful” that can be a challenging part of the narrative if she’s, y’know, beautiful. Marty is exceptionally bad about this, and it remains the gold standard for “look how ugly this beautiful woman is or something.”

All-in-all, The Broadway Melody is more important as a historical marker for musicals. It came first, so if you love musicals you can get something out of it akin to going to a museum. It’s a little more fun than most of the early ones, too. I can’t recommend it on its own, but it’s certainly more fun than Cavalcade.

The Best Part: Hank (Bessie Love) was nominated for Best Actress, and she definitely gives the best performance in the movie. She plays the role permanently flustered, which is fun to watch at times, and it’s really as close as anyone gets in the movie to “acting” as we know it now.

The Worst Part: It’s real, real dated, y’all. The sexual politics of the love triangle (and fourth member, who gets added late in the film) will anger modern viewers, and there just isn’t all that much going on outside of that. There’s some relevancy left in the “it’s difficult to follow your dreams and hold on to who you really are” message, but there’s not in any of the rest of it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? 50 years from now, The Broadway Melody will still be one of the first filmed musicals of all time and Crash will be a movie that people can’t really explain. I’m extremely interested in how Crash will be rethought, and if the timeline for Dances With Wolves is any indicator, it’s coming up real soon. The only comparison between these two is in their memory, because neither really feels like it could come out right now. I guess they both offer a look into a strange, forgotten time, but one of those times is the mid 2000s, so let’s leave that one where it is.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Going My Way Better or Worse Than Crash?

Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in Going My Way

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1944 winner Going My Way. Is it better than Crash?

The 1940s is the last decade where a majority of the films that won Best Picture feel significantly dated. Mrs. MiniverHow Green Was My Valley, and The Lost Weekend all have their charms, but they require significant suspension of modern film opinion to enjoy. Going My Way is dated, but in a different way. Let me be frank: the chief conflict in Going My Way is about if Bing Crosby can love both golf and God or if that’s a bridge too far.

Conflict drives all story, and Going My Way is the clash of Bing Crosby’s young, hip priest and Barry Fitzgerald’s old, stuffy priest. Bing Crosby shows up with a song in his heart and a desire to make the church a place the kids want to hang out and stay out of trouble. Fitzgerald wants Bing Crosby to shut the hell up about golf and baseball and all his  other worldly nonsense.

It’s a simple enough plot, but it really hinges on how believable you find their disagreements and how much you like the two leads. Barry Fitzgerald’s character is supposed to be elderly, but he’s established as somewhere around 700 years old based on his personality. Bing Crosby is eternal to a certain generation, to be sure, but I was born too late to have the automatic reverence. I’m not going to sit here and say that he has a bad performance here, but the scenes that require the viewer to be shocked and aghast that he has a shirt with a baseball team’s name on it — such behaviors do not befit a man of the cloth! — don’t resonate anymore. Some of it is that Bing Crosby as the “young upstart” seems silly, some of it is that it isn’t 1944. All of it is that this movie is like looking into a dead civilization, lost to time.

Going My Way is mostly fun, though, so it has that going for it. The third act focuses on Bing Crosby’s character’s singing career, because of course it does. It would be a waste to put one of the great singers of the day in a movie and not have him sing, but within the narrative it feels badly shoehorned. It turns out the priest always wanted to write songs and his beautiful ex-girlfriend always wanted to sing songs and let’s get this show on the road!

The whole movie’s plot is fairly slight, though the ideas behind it aren’t. The ideas of a religion wanting to appeal to a new generation and the old generation being afraid to try new tactics still resonates all these decades later. The theme of giving way to your future is still universal, but the way it happens in Going My Way feels a little dumb towards the end.

The Best Part: While Going My Way isn’t a “musical” in the way we’d think of one now, there are a helluva lot of songs in it. Some of these are fun. There are other redemptive qualities, but I will say that the obvious “Bing Crosby sings some songs” vehicle has some good Bing Crosby songs, so that’s for the best.

The Worst Part: The setup to establish Bing Crosby as “cool” is pretty silly in the light of 2014. It’s not really fair to judge Going My Way for how cool 1944 Bing Crosby isn’t these days, but man, I really couldn’t stop myself from enjoying how out-of-date it feels now. “C’mon, kids, let’s go watch some baseball!” What teenager wouldn’t want to go to a baseball game with his priest?

