Why Paul Thomas Anderson should make a musical (and how he kind of already has)

Musicals tell their stories with sweeping camerawork, song, dance, and big emotions.  They are the height of melodrama, and after five films and several television and music video stints it’s surprising to me that director Paul Thomas Anderson has never made one.

Often referred to as a “self-taught” or “VCR” filmmaker, Anderson learned all he needed about the craft from watching the films themselves.   Everyone talks about his Scorsese-style camerawork and his Altman-esque proclivity towards ensemble casts, but rarely do you hear mention of what I believe is his most obvious influence: the musical.  That Scorsese camerawork is there for sure, but Anderson’s is even bigger.  It draws more attention to itself.   And those Altman-sized casts are always inches away from breaking into song and dance!  Anderson resists the urge to let it loose, but it sneaks out here and there.

Even more than technical similarity, it’s really Anderson’s use of  music that signals his genre proclivities.  He almost always puts music in the foreground.  Boogie Nights thrives on its period disco soundtrack, right up until the pivotal Alfred Molina drug deal scene, when Rick Springfield and Night Ranger take over.  Magnolia is driven by the music of Aimee Mann, in some cases quoting her directly.

Then there’s Punch-Drunk Love and There Will be Blood, both of which use music as a direct outward expression of their protagonists’ inner being.  There is, for example, the scene in Punch-Drunk Love in which Barry Egan’s sister stomps towards him to a pot-and-pan-banging soundtrack beefed up with an almost tribal drumbeat, both of which emphasize her anger.  When Barry calls up a phone sex hotline the soundtrack whispers and purrs along with the operator.  Not to mention the inclusion of Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me,” lifted directly from the soundtrack of Robert Altman’s Popeye, which happens to be a musical!

Even the great oil epic There Will be Blood opens musically with one chilling, minor note signaling the madness to come.  And its burning oil derrick scene is accompanied by a mad looping of clangs, pops, whirs and bangs.

All of these films contain signs that Anderson is right on the cusp of releasing his inner Busby Berkeley, but those signs are never more blatant than they are in his video for Fiona Apple’s “Paper Bag,” which serves to demonstrate how naturally the genre comes to him.  How, if he could just cut loose, those precise long takes of his could easily become sweeping, epic camera moves, the kind that dance right along with the actors.

Get a load of that camera work!  See any similarities?

I recently learned that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, tentatively titled The Master, has been delayed indefinitely.  It may be a sign.  Now’s your chance, Paul!  Let loose!  Go forth and make that musical you’ve been hinting at for years!

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