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Eternal song, dance

Special to The Times

The movie musical is back. Again. Or so certain seers of the cultural moment would have us all believe, what with the success of “Chicago” or maybe “Moulin Rouge!” or even the art house oddity “Dancer in the Dark.” Like an underground movement, this evergreen movie genre never really goes away but simply weathers various shifts in popular tastes.

“Can’t Stop the Musicals! A Celebration of Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and ‘80s,” a film series at the American Cinematheque running today through June 1, celebrates a previous flowering of the sensibility.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 24, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Actress’ name -- A story in Thursday’s Calendar Weekend about movie musicals misspelled actress-dancer Ann Reinking’s first name as Anne.

Though often thought of as a quaint throwback, like spats or gartered stockings, the musical is actually always waiting to spring itself anew upon the moviegoing public. In many ways, the dreamy blend of the musical, particularly in its modern variants, is the ultimate film experience, pure movie magic. For when was the last time you hopped onto a table in a crowded cafeteria and kicked up your heels? The musical makes such reveries seem not only possible but essential.

The musical needs music, of course, and perhaps chiefly among the composers working during the 1970s, Paul Williams bridged the gap between older styles and the contemporary sounds of the day. Heard in the Cinematheque series entries “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Bugsy Malone” (he received Academy Award nominations for both), Williams’ music combined the smooth, elegant song-craft of classic Tin Pan Alley pop with the personalized, confessional feel of the then-burgeoning singer-songwriter movement.

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Williams has had the kind of career you just couldn’t make up. Writer of such classic songs as “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song” and the truly immortal “The Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie,” in his heyday he appeared in cameos in the “Smokey and the Bandit” movies and on such television chestnuts as “The Love Boat”; he more recently had a cameo in “The Rules of Attraction.” He is scheduled to take part in a question-and-answer session following the screening of “Phantom.”

This being a survey of films from the 1970s, after all, there is a prerequisite for a certain quota of disco-influenced glitter and glam, which this series more than fulfills.

Two films in particular catch the daft combination of innocence, exuberance and bad taste for which the late ‘70s are now, at least partly, remembered. Watching either “Xanadu” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” creates something of a synesthetic simulation of a head full of cocaine and Beaujolais.

“Xanadu,” starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly (on roller skates!), makes explicit the nostalgia that lies underneath so many modern musicals, a yearning for the simple times that the classic examples of the genre symbolize, while striving to find a place for the old amid the new. The film is also especially notable for its costumes, which though fashion-forward in their time, from the perspective of today look like a sketchbook for nearly everything coming from retro-fashion wunderkind (and part-time L.A. resident) Jeremy Scott.

“Sgt. Pepper’s,” no doubt, looked great on paper -- combining the producer of “Saturday Night Fever” with two of pop music’s biggest names at the time, the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, a story line wrung from a host of beloved Beatles songs and topped off by a laundry list of celebrity cameos. What could go wrong? The answer, as we now know, is basically everything.

Generally dismissed and despised upon its initial release in 1978, the film now seems like a star-spangled oddball, a satin-swathed runt of the litter, and actually exudes a strange, unexplainable charm. It must be George Burns soft-shoeing his way through the psychedelic “Fixing a Hole.”

For those with a taste for the decidedly outre, the series also features a rare opportunity to see 1980’s “The Apple” at a screening held before midnight. Directed and co-written by Menahem Golan (who would go on to achieve infamy as one half of the Golan-Globus producing team responsible for countless 1980s revenge films), the film is not so much interesting as it is just plain scary. A parable of good versus evil set against a vision of a cutthroat entertainment industry in the futuristic 1994 (featuring the prophetic line “life is nothing but show business”), “The Apple” more than any other film in the series needs to be approached as pure camp. With all the glitter makeup, outrageous costumes and frighteningly bad songs, to think of the film in any other way is simply too unsettling.

Though on its initial release in 1980 it was little more than an especially hip exploitation programmer, with each passing year “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” gets better and better, its rough edges smoothed over by time so that it now seems surprisingly light of touch and even downright elegant.

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Directed by Allan Arkush for legendary producer Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, the film includes inspired turns by P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel, none of whom was ever better, and electrifying musical performances by the Ramones. The traditions of the musical, though refashioned in New Wave haircuts and torn jeans, have never been better served.

A fitting alternate title for the series could easily be taken from Anne Reinking’s rousing showstopper from “All That Jazz,” one of the two films from director Bob Fosse showing on opening night. When it comes to the modern movie musical -- a deft and difficult blend of nostalgia, irony, zeitgeist-peddling and old-fashioned show-biz gumption -- indeed, “Everything Old Is New Again.”

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A flurry of film festivals

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Can’t Stop the Musicals! A Celebration of Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and ‘80s

Today-June 1. American Cinematheque, Lloyd E. Rigler Theater at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

(323) 466-FILM, www.americancinematheque.com.

IFP Los Angeles Film Festival

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June 11-21. Features the world premiere of “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” director George Hickenlooper’s documentary on legendary L.A. scene-maker Rodney Bingenheimer. (323) 951-7090, www.lafilmfest.com.

Outfest

July 10-21. The oldest and largest continuous film festival in Southern California, this year’s edition kicks off with the anticipated return of Macaulay Culkin in “Party Monster.” (213) 480-7065, www.outfest.org.

Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival

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July 18-27. An up-and-comer among area festivals. (323) 469-9066, www.latinofilm.org.

Mark Olsen can be contacted at weekend@latimes.com.


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