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I can’t honestly decide if I would recommend Going My Way to someone. It’s a middle-of-the-pack Oscar winner in that it’s fine, I guess, but it has a ton of problems that keep it from being a “classic” in my eyes. It’s better than most of the things you could watch, and Bing Crosby had the kind of career where you should watch his Best Actor-winning performance. It’s dated significantly these days, but so is Crash and that came out less than a decade ago. No discussion of race at all in Going My Way, so all we can compare them on is that this movie from 1944 is set in a world that you will recognize a little more than the one in Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is West Side Story Better or Worse Than Crash?

west side story

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1961 winner West Side Story. Is it better than Crash?

Before watching it recently, almost all of my specific West Side Story knowledge came from this Curb Your Enthusiasm clip:

I’ve talked before about my relationship with musicals, and I don’t know how much there is to really say on the subject in general. There’s a handful still to go, but the quintessential American musical just might be this one. It has three songs in the American Film Institute’s top 100 songs in film list: “Somewhere,” “America,” and “Tonight.” The “Sharks vs. Jets” pairing has been mocked in every form of media that exists. West Side Story is ubiquitous, I just didn’t really know how much I knew. I’d heard versions of “America” and “I Feel Pretty” before, but I think I was only loosely aware of their source.

All of that makes for an interesting first viewing in 2014, on par with movies that you somewhat know but don’t really like Driving Miss Daisy and Rain Man. You have a basic understanding of what’s up in West Side Story even if you haven’t seen a moment of it: forbidden love, dance fighting, and race in New York City. You’d end up writing a pretty terrible book report without more details than that, but you really do have most of what you need there. I guess the Driving Miss Daisy version of that is “a black guy drives an old white lady around and they learn they’re not so different after all,” but that would leave out the all-time-terrible performance from Dan Aykroyd, which would be a mistake.

So what’s under the surface of the dance fighting in West Side Story? Well, while “America” may be a pretty straightforward critique of race in the United States, it is a solid update of the Romeo and Juliet class dynamic. There’s some interesting smarm in “Gee, Officer Krupke” about the nature of being latchkey kids and what contributes to “troubled youth.” While it’s primarily an update of Shakespeare, it’s also something a little bit more. I can’t really judge the singing and dancing — reviews of musicals often have strong takes on the matter, and I just don’t have an eye for it — but the storyline is compelling and the pacing carries the nearly three-hour epic better than expected. It won’t be something I revisit very often, but I found myself caught up in an update of a story that I already know. That’s an accomplishment, so my bold take on West Side Story is that it’s “an accomplishment.” Really going out on a limb here.

The Best Part: Probably “America,” but I was really interested in the reaction to the climactic fight. I don’t think it’s possible to “spoil” an update of Romeo and Juliet, but someone dies. It’s not supposed to get that bad, and the reaction of a bunch of kids — that they act like a bunch of kids for the first time — is eye-opening. It adds a touch of realism to a movie that’s mostly people jumping off stoops and throwing their arms wide to show how tough they are. These kids don’t want to be “tough” but they see no other option, and when it all goes bad they can’t handle it.

The Worst Part: Is it bad that it’s the love story itself for me? I don’t care about Tony and Maria. I get that it’s the construct around which the rest of the world turns, but I was never that interested in it. Even the absurd love story of Gigi drew me in more than Tony/Maria, but that’s probably a failing on my part.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Finally, a movie that is directly about race to compare with the worst of the worst. The difference between the two is that in West Side Story race is a complicating factor for an existing plot and in Crash the plot stands in the way of a discussion of race. Race feels a little inserted into West Side Story, so even when the complication of “white vs. Puerto Rican” does come up, it comes up alongside “Sharks vs. Jets.” The battle lines are drawn along racial lines, but sometimes it feels more like they’re talking about the gangs than about the difficulty of race in America. That complication leads to some conversations where everyone appears to be talking about one thing, but really it’s a discussion of race. Race informs the entire movie, which allows for a deeper viewing of what is otherwise a fairly straightforward musical. Crash never lets anything go unsaid. If two people of a different race have a conversation, they both bring it up, angrily, to the other one. The tension of race is something everyone understands without it being shouted at them, but Crash is not at all interested in subtleties.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is An American in Paris Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: classichollywoodcentral.com

image source: classichollywoodcentral.com

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1951 winner An American in Paris. Is it better than Crash?

“Well, you do hate musicals.”

