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Saturday, July 17, 2010

I have a question for you guys.

Pre-GLEE and pre-HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, movie musicals have been on the ropes since the 1960's.  There have been some standouts usually based on Broadway hits (HAIR, CABARET) but many have flopped disastrously (PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, I'LL DO ANYTHING, that horrible Woody Allen thing).

On the other hand there are any number of successful movies about musical performers. Every rock'n'roll biopic ever made, THIS IS SPINAL TAP, THE COMMITMENTS, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, etc.

What all exactly is the distinction? Is it that in musicals, characters sing about their emotions, whether directly (WEST SIDE STORY) or onstage (CABARET)? Whereas in a movie with music, the story is often about how they're doing with their music, are they succeeding, are they singing the happy song with tears in their eye...

What do you think?



First and foremost, I think it's that musicals tend to utilize two different "realities" without bridging the two--they are simply treated as discontinous. Movies about musicians are often "realist"--and the musical numbers fit right into this realism; and so neither the acting nor the singing breaks the fourth wall, we don't have to interpret the musical scenes metaphorically or ask whether or not the other characters can "hear" what's being sung, etc.

I think this also explains the success of the most successful "pre-HS:TM" quasi-musicals. In High Fidelity, for example, Bruce Springsteen can show up and start playing a song about the main character's life, because it happens within a consistent, already-established convention of the main character breaking the 4th wall. Or take "Once More, With Feeling," the musical episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer; the musical numbers are dropped back into the "normal" mode of interaction, and explained from within. These two examples have different modes of "reality," but both are self-consistent in both speaking and musical interludes.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:17 AM  

This is going to sound flippant, but it really isn't.

In a phrase - more brown people.*

Bollywood has never lost it's taste for musicals, and the Indian film industry has long had an enormous influence on pretty much everywhere in the globe outside of the Americas. As entertainment markets have gone global, with media companies deriving increasing revenues from markets abroad, musicals and musically themed media have had more support in North America. Even if the large scale audiences are not watching these shows and movies in North America (Glee, while a hit, is often only just barely in the double digit millions in the US), they are being watched abroad.

To give you an example of how global audiences are influencing North American media companies - take CTV's "The Listener." It was originally a US-Can co-pro, but when NBC canned it during season one, that should have been it. Even a few years ago, the show would have been dead and gone right there. But FOX did so well distributing the show internationally (It was #1 in a number of markets) that CTV decided to go it alone and fired up production on season 2.

No, The Listener is not a musical, but the relevant point is that other, global considerations are seeping into the decision process for North American media companies. Recently Slate had an article about the death of the box office bomb, that international markets are making profits for films that should have died ignominious deaths.

So, as regards musicals, and musical themed media, and the reasons for their recent resurgence, my money is on my original contention - more brown people.

They love musicals. (And so do I!)

*Not a being racist here.. I am married to an Indian, and while I probably couldn't tell you what Brad Pitt is up to, I probably could fill you in on the latest SRK, Big B, Little B news...

By Blogger James O'Hearn, at 2:47 AM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger James O'Hearn, at 2:47 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:18 AM  

Sorry to chime in here.... but as I walked into the living room, and watched my kids playing on their Wii, I got to wondering if maybe the rise of collaborative (and solo) music gaming, with games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, might have shifted popular opinion on the role of, or inclusion of music in entertainment.

Perhaps there are more than a few Gleeks out there who like watching Mr. Schu and the crew rock out because they like rocking out on their own time as well.

By Blogger James O'Hearn, at 5:53 AM  

Musicals make me cringe. I think the big problem with them for me is that the pacing keeps shifting between the musical numbers and the story, and that makes it harder for me to get into flow watching the thing. I felt that way a bit about L'infant prodige, too, because the music, while beautiful, went on for so long it broke the flow of the story. So I don't think it's just that they're singing about the plot (which is bad enough), it's that it takes them so long to do so, and by the time they get back to the plot, my mind is out of gear.

And yet I liked Evita, probably because my expectations were different going in.

By Blogger Anemone, at 7:47 AM  

when I was younger, I used to love musicals. Now as an adult, they mostly grate. I watch Glee and enjoy it but find myself losing interest halfway through. I think it's the level of frantic energy that I find exhausting and ultimately bores me. It's like hanging out with a very adorable cheerleader who's hopped up on caffeine. After a while, no matter how adorable she is, you're eventually going to want her to shut up because her perpetual artificial sunniness is draining.

It's very "shiny" music, if you get what I mean and hence musicals are all about the highs. Whereas a movie about a musician often has a lot of scenes about struggle interspersed with the high points.

By Blogger Marly K, at 11:00 AM  

There are all different kinds of approaches to writing a musical and dozens of styles of "musicals."

Stephen Sondheim hates the kind of musical some of you are talking about - where the songs consist of the characters telling you directly what they're feeling. He writes a lot in subtext. In fact, perhaps his approach is closer to what screenwriters are told to do.

But save for a few others who preceeded him, like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, I think most other musicals, from the past to contemporary stuff, feature more on-the-nose songs.

So that is one of the problems having those types of songs in a medium that's already so rich visually and full of information in other ways.

And has been discussed many times, the North American audience's tastes changed in the 60s. Perhaps because of other things going on in the culture. Before that they would accept characters singing and dancing in a movie, but after that it seemed silly to them. Unless it is in the context that the characters are performers, and we're just seeing them do their job.

