by Dennis Polifroni
(U.S.A. 1986 94mins) DVD
Downtown. Where your life’s a joke.
p. David Geffen d. Frank Oz w. Howard Ashman lyrics. Howard Ashmanm. Alan Menken score. Miles Goodman p. Robert Paynter e. John Jympsen art. Steve Spence, Roy Walker
Rick Moranis (Seymour Krelborne), Ellen Green (Audrey), Vincent Gardenia (Mr. Mushnik), Steve Martin (Orin Scrivello, DDS), Tichina Arnold (Ronette), Michelle Weeks (Shirelle),Tisha Campbell (Crystal), Jim Belushi (Patrick Martin), Christopher Guest (Florist Customer), Miriam Margoyles (Nurse), Bill Murray (Arthur Denton), John Candy (Wink Wilkenson),Levi Stubbs (voice of Audrey II)
It’s really hard to believe that prior to THE LITTLE MERMAID anyone knew who the hell Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were. Starting with that little gem based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, this duo song-writing team took home six consecutive Oscars in the categories of Best Original Song and Music Score for their work on three back-to-back Disney animated films (THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN) and, in one glorious foul swoop, made themselves a household name. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, basically, ushered in a whole new interest in the film musical and reminded everyone seeing these films what a Broadway show was like without ever having to step foot near Times Square. They borrowed from many (in the case of BEAST it was Busby Berkeley) and turned what they liked so much about popular music into their own. Big band jazz (ALADDIN), Karen Carpenter (THE LITTLE MERMAID) and hints of Max Steiner (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) were all evident in their work and it had viewers from around the world not only embracing every phrase, flourish and lyric, but loving the familiarity they brought to each song. Surely, this was a matter of two guys just being in the right place at the right time and giving it everything they got to a company desperate to regain the old glories of the 30’s and 40’s that happened with films like PINOCCHIO, BAMBI and SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. Two true originals were busting out into the sun-light and two newbies in the music world were born.
Not on your life…
The facts unseen were that Ashman and Menken were not, at all, virgins to the territories of film and stage music. While it’s true they had struggled for years to be heard and appreciated, they DID have earlier success and it just wasn’t on the stage or the screen, it was…
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken had met in New York City years earlier and became fast friends and partners in music. Both sharing a love for the classic stage musicals that they grew up with they began a collaboration that culminated in the mild Broadway hit, based on Kurt Vonneguts insane novel, GOD BLESS YOU MR. ROSEWATER. Noting that most of the good reviews for ROSEWATER mentioned that the team made good on a bizarre source they decided that they would see if lightning could strike twice. With his love for bad B-movie matinees when he was a child, Ashman turned Menken on to Roger Corman’s shoe-string budgeted horror/comedy THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and the two saw potential for what is still considered the most bizarre success the musical stage has ever seen.
Cormans film, a little black and white quickie that, literally, looks like it was made for $1.99 with the presence of a coupon relayed the story of a bunch of losers in down-town Manhattan and the mysterious man-eating plant that would change their lives and bring them fianacial success for the price of a few dead bodies. It was crude, rude and terribly made and the duo saw an opportunity to take something that almost nobody remembered and breathe a splash of musical audacity into it and make it their own. The results? It worked. The bizarre little musical premiered Off-Broadway in 1982 and Ashman received the Drama Desk Award that same year. Lines formed around the block of the Orpheum Theatre and buzz around the city likened the play to something that needed to be seen to be believed.
What is truly amazing about the film version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is that none of its stage origins get lost on film. Made in the studios of the Warner Bros. lots in both California and England, it retains the intimacy that made the play such a rousing success. The story plays like the arguments heard from the windows of closely situated tenement buildings and you almost feel a little uneasy as it seems like your eavesdropping on someone else’s private conversations. The plot is now legendary. Seymour Krelborn is a schmuck working and living in the Mushnick flower shop. An orphan as a child, Seymour was taken in by the old Jewish florist and “given shelter, a bed, crust of bread and job” and, basically, held hostage for the rest of his life as slave labor. He longs to get out and away from the city and follow his dreams. However, as he knows nothing else but plants and tending to them, and because he’s paralyzingly smitten with the shops only female employee, a ditzy, blond-headed slut with a voice so dainty you’d think that Jerry the mouse walked in behind her and placed an order, the poor guy is stuck. At least until a big break comes along and whisks him and his fantasy girl out of the gutter and into his dream world of white picket fences and conservative suburban life of the early 1960’s.
