Tuesday, July 01, 2014

the film musical: preferable in black-&-white?

The movie musical is, innately, the most artificial of film genres. 

Characters suddenly bursting into song!   Or dancing unabashedly in parks and on sidewalks!  Really?  Nobody does that in real life.

The form, arguably, had its widest acceptance when filmmaking itself was somewhat artificial.  During the Depression and the years immediately following, the films of Shirley Temple and the RKO musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were shot in black-&-white, a format which, by its very nature, divorced the story being told on screen from any hint of reality.

We had black-and-white figures set against black-&-white landscapes and living in homes with black-&-white décor.  Not at all like real life. 

The black-&-white cinematography made it easier to suspend disbelief and, by extension, to accept all the carefree singing and dancing.

This was "make believe" in the truest sense.

But as movies matured and became technologically advanced, the artificial was replaced by something closer to reality.  With the advent of color, the characters on screen were no longer stick figures but real people and everything that surrounded them was less primitive and simplistic. Or seemed so. Audiences began to bring a different perspective to movies. 

What was clearly a fantasy now seemed real.  

Initially, the movie musical was the chief beneficiary of all these advances.  Color cinematography, the widescreen format and stereophonic sound all seemed to be invented with musicals in mind and, in the 1950s, these adornments were exploited to the hilt by the studios, particularly MGM.  But as film progressed and became more aggressively realistic, some moviegoers were starting to notice the ridiculousness of film musicals.  Street toughs doing pirouettes on dirty New York streets!  A young nun twirling and trilling high up on the Swiss Alps! Really?

Again, nobody does that in real life.

Of course, this stuff works well on stage precisely because of the stage setting which keeps us always aware of the artifice - of the play-acting.

Die-hard musical fans (count me in) may have orgasms over such moments, and some movie critics and Academy members, too.  But you can sense the average moviegoer becoming clenched and pulling away. While the films of “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” were both hits, they marked the beginning of the end of the movie musical. 

Tellingly, their success didn’t generate more movie musicals, but fewer.


wwolfe said...

I think the movie musical was hurt by two other changes, as well. First, the rise of the book musical required all songs to carry forward plot and character development, making it much more difficult for songs to be enjoyed outside of the context of their shows. Consequently, people didn't hear as many songs from shows on the radio or on TV variety shows, thereby piquing their interest in seeing the musicals which produced the songs. Second, the prominence of rock and soul music in the 1950s, '60s, and 70s made the style of music found in the typical Broadway musical seem out of fashion. When a really talented band like the Beatles or the Bee Gees chose to write the songs for a movie musical, the results could be very popular (A Hard Day's Night, Saturday Night Fever). Perhaps if this had happened with a greater frequency, the movie musical would have been able to sustain its popularity?

joe baltake said...

Good point, re book musicals because book musicals are exactly what moviegoers don't seem to like. It's fine if a character sings a song on stage or in a club - as a performance - but singing in a real-life situation seems to make audiences nervous. But more about that later... In another post.

Tanya said...

The movie musical is without a doubt the genre that made me fall in love with movies. So joyous! I think you really touched on something here, re the way it's slowly fallen out of favor with most moviegoers. Unlike SciFi which is usually attached to fanciful situations and the current Marvel Comics movies, musicals have always been set in real times and places and with real people. Moviegoers have no trouble accepting R2D2 or Spider Man, but someone singing in their kitchen or in an office is just to weird. For them, not for me.

Matthew said...

Some audiences seem to make an exception for animated musicals, since those are inherently fantasy to begin with.

joe baltake said...

Yes, animated musicals. They're the only "book musicals" that we get to see on screen because, again, animation is artifical. BTW, it's interesting that the most successful live-action musical of the last 40 years is the cartoonish "Grease." It may have real actors in it but it is essentially an animated film. Oy!

scott said...

