Gene Kelly's acrobatic, all-American boyishness was the polar opposite of the classy cool of Fred Astaire, who continued to glide through the 1940s and 1950s with a succession of partners, among them Rita Hayworth (You'll Never Get Rich), Cyd Charisse (The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings), and Judy Garland (Easter Parade). To borrow the words of Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, Astaire's film career was marked by "Dignity. Always dignity."
Far less dignified was the kitschy fun of the lady in the tutti-frutti hat herself Carmen Miranda and the spunky energy of leggy Betty Grable (America's sweetheart and the number one pin-up of American G.I.s), while the Million Dollar Mermaid Esther Williams took musical choreography into the water.
The identity crisis that rocked the Hollywood's studio system in the 1960s was the death knell for the musical, or at least the musical as we once knew it. The decade began with West Side Story and ended with Funny Girl, with the blockbuster The Sound of Music in the middle, but otherwise, the classic musical was increasingly eclipsed by rock and roll and youth culture: Frankie and Annette beach movies, Elvis musicals, and A Hard Day's Night. By the 1970s, rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who's Tommy and rebellious rock musicals Phantom of the Paradise and the midnight movie cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show took over from the old fashioned stage musical, which found its biggest success in the Happy Days wholesomeness of the fifties rock pastiche Grease.
As for grown-ups, the new film culture was leaning toward realism and Bob Fosse, sensing the change, transformed Cabaret into a completely "motivated" musical. No more spontaneous bursting into song; the songs came from the nightly stage show, yet ingeniously reflected the drama offstage. This style informed such 70s musicals as Fame and Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, his gritty new Hollywood tribute to old Hollywood's musical bio-pics, as well as Fosse's own fantasy auto-biograph, All That Jazz.
Apart from a few isolated exceptions (among them the delightful, cartoony Little Shop of Horrors), the musical was kept alive through the 1980s and 1990s by the newly rejuvenated animated features that began with Disney's The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (both, not so coincidentally, scored by the team that created Little Shop) and continued in the Tim Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas, a Halloween fantasy pitched between macabre and innocence. Yet popular music remained an essential part of Hollywood movies throughout the decades, largely through the symbiosis of movies, music, and MTV's music videos, and it never disappeared from some parts of the world.
India's "Bollywood" film industry has been turning out hundreds of sprawling, opulant, highly melodramatic musicals a year for decades. Generally running from between two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours, these romances, comedies, tragedies and adventures originally embraced the conventions of the musical as expressive solutions to cinematic taboos in such classics as the thrilling historical epic Khuda Gawah (God Is My Witness) and the smash hit Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!. Young men and women couldn't touch in the movies, let alone kiss, but a song and dance told you everything you needed to know about their desires and feelings. While they have yet to find popular success in the US, more and more are getting exposure in film festivals and art house runs, such as the dazzling historical epic Asoka and Lagaan, the rousing tale of an underdog village who forms a cricket team to take on an arrogant British Captain in the 19th century. And they have inspired such crossover films as the Indian export Monsoon Wedding (not exactly a musical, but driven by the same heartbeat) and the lovingly made Canadian film, Bollywood/Hollywood, a playful take on the genre that makes the case that the complicated machinations of East Indian musicals aren't all that different from our own brand of cinema fantasy.
Hollywood may have dominated the musical, but it didn't own it. The musical hall tradition of France was celebrated in the 1930s hits Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam with Josephine Baker, the American bronze goddess of the French stage who had to go to Paris to land her movie career, and in Jean Renoir's celebratory French Can-Can, his loving look at the Moulin Rouge and the popularization of the Can-Can in the 19th century. Jacques Demy's bittersweet The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and his sunnier, cheerier The Young Girls of Rochefort were his utterly continental tributes to Hollywood's glorious Technicolor musicals. And it wasn't just France and India. The delirious documentary East Side Story tells the hidden history of the communist musical, including the irresistible East German Hot Summer, the first (and only) rock and roll beach movie from behind the Iron Curtain.
The Happiness of the Katakuris
The success of Moulin Rouge, with its modernist marriage of the classical musical with MTV stylistics, its mix of old show tunes with modern pop, and its embrace of Bollywood, has become the signpost for the return of the musical in the 21st century, where the genre has proven even more popular on TV (revivals of Bye Bye Birdie, Annie, and The Music Man) than in the theater (Chicago and Hedwig and the Angry Inch). And it's not just the US. The last few years have seen new energy in the old genre all over the world, from Francois Ozon's tart diva-fest murder mystery 8 Women in France to Miike Takashi's madcap The Happiness of the Katakuris (imagine the Bates Motel under the management of a dysfunctional Von Trapp family) in Japan to Pieter Kramer's Dutch delight Yes Nurse, No Nurse. Even Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi remake, a sharp, sly samurai film, ends with a rousing musical number. When Japan's king of cool sends off his hero with a song and a dance, then you know the musical isn't just back, it's downright hip all over again.
Sean Axmaker has written countless reviews for, among other publications, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Weekly as well as the DVD column at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Here at GreenCine, he's written on Orson Welles, the series of Asian films at the 2003 Vancouver festival, covered the 2003 Venice festival, and interviewed Julio Medem, Takashi Miike and Zhang Yang. Check out his Godzilla primer as well.
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