ENTER: A TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SUN
The villian of the piece is the supposed big break of Seymour’s unchallenged title for most wasted life in the world. It comes to the poor slob in the guise of a peculiar bulb that Seymour happens upon while walking through the flower district of Chinatown (uh, by the way, there is NO flower district in Chinatown, at least there is none now or I’ve never been able to find it in the thousands of times I walked through it. Give Menken and Ashman the credit for this made up detail) during a moment when the sun is blotted out by an early moon. Supernatural, or should I say ALIEN, forces go to work in those few minutes and what looks like a peculiar plant really has its roots in places of origin for the likes of little green men from outer space and Regan MacNeil from THE EXORCIST. The little bulb grows (well, it grows after being baptised with the red drops of blood seeping out of Seymours hand after he accidentally cuts himself) and suddenly all of New York City is fascinated by this strange little plant that seems to get bigger and more bizarre looking every day. Seymour gets thinner and more pale as he’s reduced to squeezing pint after pint of plasma from his fingers when he realizes the best food for this plant cannot be found at Home Depot in the gardening section. Several days later when the plant, now named Audrey II and has grown so big it can barely be contained in the shop, taps Seymour on the shoulder and reveals it can speak, the insidious plot of this gargantuan is layed out. Success of any imagining is Seymours for the taking. The plants price? Bring Audrey II the bodies of the freshly killed for consumption.
Frank Oz, a former puppeteer for Jim Henson and the voice of dozens of characters seen on the long running kids TV show SESAME STREET was just the right guy to take the films directing chair. With an acute knowledge of how to balance big musical numbers with a live-action cast and state-of-the-art special effects and infusing his own gritty sensabilities into the fabric of the already gritty story (after all, he knew something of the streets as SESAME STREET also took place on a down-town New York City corner populated by the bizarre), the film retains every confined nuance and gesture of the play. Oz opens up the the first, second and third wall but never allows us to believe that we’re ever anyplace other than the Orpheum theatre back in the beginning of the decade that birthed the stage sensation. There is a gritty feel to the streets and the details of city life are brought magnificently to the foreground by top-notch set and production design. It’s New York City of the 1960’s but not really. It’s more like New York City of the 1960’s on the stage and dirtied up even more. What it really is is the bottom of the barrel in a fevered dream in what we think is the city. Here, anything is possible and as Seymour and Audrey sing about the boundaries of a world like this we get the feeling that something magical will really get to them and free them of their bonds. What they, and we, aren’t expecting is that their freedom will come in the green-thorned coils of a monster unlike anything seen (or heard of) in movie musical history.
Now, like every truly great lark of a musical, the music is paralleled with biting and observing humor. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN had its plot cemented in the bizarro stories of the birth of talkies to the motion picture industry, GREASE used the cool lingo of teenagers circa the late 1950’s and made comical use of the it’s slickness and, here, with LITTLE SHOP, the duo of Ashman and Menken liven the musical elements with humor based on sadomasachism, over-the-top ethnic character refrences and back-street homocide. Jules Dassin could have overseen this production or directed it and it wouldn’t have come out any different.
