Sweet Charity (1969)

This entry was originally written for The Black List as part of their “Essential Musicals” series. See here.

No director had a greater influence on ’70s musicals than Bob Fosse. When people think of Fosse they immediately picture Sally Bowles perched on a wooden chair with a bowler hat, showing off her long legs and her even longer lashes. But few, however, think of Shirley MacLaine dancing on a rooftop to the tune of “There’s Gotta Be Somewhere Better Than This.” All of which is a shame because this number, from his directorial debut Sweet Charity is an absolutely blissful slice of movie magic. And the film itself is one of the most underrated musicals you’re likely to see — worthy to be thought of alongside Fosse’s other musical masterpieces, Cabaret and All That Jazz.

Sweet Charity is an adaption of the stage musical of the same name — a show based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 masterwork Nights of Cabiria. Admittedly it’s an unusual premise for a musical. But, then again, many great musicals are based on things that seem to be — at least at first — a little unusual. (A hip hop musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, anyone?) Still, Sweet Charity is one of the most pleasurable musicals ever made. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s joyous, and it’s completely and utterly charming. And, on top of all that, it boasts a fantastic performance by the wondrous Shirley MacLaine as Charity, a ridiculously adorable dancer-for-hire who’s looking for nothing more than a little love and affection.

Every minute Charity is on screen, the film glistens. And MacLaine’s smile is one of the most infectious in all of cinema. (I dare you not to smile back at least once during this film. I double dare you.) Fosse is at the top of his game here, too — using practically every cinematic tool at his disposal to make a two and a half hour-long film feel as brisk as one of his own dance routines. Rarely has a first-time director exploded onto the scene with such vivre and panache. And rarely has a musical felt this fresh and alive. The cinematography, editing and choreography are all thrillingly experimental and give the film a truly exciting cinematic charm. For proof of this, check out the gorgeously composed Swinging Sixties number “Rich Man’s Frug.” It’s about as inventive as anything Busby Berkeley choreographed at the height of his career.

Sweet Charity deserves a wider audience. It deserves a wider acclaim. And it deserves to be in your life. So if you’re interested in Fosse — or just interested in musicals period — then I urge you to seek it out.

Go on… Be generous to yourself. A little Charity can go a long way.

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