The history of the genre shows why musicals are the best

If you’re one of those people who doesn’t like musicals, it’s time to face the facts: you have bad taste. I don’t make the rules; it is an undeniable fact. You are depriving yourself of one of the greatest sources of joy produced by any art form. Don’t let your cold, hard and cynical mindset keep you from being captivated by the beauty, emotion and sincerity of musicals. Look for your feelings; you know that’s right. The musical is the biggest film genre.

Being the best film genre does not prevent the musical from being criticized. In fact, there are a number of high-profile bombshells — both box office and artistically — that one can highlight to dismiss the whole genre. And who could blame you for not liking musicals if the only ones you’ve ever seen are “Cats” and “Dear Evan Hansen?” But the genre’s great variance in quality that allows the films to be so abysmal also means that there are plenty of masterpieces out there – some of which should rightly be considered among the greatest films ever made.

Musicals are great because they capture film’s unique ability as a medium – to show movement through space and time. The theater does this to a certain extent, of course. This is where the musical was born. But in film, the traditional Broadway musical can be pushed to its limits. There’s a dynamism that can be created with camera movement and editing that can’t be replicated on stage, giving film musicals such a joyful and endearing energy.

The musical genre has been a staple of the medium since the origins of sound in movies. In fact, the first feature film with synchronized dialogue was the Al Jolson-directed 1927 musical “The Jazz Singer.” The success of this film launched both the era of sound and a golden age of Hollywood musicals that would last until the 1960s. Here, filmmakers used the musical to push the boundaries of what the medium could do at the time. From Busby Berkeley’s wildly inventive choreography to the beauty and grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance sequences, the scope afforded by the cinematic medium has allowed the musical to go beyond theater and take on its full meaning on the big screen.

When Technicolor took over, musicals remained among Hollywood’s most popular films. With their heartfelt sincerity perfectly suited to the vibrant colors of Technicolor film, the possibility of artistic expression has been greatly expanded in this new era. It doesn’t matter if it’s unrealistic that people burst into song or that numbers don’t add anything to the plot or characters; how can you not be moved by the overwhelming beauty of the colors, costumes and sets in something like the “Broadway Melody” sequence in “Singin’ in the Rain”? As the scale of Hollywood films increased, musicals became one of the go-to genres for big-budget releases in the 1950s and early 1960s. This led to a number of big critical and commercial hits — like Best Picture winners “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” and “The Sound of Music” — but it also led to a number of flops that nearly destroyed the entire genre. , such as “Doctor Dolittle” and “Hello, Dolly!”

Although production of the traditional musical dwindled following a number of box office bombs and the emergence of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, filmmakers were still able to to use the musical genre to create subversive works of art. From the campy cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the critically self-reflecting Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” musicals were evolving in much-needed ways that could only be brought about by a genre on the brink of extinction. The structure of musicals seeped even into films that would traditionally be considered pure dramas, such as in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” which uses its country music performances as a medium for the characters of its massive ensemble cast. to express what they feel.

Even in the 90s, when musicals were mostly associated with animated films due to the success of the Disney Renaissance, filmmakers were still using characteristics of musicals in their non-musical films. Take, for example, a stellar dance sequence near the start of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” The scene is very reminiscent of the “Dance at the Gym” sequence in the original “West Side Story.” It’s overly stylized and choreographed in a way no real person would dance in a gym or club, but that doesn’t matter. This stylization perfectly captures the youthful vibrancy of the communities and eras that both sequences present. An energy of controlled chaos runs through every scene that creates a palpable tension and euphoric release when everything is executed to perfection.

The recent track record of movie musicals hasn’t been great, both due to a lack of new additions to the genre and an apparent lack of understanding of what makes them amazing in the first place. But when a big one arrives, it can take the world by storm. “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash”) send-off of classic 1950s Hollywood musicals, caused a stir when it was released in 2016. It grossed nearly $450 million at the box office and received critical acclaim – it currently has a Metascore of 94 and was a Best Picture winner for a few minutes – the film showed just how powerful the genre can be over audiences when firing on all cylinders.

The best film genre is currently in dire straits. Not only are movie musicals barely made, those that are, with few exceptions, are usually hacky, uninspired adaptations of popular Broadway shows made by studios looking for a quick buck. Even a number of big movies from the past year have unfortunately been financially impacted by the pandemic, either forcing them to be released on streaming or choosing to stay in theaters at a time when many people weren’t ready to go back to the movies. This could be catastrophic, as a number of high-profile failures in a row would likely mean another shortage of musicals, as happened in the 70s. But the medium’s history shows the genre’s potential for greatness. . It can be big, beautiful and push the limits. It’s everything modern, mainstream movies aren’t, and maybe it’s time to bring it back.

Film Beat editor Mitchel Green can be reached at [email protected]