Monday, 20 September 2010

Gonzo | Music | The Great Gonzo's Guide to Musical Theatre

The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best of all the Christmas films. ‘In your opinion,’ my sister would surely reply, as she does whenever I make an assertion about anything, as though my making an assertion doesn’t automatically contain the unspoken assertion that this is my opinion (although my opinion is, essentially, more important than the truth) contained within a tone of voice that would, I daresay, irritate the fuck out of me if I wasn’t myself. ‘What,’ I then usually counter, ‘about when you say, for example, that the time is twenty to eleven? In my opinion, the time is 10.40 – what gives you the right to assert that the time is to be expressed in your own terms without first establishing that you are expressing as unambiguous fact merely one approach to telling the time among many? You dogmatic, hypocritical slut.’

(My sister is in no way a slut.)

I consider myself permitted to say that The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best of all the Christmas films because Christmas films exist in a sphere utterly removed from conventional intellectual notions of what good filmmaking can and should represent. A sphere defined entirely by unfashionable concepts such as childhood, nostalgia, entrenched Christmas routine, what you’ve seen so many times the vhs makes rodent noises und so weiter. To the point that subjectivity becomes the point. Everybody’s favourite Christmas film is a different Christmas film, but they are all essentially the same because everybody watches these different films in the same way.

Indeed, to attempt to actually apply a model assessing Christmas films’ respective scripts, cinematography, editing, direction, individual performances and so on in order to ascertain what constitutes the best of all the Christmas films in dispassionately qualitative terms, would be to commit an act of unbelievable critical point-missing – on a level with Tarantino’s recent interpretation of his role as Venice Jury President as a license to hand out major awards to mentor, ex-girlfriend and best friend whilst winking behind his HORRIBLE GODDAM SUNGLASSES.

With this in mind, the five best Christmas films of all the Christmas films are:

5. Elf
4. Mighty Ducks 1
3. Home Alone 2
2. Die Hard

And number one, The Muppets Christmas Carol. No Holiday Inn/34th Street/Wonderful Life bullshit here. TMCC is a joy for uncountable reasons. Michael Caine. Select Dickens quotations getting burned (Scrooge: ‘There’s more of gravy than of grave about you.’ Marley (either Statler or Waldorf): ‘What a terrible pun? Where’d you get these jokes?’). Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker (the latter the coolest muppet there is: wikipedia describes him as having a drawbridge mouth. A drawbridge mouth!) trying to collect money for charity…
The Great Gonzo: appearance-wise, not unlike Adrien Brody

Mainly, though, The Muppets Christmas Carol is completely awesome because of the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat’s narration. A bit of Great Gonzo background first though, because he is, self-evidently, the peg for all this. First of all, Gonzo is not a puppet-version of a human or an animal (although Kermit does suggest, at one point, that he’s ‘a little like a turkey’). Rather, it is revealed in Muppets from Space that he is an alien from a distant planet (in the same film, we actually meet a family member, Ubergonzo). This doesn’t stop him from both amorously pursuing Camilla the Chicken and, indeed, representing the muppets’ resident expert on chickens as a whole. Gonzo is, in fact, the muppets’ resident intellectual – ‘I shall now defuse this highly explosive bomb while simultaneously, and at the same time, reciting from the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley,’ ‘I shall now eat a rubber tire to the music of The Flight of the, maestro!’ etc.  – combining intelligence with what Wikipedia summarises perfectly as a ‘wild-eyed, optimistic attitude’. Thus making him the perfect candidate for a 20th century re-imagining of Charles Dickens as charismatic raconteur rather than, I don’t know, wife-hating childhood-fetishising curmudgeonly anti-Semite.

Here are some of the many highlights of Gonzo and Rizzo’s narrative:

Rizzo [on top of barred gate]: There are two things in this life I hate: heights, and jumping from them. 
Gonzo: Too late now. Come on, I’ll catch you. 
Rizzo: God save my little broken body! 
[Jumps and falls to the ground. He looks at Gonzo] 
Gonzo: Missed. 
Rizzo: Oh wait a second... I forgot my jellybeans. Um... 
[Slides through the bars to retrieve them, and joins Gonzo back on the other side. Gonzo stares at him] 
Rizzo: What? 
Gonzo: You can fit through those bars? 
Rizzo: Yeah... 
Gonzo: You are such an idiot.

Rizzo: Rats don’t understand these things. 
Gonzo: You were never a lonely child? 
Rizzo: I had twelve hundred and seventy four brothers and sisters. 
Gonzo: Boy! Rats don’t understand these things!

Rizzo: How do you know what Scrooge is doin’? We’re down here and he’s up there! 
Gonzo: I told you, storytellers are omniscient; I know everything! 
Rizzo: Hoity-toity, Mr. Godlike Smarty-Pants. 
Gonzo: To conduct a proper search, Scrooge was forced to light the lamps. 
[the lamps come on] 
Rizzo: How does he do that?

Glorious as all this is, what is its relevance to the heading, Music? Well, The Muppets Christmas Carol is technically a musical, see. Not a lot been said on Silkworms about musicals, mainly because musicals are horrid, awful things the vast majority of the time. But with Les Mis representing a musical rendering of Victor Hugo, and Phantom (please watch the second link, it’s the tits) a musical remake of a (before Lloyd Webber got to it) relatively obscure 19th century gothic novel, musicals actually constitute an important model of Music As Reading entering the popular consciousness. A useful model? Probably not – it would be a brave advocate of musical theatre who made the case for Les Mis representing an intelligent reading of Hugo’s text, rather than a melodic reduction of it into nuance-less constituent parts. But that’s where Gonzo and the muppets come in.

For The Muppet Christmas Carol takes a classic text (admittedly, one of Dickens’ worst) and turns it into something both musical and sublime. In it rests, I would therefore argue, the key to transforming musical theatre into an intelligent expression of music interacting with literature. Well, in it or in Brecht and Weil’s Threepenny Opera, but unfortunately that doesn’t contain a character called Gonzo. Here, then, are eight things that musicals should probably do if they wish to sidestep the kind of mistakes Lord Frogjowls made when turning Gaston Leroux into a two-hours-long power ballad – and, rather, evoke the spirit of past, present, future and fucken Gonzo in their adaptive efforts. Sondheim, I hope you’re listening.

1. Use vegetables instead of a regular chorus (‘If he became a flavour you can bet he would be sour – even the vegetables don’t like him!’)
2. Combine endearing grammatical inaccuracies with references to other canonical texts (‘He charges folk a fortune for his dark and draughty houses / Us poor folk live in misery / It’s even worse for mouses (Please sir, I want some cheese)’)
3. Disguise genuinely disturbing images with loveable character mannerisms (‘There was the year we evicted the entire orphanage! I remember the little tykes all standing in the snowbank. With their frost-bitten teddybears. Hahahahahahahahaha!’)

Oh, and one more thing: write rhythm parts befitting Animal. That guy knows how to swing. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem is, incidentally, the greatest band name of all time. But that’s a story for another day.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

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