I recently had the good fortune of meeting one of WONDERS IN THE DARK’s supreme authors and bloggers last night at an evening showing of Godard’s BAND OF OUTSIDERS at the Film Forum movie house in the West Village of New York City (I was also joined by Sam Juliano and Joel Bocko). Bob Clark revealed himself a delightful and supremely knowledgable personality whose interests could steer any conversation in any one of a million directions. When telling him about my assignment for writing this review he quickly jumped in and said that he believed that LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS should be looked at as the base film that revitalized the current fascination movie audiences have with screen musicals and that no two people in movies are more responsible for this revitalization than Menken and Ashman. He also firmly stated that the renaissance that Disney Animation grabbed in the late 1980’s and rode almost into the year 2000 would have continued even longer had the duo not been lost due to Ashman’s untimely death from complications brought on by AIDS in 1990. He believes they fueled the productions of the best films of that period for Disney and that their well of musical inspiration was only emmerging at the time of Ashman’s death. In this sentiment and theory, I really cannot argue. Looking at LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS again you can see the kind of staging and esthetic that films like CHICAGO and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA are borrowing from and paying homage to. As for the statement on Ashman and Menken, I think Bob was right on the money as well. Not since Disney had hit on songs like WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR in PINOCCHIO or the song-book written by the Sherman brothers for MARY POPPINS has the stage or the screen seen talent in song-writing like this.
But, I believe it goes further…
Listening to the songs in LITTLE SHOP, you can see a fusing of influences from the past invading the contemporary lyrics of the piece. Tina Turner, The Shirelles, Ronnie Spector and The Crystals all become jumping off points for the writing duo and I find it totally inspired, interesting and just damn neat that LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is really an original musical that takes Phil Spector’s WALL OF SOUND and stands it upside-down. It’s as if Ashman and Menken were saying thank you to those groups, singers and Spector himself for all the joy they brought to the airwaves and to them. My favorite moment, musically, in the film, is the tinkling of a piano, almost like a tinny Ragtime silent movie theatre accompanyment, that seques into the booming, almost gospel-fused Aretha Frankin-like delivery of an old woman walking through a rat infested alley on her way home from a long days work in the house of an up-town wealthy that probably doesn’t pay her enough for her efforts…
Alarm goes off at seven,
and you start up-towooooooooown.
You put in your eight hours
for the powers that have always been.
Till it’s five P eeeeeeee eeeeeemmmmmm…
From that moment, the screen comes to life with every dreg of society crawling out of the corners and shops of a dingy down-town neighborhood and them all, in song, lament about the troubles that plague them. But, rather than following along with the Ragtime opening that introduces the song, the number transforms itself into a full blown parody of The Crystals UPTOWN (here, entitled, DOWNTOWN), and it becomes a live action illustration of the invironment that the hero of the piece is doomed to stay in until his big break comes along. It’s a moment like this that reminds me, distinctly, of moments that start one way and end another, in films like SINGING IN THE RAIN (I’m immediately reminded of the flashback as Don Lockwood recalls his humble beginnings with Cosmo and the whole somber moment reveals itself in a fit of joyous splendor that becomes the breathtaking FIT AS A FIDDLE, complete with over-the-top acrobats in the tap dancing as both stars play violins at the same time).
Visually, the film is a stunner with Frank Oz guiding Robert Paynter’s camera in places you’d never think a cinematographer can go. I remember laughing out loud the moment the camera focuses on Steve Martin’s maniacal dentist from the inside of one of his patients mouths as he gets ready to drill the shit out of some poor elementary school kids mouth without Novacaine. It’s a detail that most directors wouldn’t take the time out to invest in but adds a much needed shot of adrenaline to a film that could have been lost in the mundane without it. Refrences are not just found in the music but in the look of the film as well. Shades of the setting sun during Scarlett O’Hara’s famous “I’ll never go hungry again” speech are seen during the big finale of the SUDDENLY, SEYMOUR number that bonds the hero to the heroine and the use of back projection photography behind Steve Martin and he motor-cycles to work are straight out of the MARIA number from Robbins and Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY.
Finally, though, it’s the cast of the film that brings everything perfectly knitted together. Calling in favors for work that he provided to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE during it’s fledgling first season, Oz caught the loyalty of many an SNL and SCTV performer. Rick Moranis has the role of his career as the nerdy hero of the piece, Seymour. His curly hair, ugly facial attributes and thick glasses hide a smoldering desire just busting to get out. John Candy is achingly funny as Wink Wilkenson, the duck-assed hair-do’d radio shock jock that scares an interview from Seymour about his WEIRRRRRRRRRD plant, and Bill Murray practically steals the show as a dental patient whose love for pain masks the homosexual turn-on it brings him (his moments with Steve Martin are so funny you’ll find yourself gasping for breath. Fuck GROUNDHOG DAY, this turn and his performance in RUSHMORE are what I’ll remember Murray for).
