A New Musical

The Past, Present, & Future of Musicals on Film.

Jessica Taghap
Oct 3, 2020 · 10 min read

“This is our vibrant theatrical present as much as it is our storied past […] Indeed, in its human scale, and place-and-time-bound specificity, theatre is the art form most likely to seem always on the verge of falling apart, yet also the one most build to last. It is always in need of reinvention by a new group or generation of fired-up artists and audiences; it is also always capable of such a resuscitation.” — Rob Weinert-Kendt, American Theatre.

This New Millennium is no different, evolving the musical format in ways never before seen, while still maintaining its familiar razzle-dazzle. One of the last true American art forms, the movie-musical continues to find new life through the lens of those beyond US borders. And as we head into a new decade, it’s interesting to see what those new perspectives have to show us.

At the height of the genre’s Golden Age (1930s to the early-1960s), many films of its ilk were typically big-budget, large-scale productions. However, with the collapse of the Hollywood studio system (from the mid-1960s into the 1970s), came a more experimental and artful approach to storytelling on film. As a result, a new wave of filmmakers emerged.

Many of these filmmakers weren’t part of Old Hollywood’s established infrastructure of highly “learned” professionals, extensively trained in the art of song and dance — which included legends such as Gene Kelly (who co-directed Singin’ in the Rain along with Stanley Donen) and Judy Garland (who had roots performing in vaudeville and honed her skills whilst training as a young teenager at MGM).

Instead, this band of “outsiders” often came from adjacent artistic fields (criticism, dance, music composition, etc.), all of which would ultimately lend to their own unique take to the modern movie-musical. One of the first glimpses of this change was the handful of off-beat musicals released under the French New Wave movement. Consisting of film-critics-turned-filmmakers, theirs was a homemade, almost abstract aesthetic―one which was certainly reflected in the few musicals they made.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: Credit TMBd.

Offerings such as Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961) and both Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) also featured untrained actors―such as Anna Karina and Catherine Deneuve―singing and dancing along to rhythms unconventionally found in a typical musical format. Here, characters didn’t suddenly break into song, as in a traditional musical; they were either naturally spurred from conflict or setting, as in Femme, or were one with the dialogue, as in the sung-through jazz operetta Cherbourg. Even the mere use of jazz in Cherbourg, composed by the great Michel Legrand, was seen as a subversive move for a movie-musical.

As the 1960s carried over into the 1970s, this experimentation with musical styles soon took on a more “pop” influence, becoming part of a wider trend of chart-topping crossover artists under the movie-musical spotlight. Hugely successful pop act The Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night (1963) and the animated Yellow Submarine later (1968). 1972 saw Diana Ross earn a ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award nomination for her performance as Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues. Moving away from the big-budget productions of the early ’60s, which were seen as outmoded by that point, megastar Barbra Streisand starred opposite Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 remake of A Star is Born. That same year, the ‘Starman’ himself, David Bowie, became known as The Man Who Fell to Earth.

All that Jazz. Credit: TMDb.

Bookending the latter decade, however, would be perhaps the most thrillingly innovative blend of the pop and musical theatre worlds — in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979). As Hilton Als beautifully described in an essay for the Criterion Collection’s The Current:

“By centering on the body, Fosse has such amazing source material — the drama was in a step, a look, a gesture. His cinema grew out of that; the films he made before All That Jazz were like no others, but it’s the film, a kind of moral-minded, autobiographical phantasmagoria, that Fosse learned to make the camera dance too.”

Under Fosse’s style came a push-and-pull between the pared-down, simple effortlessness of his choreography, with the Brechtian exposure of his effortful direction. This, along with his use of both show tunes and pop music, made for a powerful combo. From a haunting montage that juxtaposed a slapstick nightclub routine against a streetside altercation with Nazis in Weimar-era Berlin, to an anxiety-inducing triptych in which a struggling dancer’s pushed beyond her abilities in the studio, to the director’s on-screen alter-ego’s lifeless form being zipped up in a black body bag (to the opening strains of Ethel Merman’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business”), the effect of Fosse’s singular vision was such that it resulted in what he called the “Razzle Dazzle” side of the musical. The dark underbelly behind the glitz and glamour of stage life.

Though Fosse’s sleek and nuanced style certainly tapped a bit into the more appealing pop sensibilities of the musical (Jazz did feature a penultimate sequence of Roy Scheider and Ben Vereen performing a rather morbid version of The Everly Brothers’ “Bye, Bye Love”, after all), it would be a long while the level of professionalism seen here would find itself in the mainstream movie-musical.

Chicago. Credit: TMDb.