I cannot tell you how many times people have told me this supposed fact about myself this year. If you hate a musical, you apparently hate all musicals. This isn’t true for any other damn genre — I hate Crash, if you haven’t picked up on it, but I don’t hate everything vaguely like it — but it’s apparently true for movies with singing and dancing in them.

I don’t! I swear I don’t! I even liked Gigi, and Gigi was BuzzFeed’s worst Best Picture winner ever. I thought it was charming, if a little misguided with regards to message. I mean, you can only sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” so many times before it starts to sound odd. But as for other musicals, I think I like most of them. I like the ones everyone likes. I kinda hated Moulin Rouge!, but I saw that as a 15-year-old. It never stood a chance.

I’m now at the age where I assume that if I hate something out of my comfort zone, I’m the asshole. I assume that the problem is genuinely with me. I assume that I simply haven’t given myself over to the experience; I haven’t said yes to life. I decided that I was going to say yes to George Gershwin and Gene Kelly.

The result? Did I love An American in Paris? No. I powered through An American in Paris the way someone watches the reset episode of a drama they like. I made it to the credits because I wanted to see what was next. I probably wouldn’t have even finished it if not for this project, but then, that’s the whole point of the thing.

In An American in Paris, Gene Kelly has to dance a lot to delight children, win over a young woman, and discuss love with his friends. There’s a lot of dancing in this movie, which is sort of like saying a restaurant has a lot of food, but I really have to express to you just how much damn dancing is in this movie. There is an entire quarter of an hour of dialogue-less dancing in this film. In a movie that clocks in under two hours, that feels crazy. Gene Kelly is the best there ever was at what he does, but make damn sure you want to see a ton of it.

There is so much music in this — a musical with the creation of music as a story element is laying it on pretty thick — that some songs are interrupted by other songs. A traditional musical would interrupt a story element to cut to a musical number, but An American in Paris interrupts its own music for more music. You got your musical in my musical!

But Gene Kelly is Gene Kelly, so some moments are just “magical” enough to work. He performs “I Got Rhythm” while French children crowd around him and form a call-and-response group. That part really sticks with me, and it’s apparently the only song from the film to make AFI’s top 100 songs from film list. The love is love. It’s not annoying. Maybe I don’t love musicals, but I certainly don’t hate them. I’m lukewarm on the sprawling, ridiculous An American in Paris because I’m not very interested in what it has to say, not because I hate the whole genre.

The Best Part: 

It’s kinda fun, isn’t it? The French kids don’t know any English beyond what they say in the song, either, so now you know that.

The Worst Part: “Risky” is as nice of a word as I can use to describe the ending. I hate this ending. I hate, hate, hate it. It’s not spoiling it to say it ends with a “daydream” sequence that plays out as a ballet. I know it’s iconic and it’s exceptional and dazzling and all that, but it’s exactly what people think of when they say they “hate musicals.” West Side Story is three hours long and nothing in it feels as shoehorned in as the ballet here.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I’m not a big fan of this one, but I don’t think it would even make my bottom five. The visuals are bright, the characters are fun, and the dancing can’t be beat. I found myself really in love with moments of it, but it couldn’t keep me hooked from start to finish. Only the ballet really bored me, and that brings this all back to a debate had often in this space: is it better to be terrible or boring? We’re rapidly approaching the halfway mark here, and we’re going to have to find a good answer for that by then. I’ll say An American in Paris is better because the highs are much, much higher, but I was just about as angry at that ballet as I was at some of the mild awfulness in Crash. Nothing comes close to that police chase scene in Crash, though, so Crash retains the top (bottom?) spot in a walk.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Chicago Better or Worse Than Crash?

chicago

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2002 winner Chicago. Is it better than Crash?

When I mention this project to people they always have the same general response. People always mention the movie they think is the worst Oscar winner ever. Usually it’s Crash. Sometimes it’s not.

When someone says a different movie, I desperately want to see it. I don’t have a plan for if something is worse than Crash, but I want to have to figure that out. I want one of the other 85 movies between Wings and 12 Years a Slave to be so bad that I have to retitle this whole damn thing. So far, through roughly a third of them, nothing has really approached it.

The closest so far is probably The Artist. I don’t have a great case to make there, I just thought it was obsessed with the wrong parts of itself. I thought it was somehow both indulgent and uninteresting. I didn’t love Shakespeare in Love, either, but neither movie was so odious that I could justify hate like I have hate for Crash.

