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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a Gateway to Classic Musicals

By Christopher Campbell | Spout July 19, 2010 at 8:51AM

And maybe a salvation for contemporary musicals?
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And maybe a salvation for contemporary musicals?

One of the most incredible sequences in "Inception" is the hotel hallway fight, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles some bad guys while they all deal with shifts in gravity and balance. If you haven't yet seen the film, it's not important here to know why this happens narratively. As for how it's done, this is only of basic concern as far as how it recalls previous films that employed similar in-camera effects, specifically "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the Fred Astaire musical "Royal Wedding." The former is only relevant in that the "Inception" sequence deals with zero-gravity weightlessness. The latter is more important because the iconic "You're All the World to Me" number is more visually similar to the scene in the new film and therefore associates the fight sequence with dance.

Gordon-Levitt is quickly becoming a kind of gateway to classic musicals, it seems. When he hosted "Saturday Night Live" last fall, he perfectly reenacted Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" number from "Singin' in the Rain." Before that he delighted audiences with a grand song and dance sequence set to Hall & Oates in "(500) Days of Summer." He also recently told The Advocate that he may have something musical in the works but he wasn't ready to say just yet. Whatever it is, I hope that it's as much a physical treat as an audio one. And hopefully the songs are written by him -- check out JGL performing one of his own tunes during a Rolling Stone interview here.

As much as I enjoyed that fight sequence in "Inception," though, I have to say that it reminded me of a problem with both fight and dance sequences in modern movies. There was just way too much close-up and way too much cutting. Nolan continually has an issue with his inability to open up the scope of his action sequences, just as most directors of modern film musicals have a problem doing the same with dance scenes. From what I saw with Gordon-Levitt's live dancing on "SNL," I think he could have done the fight in one take, as Astaire did with the famous wall and ceiling dance in "Royal Wedding." Of course, the sequence in "Inception" entailed faster action and also had to be intercut with other scenes for pacing and narrative tension. Something as slow as the Astaire number would have brought "Inception" the an even worse halt than some of the exposition scenes did.

Nevertheless there is something very wrong about cutting so much during a dance number, or even a well-choreographed action sequence. Not only is it jarring but especially in the case of dancing it takes away from the trust that the dancer is really dancing. I guess these days audiences are less interested in the spectacle of dance as people were many decades ago, and also modern musicals are likely to cast a star who's less talented a dancer, so some of the cutting is likely necessary to cover up inefficiency or in some circumstances a stunt dancer. I can't imagine what Astaire would have thought about a movie like "Nine," which never allows us to actually just watch the dance. They end up being more an accomplishment of editing than choreography.

In a number of interviews, Gordon-Levitt has made an analogy about the relationship between the "Inception" fight and Astaire's dance in "Royal Wedding' comparing it to the difference between "Sesame Street" and "Star Wars," both of which featured Muppets, only to different effect. I don't know which is supposed to be which (I think "Inception" is supposed to be "Star Wars"), but either way, I'd like Gordon-Levitt to realize that as far as I can tell he's potentially got the footwork down so that instead of just being a gateway to classic musicals he might also be able to fix this issue many of us musical fans have with the current standard.

Here's the "You're All the World to Me" number from "Royal Wedding":






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