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Now and Then: The Long, Slow Death of the Movie Musical

Reviews
by Matt Brennan
July 16, 2012 4:30 PM
7 Comments
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Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain"

It's been 60 years since the musical's prime — when Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, those sorcerers of sound, joined forces on "Singin' in the Rain" — so you'll forgive me if this week's theatrical screenings in honor of the anniversary feel less like a celebration than an obituary. The musical is dead at 83, from complications of creative neglect.

Musicals are still being made, after a fashion. Trust me, I know: I was a high school student with a taste for Astaire and Rogers at the time "Chicago" (Rob Marshall, 2002) arrived, hailed in some quarters as the rebirth of the genre. It turned out to be a film that makes mince meat of the frame, a sharp-elbow-in-the-eye of strange angles, quick cuts, sequins, and subterfuge. A movie that can't be resuscitated by Queen Latifah's glorious take on Big Mama Morton may in fact have been dead on arrival.

Since then, I've made a point of seeing nearly every release that even smacks of old Hollywood possibilities ("Hairspray," "Dreamgirls," "Mamma Mia!" and "Sweeney Todd," just to name a few), like a pilgrim standing before the gable of Santiago de Compostela, praying for a miracle. None arrived — the only knockout musical I've seen in the past decade was the swooning, low-fi "Once" (John Carney, 2006), in which song is so fundamental to the world its characters inhabit that it doesn't feel like a musical at all, until you realize that most of what you know about how they feel came through on a three-chord melody.

Truman Capote may have thought that "more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones," but he never saw "Nine." And here, I think, you'll begin to see a trend. With the exception of "Once," each of the recent musicals mentioned above lacks the key element of the genre — nerve. Mostly unable to muster up the creative energy to make musicals relevant, they dream up a nostalgic past of Dickensian London, 1950s Americana, Fellini's circuses, Motown girl groups, or ABBA. Yet they feel obliged to hedge their bets with sweaty, klieg-lit close-ups and epileptic editing, making just one more version of the comic book superhero: a torso, a leg, and a grimace shoved into a lycra bodysuit or period costume. Musicals once balanced reality and fantasy; now the best they can come up with are dreams.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time"


The exception that proves the rule is Jennifer Hudson's gut-punching rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," from "Dreamgirls" (video below). It has the cyclonic force of a close-up, drawing you deeper and deeper into the eye of her storm, but a significant portion of it is a wide shot that captures her from calf to head — a sense of how much power the body can muster, amplified by the mirrors behind her. This is, of course, what the great musicals of yore did so well. In the masterly "Swing Time" (video below), Astaire and Rogers make the overexertion of the modern musical seem a farce, floating harmoniously, effortlessly, across the floor. You wouldn't know their feet were even touching it if not for the click of the tap shoes; their scenes have a mesmeric, fleet quality, a kind of occult magic.

"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), Vincente Minnelli's lush take on the dawn of the American century, cut through with sorrow, has since surpassed "Singin' in the Rain" in my mind as the best film musical. But Kelly and Donen's classic, now in its golden years, was my first love: a Technicolor bloom of slapstick and wit, balletic pratfalls and catchy tunes, it remains what I wish musicals could still be, bright and bold but still somehow convincing, bleeding in and out of song as though slipping on a raincoat. Who hasn't screened it one evening and woken up the next day smiling, humming that indelible sound?

Good mornin', good mornin'!
We talked the whole night through,
Good mornin', good mornin' to you!  

     
There is a fantasy here (I mean, what nutcase could possibly be so excited that early in the morning?), but it's woven from aspiration rather than memory: a dream all right, but a dream of the future, less was than will be. "Singin' in the Rain" doesn't cheat the game by putting all of the musical emotion in staged performance, because it understands the instinctive joy of singing in the shower, whistling along to the radio, testing out a few notes before the mirror. This is what I meant by "nerve." The old musicals had the courage of their convictions, and the sure-footedness to float. The new, pugilistic musicals, in losing that grace, have lost their voice, and their pulse. The musical is dead. Long live the musical. Whichever it is, I won't give up the ghost.  

In honor of the 60th anniversary of Singin' in the Rain, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events are holding nationwide screenings Thursday, July 12 at 7:00 p.m. local time, with special matinees in select theaters at 2:00 p.m.

7 Comments

  • No | December 24, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    Personally, musicals are my least favorite film genre, and I love music and dancing. Yet I don't miss the musical. The spectacle I can groove on, but the artifice just leave me indifferent. The only one I've liked has been Moulin Rouge, and that bastard of the musical, Glee.

