Dec 7, 2016

Why Movie Musicals Still Matter

Scene from La La Land
This Friday marks the release of director Damien Chazelle's La La Land. The sprawling musical that turns Los Angeles, CA into a booming city of life is considered one of the best movies of the year. It also has a special honor: it is a musical. While this my not seem like a big deal - especially considering the recent success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton and Moana - it actually is a film in a failing genre. While there are those adamant fans of the song and dance, it has become difficult to expect anything groundbreaking or fun within the style. It is one of the reasons why La La Land is such a hotly anticipated film. It's also why it's important to remember why musicals (specifically in movies) matter.
As long as there have been talkies, there have been musicals. It is an idea that stemmed from vaudeville acts, radio shows, and stage musicals by the likes of artists like George M. Cohan and Florence Ziegfeld Jr. around the turn of the 20th century. There were plenty of added benefits of celluloid. The production could be more grandiose in ways limiting to live audiences. Small details could be brought to life and elaborate acts that would be inconvenient live now could sprawl out within seconds of each other. If cinema is accepted as a form of escapism, then there's few genres more pleasantly escapist than that of musicals. Early directors like Mark Sandrich, Vincente Minnelli, and Busby Berkeley all brought the screen to life with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dancing away. 
The tradition has continued for some now, though it becomes difficult to assess the value of musicals in a traditional sense. In terms of Academy Awards, the last two musicals to win Best Picture were Oliver! (1969) and Chicago (2002) - a 33 year gap. In the 14 years since, only Les Miserables (2012) has been nominated. That isn't to say that there isn't a love for song and dance, though the concern has always been there. When A Chorus Line debuted in the 1980's, it ruminated on the failing appeal of Broadway productions (which is harder to believe 30 years later thanks in part to its revitalizing success). The argument could be made that musicals are a dying breed on film. The only real studio who can continually release hits is Disney, whose impressive run over the decades has given the world some of the most memorable, iconic pop tunes in history.
But why do musicals seem so appealing in the first place? Much like any genre film, it's about a spectacle that real life cannot deliver. For sci-fi fans, it's usually aliens and monsters. For action fans, it's usually explosions and heroism. For musicals, it's the chance to enter a world in part inspired by OCD culture where everyone dances in time to orchestrated music from a variety of styles. The melodic syncopation builds a trance. The ability to be important exposition and singular pop makes the soundtracks the most authentic piece of the DNA. Some of these musicals take place in a world not unlike our own. Others, as in the style of Stanley Donen or Berkeley, take place in heightened settings that reflect the best of what studio film making can be.
While the best musicals are usually predicated on memorable tunes, the ability to turn entertainment into a platform for deeper thoughts has given some longevity to certain productions. West Side Story may be  loosely adapted version of William Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet," but it focuses on interracial relations in urban environments. My Fair Lady explores how language creates class. Even more abstract productions like Cabaret and All That Jazz manage to explore history, ego, and how time is used. For the latter, director Bob Fosse used what is known as "Fosse Time," or a nonlinear pattern that isn't always clear. There's an ambition that can be done through syncopated rhythm and large scale productions that can be down right mesmerizing in the right hands.

Scene from The Young Girls of Rochefort
It is a genre that is beloved worldwide and most notable in French New Wave director Jacques Demy's filmography.  For instance, The Young Girls of Rochefort is a colorful ode to American musicals of the 1950's. With its own catchy soundtrack and an appearance by Gene Kelly, it manages to show that musicals can be great in any language. Demy's work may have incredible production designs, but they're also subversive. In the case of this film, he manages to set the peppy tunes to a story that evolves about murder. It's an absurd premise, but one that works because the director knew how to be clever about every last detail.

It is hard to explain why musicals began to disappear as the decades carried on. It's true that no period of time has been without their own interpretation. The 90's had the Disney Renaissance featuring Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The 2000's briefly featured a revival with Chicago, Moulin Rouge!, and Dancer in the Dark. However, they aren't nearly as well regarded as they have been in the past. In the past few years, the idea of a legitimate musical has become harder to define, especially as the value of the soundtrack song has diminished, even then occasionally only being reserved for one track. There have been some (Into the Woods, God Help the Girl), but few have actually been acclaimed or successful. Maybe La La Land will inspire more productions that are big and colorful, but that has yet to be seen.

So why is it that musicals aren't as popular. It could just be that singing and dancing seems silly and unable to be marketed as well as action movie properties. It's also more of a risk to hire composers and choreographers for something that may not succeed. It's likely why most musicals are adapted from the stage, and even then aren't given elaborate dance moves. It could also be that the idea of the multifaceted celebrities like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra who could do it all aren't just as popular (read: aren't as charismatic). It's hotly contested, especially since there are a few out there with potential. For instance, Channing Tatum has proven through Magic Mike XXL and Hail Caesar that he knows how to sing and dance. There are more like him, but their viability seems less certain.

Scene from God Help the Girl
It is doubtful that musicals will ever truly go away. While Broadway is more likely to have big productions, cinema has the ability to elevate the stage into a whirlwind of artistic designs. It also may never go away because as long as there's been music, there's been problems resolved through song. Hamilton explored the immigrant story through song to box office success. The themes may change, but there will always be a need to ventilate through entertainment and produce a profound statement about the moment and time. Also, it's just fun to have new music stuck in your head.

Musicals may be a silly genre, but they matter because they are arguably the most cinematic genre. There may be some that tell stories better, but the power of a good musical is undeniable. The music has the ability to provoke, uplift, and become a permanent part of society's conscience. They are a medium that can adapt to the changing atmosphere without changing too much of its DNA. One can only imagine that La La Land will serve as a nice escapist piece of entertainment for mass audiences during what has been a tumultuous year. Maybe it will win some Oscars. Maybe it will resurrect a genre that's become yet again unassuming. Who knows. All that is known is that few genres can carry so much weight when done right.

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