Gilbey on Film: We need to talk about Kermit

A triumphant cinematic return for the Muppets.

A triumphant cinematic return for the Muppets.

Aside from nostalgia, the primary responses to the generally encouraging quality of the new Muppets picture have been surprise and relief. But why?No other series with the exception of the Carry On films has maintained a comparably high standard over such a long period of time.

There may have been a slight falling-off in the late 1990s with Muppets from Space, and I can't vouch for the occasional TV films (such as a Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz), which I haven't seen. But elsewhere the various filmmakers and brand custodians over the years have been responsible for inventive entertainment that is never shy of breaking the fourth wall. Until The Muppet Movie in 1979, the customary route for TV shows transferring to cinema had been to spin out a typical 30-minute episode to triple the length, with little regard for the demands and contours of the larger medium. But the Muppets' movie outings justify themselves fully as pieces of cinema, building their gags and narratives around our familiarity with the form.

The new picture is called, simply and cleanly, The Muppets -- thank goodness the makers of this "reboot" didn't go for Muppets Begin or Muppets: Fully Loaded. The songs by Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie are suitably infectious, if not quite equal to the earworms composed for The Muppet Movie and Muppet Christmas Carol by the Bugsy Malone songwriter Paul Williams.

The rudimentary getting-the-gang-back-together plot begins with Walter, a Muppet, seeing The Muppet Show on television and finally discovering what makes him different from his (human) best friend (played by Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script). It's a coming-out story in essence -- a metaphor for realising that you are not alone in the world after all -- but the movie doesn't labour that point. Instead it sticks to the Muppet films' overarching commandment: Thou shalt not waste any opportunity to remind the audience it is watching a movie. So the road-trip which forms a large chunk of the picture is completed more quickly when the characters opt to travel "by map" (remember the red line inching across the page of an atlas in the Indiana Jones series?), while someone suggests that the lengthy recruitment of all the old Muppets back into the fold might be experienced more enjoyably in montage form.

This self-reflexiveness has long been the way of the Muppets. Remember The Great Muppet Caper from 1982? No, of course you don't: that's why I'm here, to remember it for you. There's a whole production number outlining the characters that the Muppets will be playing in the film we're about to see, and lots of dotty dialogue spoofing storytelling conventions. ("Why are you telling me this?" Miss Piggy asks after a particularly clunky speech by her another character. "It's exposition," comes the reply. "It's got to go somewhere.")

The Muppet Movie even begins with the cast gathering in a private screening room to watch The Muppet Movie. (At one point, the print burns up, Persona-style.) When the musicians from the Electric Mayhem catch up with Kermit and Fozzie in the desert, they are able to do so only because Kermit had given them a copy of the screenplay earlier in the film -- all they had to do was flick forward to page 57 ("Exterior. Desert. Night"). The adventure leads to Hollywood, where a studio head (played by Orson Welles -- who else?) asks his secretary to prepare "the standard 'rich and famous' contract" for the assorted felt animals who have crowded into his office. The Muppet Movie ends with the Muppets beginning work on The Muppet Movie -- the film we are watching. Far from being self-indulgent, the device works magically to draw the cinema audience closer.

Such playfulness has its echo throughout the NBC sitcom-about-nothing Seinfeld, and especially in Season 4, which is devoted to Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and George (Jason Alexander) trying to get their sitcom-about-nothing made at NBC. (Some of the story ideas they pitch are lifted from earlier episodes of the show.) It's there too in the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly Synecdoche, New York (about a playwright mounting a scale version of his own life) and Adaptation, which stars Nicolas Cage as Kaufman and shows fictionalised scenes from the set of the writer's previous film, Being John Malkovich. Bravely, the film itself also turns into the same artistically compromised screenplay that Kaufman is shown writing -- a point missed by those critics who complained that the movie sold out in its final stretch.

The Muppets is a good example of the tradition of TV-oriented comic reboots which includes The Brady Bunch Movie, Starsky and Hutch and the forthcoming 21 Jump Street; it also has a slight head-start over those titles because its irreverence is already deep in its DNA. (It may be a reboot but it isn't a makeover.) I wonder where the series could go next; the excellent Muppet Christmas Carol, an affectionate and faithful adaptation of Dickens, and the almost-as-good Muppet Treasure Island, suggested that the form was particularly well-suited to adapting other texts. Glancing at my own bookshelves for ideas doesn't prove especially fruitful. The Muppet Who Fell From Grace with the Sea? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Muppet? We Need to Talk About Kermit?

"The Muppets" is released on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.