  • no | December 24, 2012 2:54 PM

    Does The Wizard of Oz count as a musical? If so, it would be the only one I would want to own, and I do love Judy Garland's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"?

  • rgm | August 5, 2012 11:26 AMReply

    The disappointing 1971 musical of "The Boy Friend" has just been re-released with cut footage restored. I wonder where you fit this "overweight" musical into your critique; what you thought of that adaptation -- and of this new version. Twiggy was surprisingly good, and who can fault Busby Berkeley effects.... but it just didn't seem to work. Yet "Kiss Me Kate," which is a pretty good musical in my canon, used the same "play within a play" approach.

  • kidimi | July 18, 2012 1:18 AMReply

    Bollywood.

  • VictorG | July 17, 2012 2:23 PMReply

    Where's the mention of Rock of Ages? Good, bad or indifferent it's absence is appalling in an article about musicals. I loved Rock of Ages - the music, the creativity, the over the top performances of Tom Cruise and Alex Baldwin. Every single song rang true and fit the emotional arc of the story. If you haven't seen it you should whether you like the rock music genre or not.

    The problem with people who write critiques about how golden yesterday was, how nothing today can match up to the awesomeness of the past, is that these people are living in the past. Afraid to embrace change and open their eyes. They are blind to the creative powers of continual change. Nothing stays the same and this is certainly true in media of any form. The musical is more alive today than it ever was. We will never see another Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers type movie. Just like we will never see another Boogie and Bacall movie. Why? Because they have passed on into the abyss of the past and we live in the today of the future.

  • Brian | July 17, 2012 12:36 PMReply

    What's bothered me for the last 30 years is the lack of a decent hiphop musical. If any musical form of this period could have been translated into a movie musical, it's this one. And I'm not even a hiphop fan--I just recognize the cinematic possibilities of the form. Yet no one's done it unless you count those early '80s movies like WILD STYLE and BEAT STREET, although neither one is exactly the kind of movie musical I'm talking about. I would like to see a film about an attempt to put on a massive hiphop concert, with lots of different styles of music, including world music and forms of rap from other cultures, with all kinds of backstage melodrama, a diva just begging to be knocked down a peg, some new kids eager for a chance to shine--y'know, all the usual cliches incorporated into an updated story.

    I've spent time in recent years tracking down old movie musicals from Japan and Hong Kong and wondering why, with all the Cantopop and Mandopop and J-pop and K-pop stars of the last decade, they're not doing movie musicals anymore in those countries either (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea).

    If I disagree with you on one thing, John--I mean Matt--it's about the Jennifer Hudson number in DREAMGIRLS. She uses all this power singing to us that she's not going and then what does she do in the very next scene? She goes! So the point of the song was completely undermined by the drama. It's as if Gene Kelly was to dump Debbie Reynolds right after the "Singin' in the Rain" number and take up with Lina Lamont. If he'd done that, the film wouldn't be the classic it is.

  • Debra Levine | July 17, 2012 11:03 AMReply

    What a wonderful essay, John. I hope I may share with you and fellow lovers of movie musicals my deep appreciation of a vastly under-appreciated film choreographer who changed my life as a dance critic. It is the brilliant dance maker Jack Cole whose revival I am fostering in three main events. Cole's innovative and to borrow your word nervy dance numbers will be on view in Los Angeles, when star Mitzi Gaynor appears in person at a screening of "The I Don't Care Girl" (Fox, 1953) a bad bio-pic in which choreographer Cole inserted three brilliant dance numbers at the behest of Darryl Zanuck. That screening, hosted by UCLA Film & Television Archive will happen at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood on August 4.

    http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/events/2012-08-04/tribute-choreographer-jack-cole

    On September 10, 2012, I am co-hosting, with Robert Osborne, a tribute evening, "Choreography by Jack Cole" on Turner Classic Movies.

    http://artsmeme.com/2012/05/10/jack-cole-to-be-honored-on-turner-classic-movies/

    The Dance Heritage Coalition in Washington D.C. just published my significant essay on why Jack Cole matters. The essay addresses his overall career but emphasizes his astonishing contributions to nearly 30 films in the waning years of the musical. Cole was a huge player at Columbia and Fox in the 40s and 50s, famously choreographing "Put the Blame on Mame" for Rita Hayworth and "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" for Marilyn Monroe. By the sixties, the game was over.

    http://www.danceheritage.org/treasures/cole_essay_levine.pdf

    I'm a dance critic, so naturally I revere Astaire and Kelly. However, once you go Jack there's no going back.

    I'm doing this in a kind of desperate hope that young choreographers will study Jack Cole.
    Best regards.

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