Historically, the British musical has been intertwined with British music, drawing on music hall in the 1940s and the pop charts in the 50s – low-budget films of provincial interest and nothing to trouble the bosses at MGM. In the late 60s, however, the genre enjoyed a brief, high-profile heyday, and between Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence (1967) and Richard Attenborough's star-studded Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) came the biggest of them all: Oliver! (1968), Carol Reed's adaptation of Lionel Bart's 1960 stage hit and the recipient of six Academy awards.
It seems strange that Charles Dickens's dark tale of deprivation – our young hero Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) ends up in a den of thieves, run by the louche Fagin (Ron Moody), after being sold into child labour by the owner of a workhouse – began shooting during the summer of love, but Reed's lavish, cast-of-thousands approach does reflect something of the people-power concerns of the times, notably the "tribalism" of the Broadway musical Hair. The costume design too has elements of shabby chic; the boys have long, unkempt hair, and unlike David Lean's austere Oliver Twist of 1948, the snatch-and-grab-it world of Fagin's lost boys actually seems like fun.
Indeed, Moody has often claimed that his interpretation of Fagin, developed in the original stage version, ran counter to Bart's intention and went some way to reversing the perceived antisemitism of Dickens's novel. But for all the exuberance, not to mention those timeless songs – Food, Glorious Food; Consider Yourself and You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two – Oliver! works principally as a love triangle, with the infatuated Twist powerless to save barmaid Nancy (Shani Wallis) from the vicious Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed). It is part of the magic of Reed's direction that while delivering the modernity and immediacy of Bart's book, music and lyrics, his film keeps intact the dark, brutal melodrama that kept Dickens's readers enthralled in the first place. Damon WiseROGER DALTREY Film 'TOMMY' (1975) Directed By KEN RUSSELL 19 March 1975 SSO56144 Allstar Collection/PARAMOUNT **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Editorial Use Only. Entertainment Orientation Landscape Portrait looking ahead Film Still Photograph: Allstar/PARAMOUNT/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
The most excessive movie by the most excessive director of the most excessive decade of the 20th century, Tommy is the madly outlandish pinnacle of 70s rock-opera. It stars a sizable complement of British rock aristocracy – the Who, obviously, Eric Clapton, Elton John – under the insane generalship of Ken Russell in excelsis.
Russell was fresh off his Mahler biopic, in retrospect the last of his conventional (the term is elastic with Ken) musical biographies that began at the BBC with his profiles of Delius and Elgar, and continued on the big screen with Tchaikovsky in The Music Lover. By the time he came to make his movie about Franz Liszt in 1975, he had passed through the creative furnace that was Tommy and was making a whole different kind of movie. Russell adapted the Who's concept album himself, and gave free rein to his wildest instincts.
Tommy, the original album, was, like Pink Floyd's The Wall, a war baby's angry lament that never really made a lot of sense in narrative terms, but Russell found the showpiece songs and mounted many of them with extraordinary vitality and panache. Unforgettable moments include Pinball Wizard with Elton John in mile-high green bovver boots; Tina Turner's demented appearance as the Acid Queen, whose terrifying, Metropolis-style syringe-robot-sarcophagus fails to trip Tommy out of his deaf-dumb-and-blind catatonia (who the hell injects acid, anyway?) and Ann-Margret, a loooong way from Bye Bye Birdie, as she imagines an exploding TV that ejaculates baked beans, chocolate and soap powder all over her writhing body, bringing to bizarre and unsettling life the artwork for The Who Sell Out.
Worth noting: Ken Russell. And Oliver Reed. And Keith Moon – all on the same movie set, a recipe for utter mayhem! John PattersonFrom the 1961 film of West Side Story. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature
Filmed in a New York City neighbourhood that no longer exists, and centred on racial tensions made quaint just a few years later by the civil rights movement, West Side Story ought to be an adorable relic. It asks us to believe that street gangs might dance ballet, that a fire escape could host a romantic moonlit tryst, that Natalie Wood with a tan passes as Puerto Rican. It embraces gooey ideas of love at first sight and retells Romeo & Juliet while backing down on the famous, bloody ending.
But West Side Story still feels more modern than any of the other Oscar-winning musicals of the 60s or, really, most of the others that have come since. From the orchestral overture over an abstracted New York City to the pop of Maria's red dress in the final scene on the playground, West Side Story embraces its leap to cinema as boldly as the Jets doing a tour jeté. Every musical uses its songs to express big feelings, but few go bigger than West Side Story, which embraces the passions of youth to make an epic out of a pointless turf war and a new love that gets tragically caught in the middle.