My first great love was musicals. And even though I'm not a big Glee fan, I'm happy that it, as well as DWTS and SYTYCD have brought singing and dancing back to the "little screen" in NA, because that combines my two favorite things, music and TV. (Especially because I have an original pilot that's about Latin ballroom dancers in down-and-out Detroit!)

By Blogger amyp3, at 12:05 PM  

The keyword is "program musical" here. This is the sort of realistic musical where no one sings about their emotions.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:40 PM  

Film musicals are rarely hits for the same reasons that staged musicals have long runs only in the very largest urban centers - the audience for them is limited. That's always been the case and is not a recent development.

Any film musical that is a genuine hit has to be considered a cross-over hit, and the reasons for its success attributed to something other than it being a musical. If there are fewer film musicals doing well these days, it's because they're not pushing the right non-musical buttons with the film-going audience.

Similarly, I don't think the music had anything to do with the success of This is Spinal Tap or A Hard Day's Night. This is not to say the music was bad, only that it wasn't what drove ticket sales.

By Blogger Greylocks, at 7:34 PM  

I don't care for musicals because they're usually too cheery, even the morose tunes. However, I did like Cop Rock and "That horrible Woody Allen thing" - it was a musical for people that can't sing, and a romantic comedy for people who aren't good at relationships - I thought it was genius.

I think musicals went out of style before the new liberation of film took place. Grease was a hit because it dealt with stuff that couldn't have been touched in the 50's. Still, it was surrounded by some flops that made producers wary. Maybe this new generation will get back to taking this type of risk.

By Blogger Keith, at 2:35 PM  

The successful music-based films are successful for the same reason most films are successful: they're good stories.

For example, THE COMMITMENTS: it's a well crafted story with sympathetic characters and relationships. Early in the film, it creates a compelling question in the audience, namely "What's going to happen to these interesting people?" Who cares about (or remembers one song from) the music? Ditto RAY and I WALK THE LINE.

On the other extreme is I'LL DO ANYTHING: dull story and characters. Poor story-telling.

By Blogger 77kart, at 6:39 AM  

Musicals might not have been for the past decade but they have still been around.

Just look at 'Rug Rats'.

It's been running for almost a decade continually - a kids show where they inevitably have a fantasy filled music number at some point in the episode.

But it doesn't get classed as 'a musical'.

Why not? Because the most interesting thing about the series isn't the music.

And that's the way it should be. If a series' major feature was the music then, unless it is Glee, it is a major problem.


By Blogger Mac Harwood, at 4:22 AM  

The best episodes of Glee for me are ones where the musical choices work with the characters' thoughts and emotions, without telling us exactly what they feel and think. But a couple Glee episodes feel like someone said, "let's chain these songs together in a plot." And others are really on the nose, which gets my eyes rolling but which for some reason I accept in this show - probably because it's set in that sort of primary-coloured world.

I think musicals are coming back because our current arts culture is about the ludicrous. There's not much more ludicrous and artificial than some types of musicals.

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:09 PM  

Is it a coincidence that the decline of the film musical (the late 60s) also coincided with the decline of the Broadway musical? Milliions of people still attend Broadway every year, but its undeniable that Broadway has been in an artistic decline for about forty years. There is almost nothing but junk being written for the musical theatre anymore.
The reason for the decline of the musical was that pop music changed in the 60's(like so much else). Pop went from Tin Pan Alley and Cole Porter and Sinatra to Rock and Roll and the Beatles. For comlicated reasons, rock music just doesn't work well in musicals. In the 50's, My Fair Lady dominated the charts, and for a while was actually the Number 1 selling album of all time, if you can beleive it. But when popular taste in music changed, the music of the broadway musical no longer dominated the charts.
Musician bio-pics are a completely different animal. Those are popular because Johnny Cash, Ray Charles etc. are popular and people wanted to see films about the performers they love.

By Blogger Joshua Carnes, at 6:13 PM  

"For comlicated reasons, rock music just doesn't work well in musicals":


By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:23 PM  

I tend to think the most successful recent film musicals are ones that most skillfully integrate the musical numbers into the story. (Chicago occurs to me as a good example.) The musical films that fail usually feature a lot of "singing for the sake of singing," rather than making each song an expression of a character desperately wanting "something." The soundtracks for most hit musical films usually include at least a song or two not in the film, usually because that number has nothing to do with advancing the story.

From an acting perspective, bursting into song is what happens when plain dialogue isn't enough for the character to get his/her point across. Musical numbers allow the characters to amplify the fight for their objectives by linking their dialogue directly to the soundtrack, and often to "on the nose" physical expression (dance). A musical number gives an actor even more tools than dialogue because the you get both text (the lyrics) and the subtext (the music) up front. The main difference is, unlike a non-musical film, The Rules of the musical's world allow the characters to belt out songs without their fellow characters looking at them like they're insane.

The best film musicals succeed because they've used the songs to flesh out the story -- to the point that we can't imagine the story being told any other way.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:52 AM  

It's that whole "suspension of disbelief" thing. Very hard to do when 2 characters are talking and one suddenly bursts into song. I've found it (unintentionally) humorous since I was a leetle kid.

By Blogger Rob Lewis, at 6:13 PM  

And yet, why are people so open to musicals when they're animated? That's always puzzled me.

By Blogger PlasmicSteve, at 12:06 PM  

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