I have no guilt regarding my love of movie musicals,only pleasure. I grew up with Julie Andrews and Shirley MacLaine. I have to admit that I laugh to myself how this genre has become the subject of ridicule. Plus, no one ever feels guilty watching films with robots and androids. I refuse to be sucked in.

Daryl Chin said...

It's not that people don't like "musicals" because they're artifical: if people didn't want to see people singing and dancing, there would be no audience for DANCING WITH THE STARS, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, AMERICAN IDOL, THE VOICE. Singing and dancing are not the problem: it's that what contemporary singing and dancing have become, that has to be reflected in the musical. And that's why there are all those movies like STEP UP REVOLUTION, which show young people dancing. (That's where Channing Tatum got his start.) And Anna Kendrick may be a serious young actress who got an Oscar nomination for UP IN THE AIR, but she became a star in that a cappella musical that costarred Rebel Wilson (i've seen it several times, but the title escapes me). In fact, that movie wound up having a Top Ten hit ("The Cup Song"). (They're doing a sequel and Elizabeth Banks is directing it... and i still can't think of the damned title!)

It's not that musicals are dead, this is not like the era of CAMELOT, PAINT YOUR WAGON, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, DARLING LILI, STAR! Musicals are happening all over, and a lot of them are hits. That's why there are so many of those damned STEP UP movies. And that's why that a cappella musical is getting a sequel. Musicals have evolved, in order to accommodate the new styles of music and dance. It's the critics who haven't evolved, because they still think of musicals in terms of the old format of the Rodgers and Hammerstein book musical and the MGM story musicals.

In 1970, bemoaning the state of the movie musical, Pauline Kael wrote: "Don't the studios know that there is an audience ready and waiting for Aretha Franklin and Grace Slick and Janis Joplin and Flip Wilson and dozens of others?" Well, we've got Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Adele and Pharrell Williams and so many others. (Notice i didn't mention Beyonce, she's a gorgeous woman and a talented performer, but, so far, she's a stick of an actress, but maybe in the right part, she'll loosen up.) But musicals have to be reimagined. (One of the greatest of recent musicals is, i think, Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA: the way he uses Aimee Mann's song score is phenomenal, the "Wise Up" number, which cuts from most of the characters as they each sing a line or a verse, is stunning, and to even get Jason Robards to sing was incredible!) The point is: you've just got to be imaginative about it, but there are ways to incorporate singing and dancing in movies which are making audiences love it.

Daryl Chin said...

PITCH PERFECT! That's the name of the Anna Kendrick-Rebel Wilson musical! And the song was "When I'm Gone (The Cup Song)"!

joe baltake said...

Well put, Daryl! Bravo! No, singing and dancing, per se, are not dead. They're both all over television, as you say, but as wwolfe points out, the "book musical" is dead - or close to death. We still get an occasional "Les Miz" on screen or "Mamma Mia!" but the fact is, while audiences are totally comfortable with actors singing and dancing in a club/variety show setting, they still cringe when a character bursts into song and dance in a book musical.

And you're correct about "Magnolia" being a new-style musical. I would add David Byrne's "True Stories" and Paul Simon's "One-Trick Pony" to the list. And as Matthew has observed, animation is still an acceptable place for the book musical. One of the great animated musicals of recent years is Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," with Danny Elfman's remarkable score. Actually, it's a great musical, period. (And why hasn't Disney considered bringing that film to Broadway - but that's another another and another essay.)

You mention Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Adele and Pharrell Williams as possible stars of film musicals. I have another - Mylie Cyrus.

NBC was so impressed with the response to “The Sound of Music” that the network is already planning a production of “Peter Pan.” Presumably, it will want a crossover star to bring in another huge audience. Mylie Cyrus could make a really sensational Peter.

Aside from potentially bringing in a hulking audience, she has the right personality and demeanor for role. She’s got spunk in spades.

Plus, that great voice.

Matthew said...

I have never been part of this theoretical "they" that cringes at people bursting into song to express emotions or to move the plot forward. Being exposed to musicals at an early age helped, I think