Tuesday, 26 January 2010

"His Kind Of Music Isn't On The Hit Parade....!"

Ah, musicals. Possibly one of the most derided, and yet celebrated, genres in film history. They're often mocked for being hollow and unrealistic- yeah, sure, people don't just burst into song and dance in real life. Quite often, they lurch from one number to the next without much in the way of narrative. Sometimes, when the songs are strong enough, this isn't a problem. Grease, for example, isn't often remembered for its fabulous dialogue, but you'd struggle to find someone who doesn't know at least one of its many showtunes. From the musicals I've seen, cohesive and 'deep' storylines seem to be surplus to requirements anyway. As such, they tend to follow a very basic narrative structure- usually some spin on Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story, Grease, Moulin Rouge) or a unconventional protagonist with some sort of obstacle (Hairspray, Chicago). Either way, there's normally a hefty amount of saccharine lumped in as well, which often makes them difficult to swallow. Or so I thought, anyway.

I've been working hard on my resolution to watch as many as possible of my 'Films I've Always Meant To Watch, But Never Got Round To'. Whilst trawling through FOPP for a hidden gem for £4 or under (I was buying Audition at the same time, and only had a tenner on my gift card). My mind was drawing a blank, when I saw a fresh-faced, hollow-cheeked rockabilly pouting back at me. For the low, low price of £3. I picked up Cry-Baby, put it down, picked it up again and humm-ed over whether or not to buy it. I'd heard of John Waters obviously, but alongside the words 'grotesque', 'disgusting' and 'bad-taste'. This can be a good thing, in many cases, but there are certain styles which even I find difficult to stomach- imagine an amped up version of Edward Scissorhands' lurid pastel suburbs and you're about there. It just gives me the creeps. Cry-Baby, however, featured rockabillies, motorbikes, 50s rock 'n' roll music AND the appearance of Startlingly Young Johnny Depp. Aged 26 when the film was made, he easily passes for about 5/6 years younger- it's quite bizarre seeing him play a high school rebel singing about being a teenager... trust me, watching him strut about in 50s rocker gear is TOTALLY worth it.

Depp at the time was a teen heart-throb thanks to appearances in Nightmare on Elm Street and 21 Jump Street. Here he sends up this image brilliantly as Wade 'Cry-Baby' Walker, who can make women instantly fall in love with him by shedding a single tear. Cry-Baby is a rebel, or 'drape', from the wrong side of the tracks, a rockin' and rollin' orphan whose family of misfits and hillbillies are a million miles away from that of 'square' Allison (Amy Locane). She is bored of her austere background, brought up by her grandmother, who runs a charm school. She falls for Cry-Baby and, despite their different backgrounds, he falls for her, too. He and his misfit friends, including Rikki Lake and ex-porn queen Traci Lords (whose image in the film I'd actually kill for- she looks amazing) are in a band, and Allison longs to be like them.

(I wish I looked like this every day...minus the blonde hair mind you, my hair doesn't seem to want to go that colour. As I found out first hand...)

Trouble inevitably ensues when Allison decides to ditch her square boyfriend (who's such a horrible chauvinist creep, despite being the Ideal Man in the eyes of her grandmother) and ride off on the back of Cry-Baby's motorbike. This is a step too far for the square community, and they resort to trashing the drapes' cars and motorbikes. Cue a hilarious courtroom scene, a brief but memorable cameo by a Non-Wrinkly Willem Defoe (I know, right?) and a jailhouse singalong that's been rattling around in my head for the last two days.

What lifts this film above similar musicals is that it's also very, very funny. A comedy-musical, if you will. Well, that's what it really is, but that wouldn't have worked well with the straight-up musicals I'd compared it to before. Why let technicalities get in the way of a good opening paragraph?? And aren't most musicals, umm, kind of funny anyway??...anyone? Ah, well. Cry-Baby is a parody of, say, Grease or Jailhouse Rock, and in my opinion it's better for it. Sure, it's brash, vulgar and trashy, but in a good way. It's never mean-spirited, and the talented supporting cast make sure it's not just 'A Johnny Depp Film'. Iggy Pop is hilarious in as Cry-Baby's step-grandad (back when he was more hanging-with-Bowie, Lust For Life than getting his sinewy old biceps in a flap about car insurance). Everyone looks like they're having a great time and while it may not be Oscar-bait, the energy and music are totally infectious. It's a bit of a cop out to say "it's not for everyone"...but then again, what is?? I'd rather watch this than prop my eyelids open with matchsticks watching something 'highbrow'. The dialogue is peppy and sharply written, with lots of wry throwaway jokes providing the best laughs.

Sure, it's not the most original story- boy and girl fall for each other despite social etiquette dictating otherwise. They have to struggle to be together. Etc. Etc. We've seen it a million times. There are so many elements to Cry-Baby that make sure we want to keep watching regardless- the outrageous visuals, snappy tongue-in-cheek dialogue, a cast of lovable misfits and a fantastic soundtrack. It just goes to show the difference good writing can make to a tired old format, and crucially, that's what makes this film so special. It may be grotesque, it may be over the top and, yeah, there's alot of singing. Then again, isn't this true of ALL musicals?? I'd highly recommend this film to anyone, despite the connotations attached to the genre. If only I looked that cool in a leather jacket....

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