Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Support of Movie Musicals

Now the object of box office ridicule, the movie musical was at one time a force to be reckoned with. Gone are the glory days of top hats and tap dances, but why? Broadway musicals still earn millions of dollars each year, despite the fact that some of the shows have been running for decades. Indeed, even short-form music videos are becoming short films in their own right. Clearly, there's a desire for musical film, so what's the problem?

Seriousness. It hasn't been an easy decade in America, and it shows. Media are constantly screaming about politics, the degradation of women's rights, wars, the economy, etc. Art is an important avenue of response to these societal pressures -- an avenue that wasn't as open during the movie musical's heyday. After all, movies were considered pure entertainment, not art, which is why they weren't protected by the First Amendment (and, subsequently, were heavily censored under the Hays Code). Somehow, it seems that a musical is more lighthearted than even the raunchiest sex comedy, and we can't afford to be so flippant.

But really, what's wrong with entertainment? In these stressful times, we deserve some relaxation. When I watch Top Hat (1935, Mark Sandrich), I'm not necessarily thinking about the social implications of their gender dynamics, and that's perfectly okay. My feminist card won't be revoked for suspending stress for an hour or two as I watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glide across the screen in perfect unison. My relationship with the film comes from a deeply emotional place; it's difficult to logically describe the sweetness of the music or the beauty of the dance moves. Frankly, it's time for us to give ourselves permission to enjoy this.

Of course, this isn't to say that there aren't intellectually stimulating musicals. Films like Singin' in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen), Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse), and even Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, John Cameron Mitchell) engage with social and political issues in a quirky, infinitely consumable manner -- a manner that no other art form can manage. After all, these are movies about ruined careers, Nazi, and sex changes, respectively, but they all capture a certain irreverent spirit. No one would ever deny that at least the first two of these three films are simultaneously art and entertainment.

So why are we still running away from musicals? Let's take a bit of time today to enjoy dancing and singing. And if you're feeling particularly moved, be sure to watch one of my all time favorite musical numbers, "Never Gonna Dance" from the film Swing Time (1936, George Stevens).

1 comment:

  1. I feel like the best musicals are classics, like the ones you mention (minus Hedwig). I think about my own favs and there's My Fair Lady, The King and I, The Sound of Music, etc. Sometimes they take a great musical (Rent) and ruin it in movie form.

    There has to be the right combo of creative genius (for the script/music writers and directors), good actors with dynamic voices, and a balance between cheese and sincerity.

    I'd welcome more movie musicals if these elements were present, but these days it seems that tv musicals (Glee, Once More With Feeling Buffy ep) are where it's at.

    Although even after having said that I really, really want a Next to Normal movie.