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A look inside Hollywood and the movies : Will 'Anything' Go Over? : What a concept--Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks sing the music of Prince and Sinead O'Connor, and emote too

August 08, 1993|JEFFREY WELLS

After Labor Day, Hollywood begins to release its more serious, high-quality films and there are always one or two that seem riskier than the rest.

This year's standout in that category, according to industry pulse-takers, is "I'll Do Anything," writer-director James L. Brooks' $40-million musical comedy-drama about a group of Angst -ridden Angelenos (Nick Nolte, Albert Brooks, Joely Richardson, Julie Kavner) muddling through personal and professional entanglements in the film industry. The Columbia Pictures release is slated to open in December.

There is a certain excitement about "I'll Do Anything" because of its daring scheme--actors not known for their singing and dancing talents carrying what's been described as a manic-depressive musical, scored by pop songwriters Prince, Sinead O'Connor and Carole King. And several industry executives have voiced confidence that Brooks, whose efforts include the Oscar-winning "Terms of Endearment" as well as the much-admired "Broadcast News," will prevail with this latest effort, which he's now editing.

"Brooks has done wonders before in the editing room; you should never count him out," says producer Neil Meron (the upcoming CBS production of "Gypsy" with Bette Midler). Disney-based producer Roger Birnbaum, who relates that "cost" was the only reason that 20th Century Fox declined to produce "I'll Do Anything" while he and partner Joe Roth were running the studio, says, "Jim Brooks is as good as it gets . . . he always realizes his vision."

Still, there are rumblings, not so much about "I'll Do Anything" specifically as about the commercial viability of movie musicals. The form has survived mainly through animated Disney features like "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast." Meanwhile, the traditional, break-into-song musical with live actors (which "I'll Do Anything" is) has been nearly written off as a commercial genre. (While last year's "Sarafina!" had its admirers and the 1986 "The Little Shop of Horrors" found some acclaim, the last real commercial success was 1982's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and the last musical bonanza was "Grease" in 1978.)

"If a good movie musical had been made and failed, that would be one thing," adds Meron. "But I really don't think that a good one has been made in too long a time, and that's the whole problem."

So are audiences prepared for "I'll Do Anything"? Recent buzz about how crowds are reacting to the "I'll Do Anything" teaser trailer, which has been playing in theaters since July 9, hints at some resistance to a song-and-dance movie. Random observers have reported that while audiences seem to enjoy the first two-thirds of the teaser, which are made up of comic excerpts featuring Nolte, Brooks and other cast members, they seem taken aback when it suddenly switches to clips of performers--not the stars--singing and dancing.

If the trailer reflects an ambivalence about how to sell the film, it's because it is a peculiarly modern musical that doesn't use the simple, classical story that has been a staple of past musicals, says longtime Brooks associate and "I'll Do Anything" producer Polly Platt. "We're all undecided about how the music can best work because the script is so realistic, the characters so particular to Hollywood," she adds.

The basic plot involves an unemployed actor (Nolte) who suddenly becomes a full-time parent to his estranged daughter (Whittni Wright) while getting involved professionally with a Joel Silver-ish action-movie producer (Albert Brooks) and romantically with a development executive (Joely Richardson). Julie Kavner is a test-screening researcher who falls into a frustrating affair with Brooks.

"Maybe we shouldn't promote it as a musical, we've thought," Platt says. "It's highly unlike anyone's expectations of what a musical should look like. Jim has always wanted to make this film but he never thought he could do this movie about Hollywood, successfully, without making it a musical. I think that (he) felt he couldn't capture the romance, the bravura, the inanity and the brilliance of this town without reaching up to another level. He knows how audacious this is. We're hanging out there."

The idea behind the songs is "to get the characters to say things in song that, in dialogue, they would never say," Platt explains.

The word-of-mouth about "I'll Do Anything" has included positive comments, including one from a person who recently viewed a rough cut of the film. "It's actually really well done," he says. "Brooks knows exactly what he's doing. (Albert) Brooks is great, the songs are great, Twyla Tharp's choreography is great. It's really well-crafted."

As Neil Meron observes, "Musicals are uncharted territory. It's not surprising that audiences are wary of them."

Such views suggest that beyond editing his film down to a length of roughly 135 minutes, Brooks' main hurdle is to overcome audience preconceptions. Platt says that a series of research screenings will begin later this month, which will offer Brooks and editor Richard Marx the opportunity to fine-tune the integration of musical and non-musical elements.

"It is so difficult to find the right balance between the musical numbers and the dialogue," says director Peter Bogdanovich, whose 1975 Cole Porter musical "At Long Last Love" failed at the box office. (Bogdanovich and Platt were married during the '60s and are former producing partners.)

The two biggest mistakes he made on "At Long Last Love," Bogdanovich says, "were not previewing the film enough--there's so much to figure out with a musical--and turning down Gene Kelly when he asked if I needed any help."

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