Busby Berkeley’s Enduring Influence:
Five Berkeley-Style Numbers in Contemporary Film
Busby Berkeley is not just not just a pioneer and an icon, he is a highly evocative verb. The mere mention of a “Busby Berkeley number,” conjures images of row upon row of impeccable dancers, lavishly dressed and impressively arranged, creating something larger than themselves. Berkeley not only perfected but invented many of the dance hallmarks of big musical sequences, like the top shot, dancers making geometric shapes, and refracting an image to appear infinite. His whole approach to dance and choreography was specifically crafted for, and in fact only able to exist in, film. In 1971 the French television program Cineastes of our Time did an insightful episode about Berkeley in which he discusses his life and work. This rare documentary on one of the greatest artists of the 20th century will be screening as part of the Dance on Camera Festival’s lineup, and features some of Berkeley’s most astounding numbers.
Many films over the years, musicals and otherwise, have paid tribute to Berkeley’s distinctive style; here is a sampling for your viewing pleasure:
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Be Our Guest)
Arguably the biggest showstopper of Disney’s 1994 treatment of the classic fairy tale, the spectacular and memorable “Be Our Guest” number features practically all of the techniques employed by Berkeley in his musical comedies. As a teapot, candlestick, and clock welcome Belle to the house of the Beast with a lively song, other household items dance and swirl around them like so many chorus girls, forming geometric shapes filmed from above, rising onto multilayered platforms, and breaking into refracted copies of themselves. Of course, they had the benefit of being animated.
INDIAN JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (Anything Goes)
Often described as the weakest link in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones franchise, the opening of Temple of Doom is nonetheless a delicious feat of Berkeley homage, immediately setting the film’s grandiose yet campy tone. A showgirl in a Hong Kong nightclub sings “Anything Goes,” supported by the soaring harmony and sparkling sequins of numerous chorus girls. The scene even captures Berkeley’s fearless ability to transport the audience to an entirely different space within one number via a moment in which Kate Capshaw (Spielberg’s real-life wife) disappears into a red mist, emerging into a wide-shot tap dancing formation, glitter raining down as the camera pulls back through a series of high kicks.
THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER (Miss Piggy’s Fantasy)
No one understands the value of meticulously choreographed excess like Miss Piggy; so of course her ultimate show biz fantasy is starring in an elaborate synchronized swimming number in the style of “By a Waterfall,” in Footlight Parade (Berkeley created and directed the film’s musical numbers). Miss Piggy’s version begins with a fashion show, a classic Berkeley-era trope, before whisking her away to a giant pool full of her very own dancing, swimming chorus girls. Particularly appropriate for the homage are the camera’s dynamic pans across the pool and gliding zoom-outs, as well as cutaways from the whole dance to Miss Piggy, close-up, mugging for the underwater camera.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Gutterballs)
The Dude experiences some “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” (a la the Magnetic Fields song), complete with movie credits, in the form of a musical-within-the-film entitled “Gutterballs.” In this trippy, saucy take on the Berkeley number, Jeff Bridges’ character glides through a bowling-themed fantasy, descending a long stairway towards dancers in head gear consisting of fanned-out bowling pins that recall Ziegfield’s famous feathered headdresses. As he arrives the dancers create a formation around him, filmed in a top shot, rotating and pulling the headdresses in and out to create the pulsating motion so typical of a Berkeley arrangement.
ANNIE (Let’s Go To The Movies)
In the 1981 film version of the beloved family musical Annie, a trip to the movie theater becomes a lesson in Berkeley. Even Annie’s dog stands agog as the long column of theater ushers guide her into a dynamic movie that happens to feature the familiar synchronized leg tapping and kicking, pans and close-ups of dancers on a mirrored, multi-level stage, and even an oversized, neon camera with a tableau of dancers contained within, another trick of the visually playful Berkeley. This sequence is a particularly wonderful tribute because it not only mimics his style, but exalts in the magic of cinema, his chosen medium. Mr. Berkeley would undoubtedly approve.
By Farihah Zaman