“I won’t be the first or last to note that over the past decade-plus we’ve been so disappointed and mistreated by a Hollywood interested more than ever in the financial bottom line and emerging global markets, that viewers are ultra-sensitized to the slightest display of Professionalism.” — Michael Koresky, Film Comment

In a 2017 episode of the Film Comment podcast, titled “Musicals! The Podcast”, panellists Violet Lucca, Michael Koresky, and Andrew Chan discussed these performative stances and their respective trends, noting that, in contrast to the great movie-musicals of yore, it’s almost all the more impressive these days for performers to showcase skills learned for the express purpose of a particular role or project, as opposed to the aforementioned professionalism displayed in the past.

Dream Girls. Credit: TMDb.

Films such as Center Stage (2000) showcased the first inklings of this: boasting a mix of ‘actors-who-could-dance’ and ‘dancers-who-could-act’ (as well as one Olympic figure skater―because why not?) Others in the mix soon followed suit over the course of the decade, including that of former dance crew member Jon M. Chu’s Step Up films; Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls (2006), for which former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar. Despite this, a number of films in the early-2000s brought both Effortlessness and Effortfulness to the screen―most of which with our so-called “outsiders” at the helm once again.

Himself a former Fosse-trained dancer, director Rob Marshall’s style best exemplified the perfect, well-executed mix of the two, in his adaptation of the Broadway hit Chicago (2002). Like Fosse before him, Marshall used his stage and dance background to help amplify performances from his principal and supporting cast members (a clever mix of Hollywood and Broadway triple threats). The film’s sweep at that year’s Oscars ended up breaking a 35-year dry spell (since Oliver!’s own win for ‘Best Picture’), helping to usher in a long-awaited renaissance of the genre, all within the time it takes to stylishly flick a Fosse's wrist.

Moulin Rouge. Credit: TMDb.

To borrow a phrase popular with many an online capsule review these days: “Moulin Rouge walked so that Chicago could run.” If Chicago’s Oscar wins proved the general public could once again be open to musical storytelling on the big screen, then Moulin Rouge (2001) helped test those waters just a year prior. Indeed, Baz Luhrmann’s lushly-produced meta-musical burst onto the scene with all the Technicolor splash of a mid-century epic, yet with all the modernity fit to win over a new generation of movie-musical lovers.

The film is the last in a series of grand love stories, all told through various theatrical art forms: dance (1992’s Strictly Ballroom), poetry (1996’s Romeo + Juliet), and song (Moulin Rouge)―together dubbed the ‘Red Curtain’ Trilogy. It’s with this in mind that Luhrmann manages to meld the old with the new in an excitingly bold way, imbuing Rouge’s classic love triangle storyline with frenetic, Fosseian jump-cuts and eclectic pop music selections, as well as Demy-and Minelli-esque saturations of colour.

As the decade neared to a close, even more outside cinematic voices began to garner similar acclaim for their innovative storytelling techniques, continuing in the new traditions of pop-meets-theatre. Following on from where The Beatles left off decades earlier, noted theatre director Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) utilized stunning VFX alongside the Fab Four’s extensive back catalogue to chronicle the turbulent and psychedelic 1970s.

But where Universe and others before it served up a feast for the eyes, John Carney’s Once, released the same year, pulled back all the extravagance of the Red Curtain to tell an unlikely love story that unfolds between two struggling Dubliners, both musicians. The film would become the first in a new wave of post-millennial movie-musicals, wherein musicians not only play a role but become the centre of the story itself. This, of course, is a world Carney―a former band member of The Frames―knew all too well, and would go on to explore in two more films in the following decade, Begin Again (2014) and Sing Street (2017).

Wild Rose. Credit: TMDb.

“While the influx of pop writers without musical training may broaden the possibilities of the form, might it also limit options of emerging writers […] who are dedicated primarily to the form?” — Suzy Evans, American Theatre.

Filmmaker Lukas Moodysson follows Carney’s lead, this time chronicling the beginnings of a high school punk-rock band, in 1980s Sweden, for We Are the Best! (2014), Scottish directors Stuart Murdoch (of indie-pop group Belle & Sebastian), John McPhail, and Tom Harper each offered their own quirky takes on what’s usually seen as traditionally American-dominated fare — that of 1960s girl-group pop (2014’s God Help the Girl), zombie gore (2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse), and country music (the abovementioned Wild Rose). For his part, Max Minghella took on the subject of reality television for Teen Spirit (2018), in which a teenage girl from the Isle of Wight enters a singing competition. Each with their own influences from the past, yet with a timely immediacy inflected in their storytelling.

It’s hard to say where the movie-musical goes from here. With the highly-anticipated release of Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, as well as both Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Tick, Tick…Boom!, and the upcoming Yellow Rose (starring Filipina leads and Miss Saigon alums Eva Noblezada and Lea Salonga), it’s looking like the new voices of musicals on film are shaping up to be as diverse as ever. And hopefully, with it, there’s a new generation of song-and-dance lovers who’ll be there step-by-step, mile-by-mile, frame-by-glorious-frame.

Header photo: Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling in ‘La La Land.’ © Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

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