2020 was a film year of asterisks, where the question “what constitutes a 2020 movie?” collided with the more existential question, “what constitutes a movie, period?”
Two of my favorite “movie” experiences last year were filmed versions of Broadway productions, released on streaming platforms.
Should Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton count as a movie? Would it count if it had been released in theaters, as was the plan pre-pandemic? What about David Byrne’s American Utopia, filmed by no less a screen titan than Spike Lee, but inherently a faithful depiction of his stage show?
For the purposes of the all-important year-end top ten list, I have chosen to exclude both of these films. I saw American Utopia on plenty of critics lists, but I don’t see how it’s any different than Hamilton, except that it was nowhere near as popular onstage.
The bottom line for me is these are great movies because they were great Broadway shows. It isn’t the camera placement or editing, it’s the material as performed on stage — all of that energy and emotion that made these memorable theatrical experiences.
This decision to exclude Hamilton and American Utopia from consideration for my Top Ten opens a can of worms. By this logic, would Johnathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense — considered by many the greatest concert film ever made — not qualify either? Is there a difference between a music concert and a Broadway show?
I’d argue — weakly, I admit — that there is. A Broadway show is meticulously planned, with every performer’s movements choreographed through months of rehearsals. The direction happens on stage.
A concert is looser, giving the movie director more freedom to compile a collection of moving images into a film. I see Jonathan Demme’s hand in Stop Making Sense far more than Spike Lee’s in American Utopia — and Spike Lee is not somebody whose stamp is usually hard to miss.
Regardless of the semantic argument over how to classify these productions, I’m thrilled to have watched both of them this year. Hamilton was a stirring reminder of the original cast performance I was lucky enough to see on Broadway in 2016. And American Utopia showcases one of our greatest musical icons in a warm and uplifting celebration of humanity.
Daniel and I were discussing this over the weekend. He is annoyed, rightly I think, to see Lin take up a spot for best actor in a musical film at the Golden Globes. Same for all the other noms the filmed Broadway show received.
If they showed the movie Moulin Rouge on a screen in a Broadway theater, should Nicole Kidman be eligible to be nominated for a Tony?! Of course, when they made a Broadway adaptation of that film, to be performed live in front of audiences (oh… someday), those creators are surely eligible.
I am beyond excited to watch the film In the Heights, whenever it is finally released, and it is obvious from the trailer that those filmmakers turned the Broadway gem into a thrilling cinematic experience.
As for concert films, if it’s truly just the show filmed, however artfully, I don’t think they should be eligible. If, instead, it becomes a sort of documentary of the concert tour, inter-splicing lots of live concert footage into a narrative arc that is telling a bigger story, then I’m okay with it.
I agree with Amy. I don’t see that “Stop Making Sense” is any more a movie than “Hamilton,” and, as much as I love “Hamilton” and Lin, neither should be eligible for movie award nominations.
Hell, the Oscars won’t even nominate a song if it was released on an album before being used in a movie, but we are okay with nominating a filmed version of a previously performed live Broadway show? I think not!
The Oscars (correctly, IMO) have deemed Hamilton ineligible for nominations. The Golden Globes always do their own wacky thing.
I’m not sure if Stop Making Sense was eligible for Documentary at the Oscars. If, as Amy mentioned, they had spliced in scenes of the Talking Heads backstage, etc., that might have made a difference.
Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth is a good example. Most of it is just the slide show he performed on stage, but they included interviews and snippets about his life and won the Oscar.
I’m less interested in whether these movies should be Oscar eligible than in whether they should be considered movies at all.
Well, if you loosely define a movie as something filmed between 90 minutes and 3+ hours that, in normal times, would be shown in a theater, then, sure, these are movies. But if the criteria is to do something more than film a concert, show or play, then these are not movies.
I agree they are not movies
Not movies. I have lots of footage of 21 Hearts playing their shows. Happy to share them with you if you’d like to watch. Not movies. 😜
Does that imply you are Jonathan Demme’s equal when it comes to assembling a concert film? And if not, what is the difference?
You said it; I didn’t. 😜
The difference is 21 Hearts isn’t Talking Heads.
🙂 An insult to both 21 Hearts and Jonathan Demme!