Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance!|
by Sean Axmaker
"You ain't heard nothing yet," Al Jolson promised his audience in The Jazz Singer, Hollywood's first talkie feature. That description, "Hollywood's first talkie feature," feels misleading. For one thing, only parts of the film featured sound. For another, Jolson wasn't spending those precious moments talking to the audience. He was belting out minstrel numbers. He was singing. The birth of talking pictures was the birth of the movie musical and for all the changes the musical has undergone, the music hasn't stopped.
Singin' in the Rain
The musical has been described as the purest of film genres, the most utopian, and the most purely expressive. It's a world where lovers spontaneously burst into lyric to woo and dance to court one another. The choreography of courtship can also be seen as a physical expression of joy and, in some cases, a substitution for sex. Not that anyone in the audience was thinking any of this, at least not consciously. Neither were they phased by the sudden explosion of song in the middle of a scene. Musical numbers were as familiar a convention of classical cinema as the promise of a happily ever after or a fade-out on a climactic kiss, established in such groundbreaking early musicals as The Broadway Melody (the original backstage musical) and Rouben Mamoulian's gritty Applause (the first musical to tear the camera from the static tripod and put it in motion).
Hollywood cinema has always been torn between opposing impulses: on the one hand, to recreate the world on the screen and reflect it back to the audience, and on the other, to create a fantasy world into which the audience, for a couple of hours, can escape. Nowhere are those contradictory poles more evident than the early depression era musicals of Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in the snappy, smart-talking urban milieu. Golddiggers of 1933 opens with Ginger Rogers singing "We're In The Money" (in pig-latin, to boot) before the show is shut down for lack of funds. The breadlines were always a step away, yet the plucky perseverance of energetic boys and girls invariably made a star of chorus girl Ruby Keeler by the end of the film and cemented her romance with boyish Dick Powell.
The best of these films - 42nd Street (the quintessential backstage musical), Footlight Parade (with James Cagney in a rare dancing role), and Golddiggers - were choreographed by Busby Berkeley, the Broadway wunderkind who embraced the unlimited possibilities of cinema and made the camera a part of the dance and gave audiences a front row seat that swooped and soared and looked down at the geometric beauty of dancers apparently playing to the ceiling.
In contrast to these streetwise fantasies were the elegant yet snappy films of the screen's most graceful duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The gawky Astaire became a swan when he danced in top hat, white tie, and tails, and the brassy Rogers became a sophisticate in her gowns. Initially paired as supporting players in Flying Down to Rio, they were rushed into a series of star making films, most notably Top Hat and Swing Time.
They were far from the only game in town: from Bing Crosby and Al Jolson to Alice Faye and Deanna Durbin, from Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald to Sonja Henie and her ice-skates, every studio was turning out musicals. Yet the biggest song and dance stars of the 1930s were a pair of performers too young to vote: Shirley Temple, who cooed and soft-shooed through dozens of cute musicals (including Bright Eyes, which features her signature song "On the Good Ship Lollipop"), and Mickey Rooney, whose spring-loaded adolescent energy was paired with Judy Garland to launch the unmistakable "Hey kids, let's put on a show" sub-genre with such classics as Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band.
By the 1940s a technology almost as revolutionary as sound allowed the musical to be reborn once again. Technicolor turned Arthur Freed's MGM musical unit into the day-glo dream factory. The roots of his musicals can be found in the magical Wizard of Oz, where the sudden blast of color tells the audience that they aren't in the black-and-white Depression-era heartland of Kansas anymore. We, along with farm girl Dorothy (Judy Garland, in her star-making role), have entered the world of fantasy. Garland became an essential leading lady in the glowingly nostalgic Meet Me in St. Louis (one of the most gorgeous movies ever made) and The Harvey Girls, while the gymnastic Gene Kelly (who burst on the scene co-starring next to Garland in For Me and My Gal) danced his way through The Pirate (also with Garland) before striking out into directing. Among his collaborations with director Stanley Donen are two of the great musicals of all time: the innocent and energetic singing sailors fantasy On the Town and the ode to Hollywood fantasy Singin' in the Rain, the historically inaccurate but nonetheless irresistible story of nothing less than the birth of talkies and the Hollywood musical. (For background on Technicolor, check out the excellent documentary Glorious Technicolor, a featured supplement on the special edition of The Adventures of Robin Hood.)
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.