It's the "Musical of the Month"!
One of the funniest sequences in Frank Oz's adaptation of the Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors is the introduction of the villain, Audrey II. At first Audrey II, a "strange and unusual plant" seems like a godsend for a struggling flower shop down on Skid Row. Tarty but kind Audrey (Ellen Greene) and mousy Seymour (Rick Moranis) have convinced their boss Mr Mutchnik (2-time Oscar nominee Vincent Gardenia) to display Audrey II in the window to drum up business. Immediately, to Mutchnik's disbelief, the pathetic trio are deluged with eager customers. The jokes fly fast, both visually and aurally, as huge handfuls of flowers are tossed about and overly expository dialogue is continually repeated in doorways, over registers and through windows.
Director Frank Oz was an inspired if obvious choice for transferring Little Shop from its stage pot into the larger garden of cinema with roots intact. The Audrey II would have to be a massive puppet villain and he knew from felt and foam. He provided the unforgettable voices of both Miss Piggy and Yoda and had previously directed the eye-popping puppet spectacle The Dark Crystal (1982). His filmography is wildly uneven but Little Shop proved the true jewel in his resume. It was, like the Audrey II, a strange and unusual movie for its time.
It's not really up for debate: the 1980s Musicals were Skid Row. The genre was the most undesirable of movie zip codes.
Movie musicals were rare, and when they did arrive they were ill attended and relatively uninspired. Eventually filmmakers moved away. Maybe it was an unavoidable collapse, what with Bob Fosse's 70s masterpieces (Cabaret and All That Jazz) casting 'Can't top this!' shadows and MTV shrinking the taste for musical narratives into bite sized portions. Gentrification of the musical genre would start with the animated blockbusters of the 90s. Live-action musical would follow finally kicking up their heels again at the turn of the millenium. This is why I still cherish Little Shop of Horrors (1986). In the mid-80s it was rather like the Audrey II (prior to all the icky flesh eating!). For musical aficionados it was a strange and unusual sight but very welcome indeed.
I've always been fascinated with the decision making process involved in stage to screen transfers. Many movies based on plays are notoriously nervous about appearing "stagy". Little Shop of Horrors mostly avoids this awkwardness and seems delighted to be an odd hybrid of both traditions. The movie version never tries to present reality. The sets come with painted backdrops; pouring rain never once douses the trio of narrators (doo wop girls as Greek chorus = endlessly amusing) -- but it also takes obvious care to honor the "motion" in pictures. The camera is always moving, restlessly trying out new angles and there is a nifty depth of field to the production, even within small rooms. Little Shop acknowledges the diorama views provided by stage shows, but your eye is continually moving around and inside the prosceniums: up and down staircases, peeping through smudged windows and traveling through doorways. Frank Oz is taking you into every nook and cranny of Skid Row.
But the single most brilliant decision made in transfer was the retention of Ellen Greene for "Audrey" the role she created.
Most movie musicals jettison their original stars, occasionally to their benefit (not all stage performers can kindle the same fire onscreen), but often to their detriment (the size of stardom superseding all else including vocal technique and general rightness for a role). Little Shop of Horrors provides us with the rare opportunity of seeing a star-making stage turn transferred in full with none of its magic diminished.
Greene's Audrey is a risky and unmovie-like creation (it's easy to imagine the same thing on stage -- which usually isn't a compliment), but her confidence and creativity are stunning. She so thoroughly owns the role that the performance transcends its origins. She'd performed Audrey hundreds of times but it's still vital and alive. She's Seymour's heart and the heart of the movie. To keep the blood of this production pumping she's got to swallow huge amounts of air. The oxygen only escapes her again in huge blasts, barely audible squeaks or quiet pockets of breathy tenderness. Greene's voice is a marvel both in song and spoken word. And so's her look: that impossible silhouette, round cartoon breasts, helmet hair, and tiny frame were surely visible from the back row in the theater and so, undoubtedly, was the performance. Yet for all of that she's still endearing in closeup.
I'd go so far as to nominate Ellen Greene for Best Actress for 1986. At the Oscars that year the nominee pool was a famously two-horse race (documented here before) between Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (working the disability hook that Oscar is often moved by), and Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married who was inhabiting the more hit-n-miss terrain of the 'huge movie star whose time has (supposedly) come'. Here's a comparison chart:
I haven't seen any of these films recently, save Little Shop, so my nominees are subject to change (Farrow would be the first to drop but... for whom? Melanie Griffith in Something Wild? Jessica Lange in Crimes of the Heart? One of Oscar's choices?), but this is how I'm calling it today with Little Shop's soundtrack playing in my head. Forget "Somewhere That's Green", Ellen Greene was robbed of Something That's Gold in 1986. Marvel at this injustice: she wasn't even up for a Golden Globe for Comedy or Musical performance! Awards bodies were channeling her sadistic dentist boyfriend that year, weren't they? There weren't enough kindhearted Seymour's standing beside her.
Blogosphere of Horrors (MotM Participants)
Mondo Musicals has written about this movie extensively. It shows. His new piece is about the altered ending and the details surrounding it's release.
Warner Bros intended the film for the audience least likely to appreciate its genre-bending sensibility. For Little Shop was marketed not as a Halloween treat...but as a family-friendly Christmas picture.Much Ado About Nothing on that great Greek Chorus
Movies Kick Ass Jose let's a train of thought carry him all sorts of places
Criticlasm remembers his first time with the movie and revisits to see if it remains as loveable
StinkyBits on his favorite bits and the most troubling one
...the plant becomes ever more like a manifestation of the vagina dentata, albeit with the voice of an urban black man. Two great castration anxiety tropes squished together in one giant puppet.Monday morning, we'll round up the possibilities for October's Musical of the Month and reveal November's too!