But, if the film is remembered for any of its performances then there are two that stand taller than the rest.
Ellen Greene, who brought her performance from the stage to the screen is an utter delight as Audrey. Her perfect hourglass frame and gigantic bosom are packed into the skimpiest of dresses, she’s a total sex bomb, and betraying what one would think would be a breathless whisper of a sensual voice is replaced by one of the funniest running gags in the film that is a peeping reminiscent of someone stepping on a squeeking mouse. However, Greene didn’t just get the role for being funny because when it comes to singing she’s a veritable powerhouse of high and low octaves that could shatter glass on either register. Her solo number, SOMEWHERE THAT’S GREEN shows off so much vocal range that it reminds us that Barbra Streisand isn’t the only one that could make short shrift of a musical role reliant on overcoming a heavy New York accent (I’m referring to her Oscar Winning portrayal of Fanny Brice in FUNNY GIRL).
However, if the film belongs to one performer that is SEEN (I’ll ge to the one that isn’t in a moment) on screen, then the movie belongs to Steve Martin. For a long time an untapped performance virtuoso, Martin is FINALLY allowed to do everything he is truly good at and all with one character. As Orin Schrivello, DDS, Martin relishes the chance to show off his supreme vocal skills while effortlessly whizzing through some pretty tough dance choreography. He’s gotta dance but make it look like he’s ripping through his dental office the way a busy doctor would and all the while inflicting pain on his patients and anyone that steps in his way. Watch carefully as he enters the waiting room. He removes his jacket, hangs it on the coat rack, punches out his receptionist by accident and then, during a vocal flourish relishing in his penchant for pain, twists off the head of a little girls doll as he exits the room and all of this is done within the space of 30 seconds. In a lesser talented actor or comedians hands (and Martin is a supreme actor and comedian) this number would come off as an embarrassment of bad taste, but Matin sells it the moment he glares at the audience over the handlebars of his Harley.
WHAT ABOUT THE VILLIAN, DENNIS???
Well, I was getting to that when I mentioned performances SEEN on screen. Now for the one NOT SEEN on screen…
Holding together a movie about something that could never happen and making that thing a major character of the film kudos has to go to the special effects team that brings Audrey II to life. Seemlessly, this wonder of puppetry and mechanics is blended into the frame with the main players and it’s got personality to spare with every glare and movement it makes. The two main petals that make up her bulbous mouth move exactly the way a human mouth does and in her vocal and singing moments we can see every syllable formed and every lyric sung. But, the illusion of life would go for nothing unless Audrey II had a voice and it was a stroke of both genius and luck that Oz coaxed Motown’s FOUR TOPS lead vocalist, Levi Stubbs to take on the words of the “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space”. His booming bass voice shakes the house when speaking to Seymour and, literally, shakes the house down to the ground when he’s singing for his dinner. It’s a bold, hard, mean, and sometimes seductively hypnotic voice performance that brings the unbelievable to believable life. Having a major vocal star like Stubbs in the recording studio, one can believe that he inspired the rest of the singing cast (including the films on-screen Greek Chorus, three street tuffs named Chiffon, Shirelle and Crystal) to even greater heights.
To me, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is that rare film that works like the best musicals of the heyday of musicals. Like SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933, ON THE TOWN and TOP HAT, it effortlessly threads its music within the fabric of great comic story-telling and comes out a full bodied movie/music experience. I saw LITTLE SHOP when it first came out and I remember walking into a local home-town bar afterwards with the friend I just saw it with and having people laughing at us from behind their beer mugs at the idea of two college kids singing the praises of a movie about a singing man-eating plant. The funny thing was, most of those same naysayers saw the film a few month later on illeagal cable piped into that same bar and all of them were apologetic to me and my buddy after they saw what we had been talking about.
Sometimes amazing things come in really bizarre packages.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of and the music created by Howard Ashman (1950-1991).
God has another Angel up there making heavenly music for him.
How ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ made the Elite 70:
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 28 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 53 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 56 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 61 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 61 choice