All of this is to say that people told me that Chicago had a chance to dethrone the king of the list. When I heard that, I got excited. I wanted to see a musical that had a shot at being worse than the sledgehammer-gentle message of Crash that “everyone is bad, forever.”

There are a handful of musicals that have won Best Picture over the years. They’re mostly iconic films like My Fair Lady and West Side Story. Some of them are oddities like Gigiwhich BuzzFeed called the worst Best Picture winner of all time in their listGigi is strange, to be sure, but it’s not terrible. It’s actually pretty fun, which is what I assume people mostly want out of a musical.

Chicago is also supposed to be fun, and I was definitely surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. The songs are catchy and the dancing is flashy and it has Taye Diggs. Are you going to tell me you hate Taye Diggs?

The thing is, I don’t really have a lot to say about Chicago, because I went in with some weird expectations. I expected a movie that was “big” and “loud” in obnoxious ways, but I got something charming and refreshing. Chicago “worked” on me. There’s no love story to get in the way and there’s no real development, but it’s fun. It’s a bunch of songs and visuals that combine to form something mostly worth looking at. I think that’s all a musical is supposed to be, right?

The Best Part: A lot of the reviews for Chicago talk about the dancing being largely smoke and mirrors. I’m not a sharp enough dance critic (let no one tell you otherwise!) to know, but it seemed pretty great to me. I do not generally like movies like Chicago, but the “Cell Block Tango” performance was pretty excellent.

The Worst Part: I’m not in love with the ending. I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say how a musical ends, but it just feels really haphazardly tied up. You can’t fault this version for how the actual story of Chicago ends, but “the smooth guy is smooth, the putz is a putz, and everyone else is whatever” isn’t exactly dynamic.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashI’ve recently decided I need to go back and rewatch Crash, because I’m running out of extremely specific complaints about my subject matter. Both movies have a cynical view of the world, but again, Chicago has more subtlety about its cynicism despite having a scene where a guy controls characters with strings. Crash deserves to be raked over the coals for a lot of faults, but none more than how obvious it is.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind|

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

The Book of Mormon Musical and Being Offended

The Book of Mormon

Jonathan May

The Book of Mormon was written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez.

It took about three years for The Book of Mormon to arrive in Memphis from its original Broadway premiere. I didn’t listen to one second of the music during that whole time because I wanted to be surprised by the lyrics and story. Needless to say, the story itself is fairly simple; two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda for their two-year stint. Having lived in Zimbabwe as a child of Christian missionaries, I can safely say the experience the two have upon arrival is eerily and comically perfect. Africa, though presented by some of its worst qualities, shines through as a tough place where real shit goes down, which it is. Therefore the jokes about men raping babies made most in the audience uncomfortable because, deep down, they knew (or became aware of then) that things like this happen.

I was insanely entertained by the whole show, being a fan of South Park. Those who would claim that the show just attacks Mormonism are simply missing the point; the show ultimately posits an absurdity in holding any system of religious belief. Parker and Stone, like many before them, make the point that religions are nothing more than metaphors by which to guide one’s life. This idea comes up often during South Park: that strict dogmatism often leads to unhappiness. So while Mormonism is the prism through which this idea is viewed, I argue that the musical deals ultimately with much more than the one religion. People who take offense at such things often miss that the creators of South Park have taken great care over the years to offend everyone equally, regardless of belief-oriented affiliation.

The Book of Mormon parodied many elements and traditions of musicals, as the creators are wont to do. Many of the songs contains leitmotifs or riffs from other famous musicals in order to further the meta-narrative quality of the production. By no means is this a family show, in the traditional sense. Cursing and “real talk” are par for the course, and no one shies away from all possible outlets of sexual and religious conflation for comedic effect. (One line that stands out, regarding baptism, is when a female character states she is “wet with salvation.”) If you are easily offended, I don’t know why you would consider going in the first place, but you should go. It’s easily the funniest Broadway show I’ve ever seen, and it does challenge one’s sense of humor. I laughed out loud steadily, but several moments gave me pause.

The realistic portrayal of the hardship of missionary work and the even harder quotidian circumstances for Africans undeniably make this musical what it is; without those, it might amount to nothing more than the sum of its jokes. But the leads (the two Mormon missionaries and the young African woman they attempt to convert) and their doubts are some of the strongest moments of this unforgettable show.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com