Scattered Thoughts About Movie Musicals


• Musicals are the most fantastic movie genre, in the classical sense of the word "fantastic": they are imaginative, bright worlds that exist in their own kind of reality. Other genres ask us to accept a certain amount of fiction that's still reconcilable within a given narrative construct: e.g., Star Wars stages dogfights in space and gives its hero telepathic abilities, but there are still rules governing those things (ships explode, you can't read just anyone's mind, etc.). Musicals, though, don't worry about rules like that. People just start singing and dancing, and no character ever says to another, "Hey, you're singing and dancing." Rather, the songs and story are blended together in a pure, performative space. • Because musicals don't have to follow rules the way other genres do, they're able to symbolize and explore emotion with more potency than other films can. Every frame is girded by Huxley's belief that "after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." Songs in musicals often forward the plot — a young man on the verge of falling in love might burst into song, thus declaring his intentions and moving the story along — but they're just as often pure performance pieces. Something like Singin' in the Rain is a perfect example: the title song and performance allow Gene Kelly's character to express his newfound feelings, but other bits like "Make 'Em Laugh" and "Moses Supposes" are nothing more — or less — than stellar presentations of song, dance, and energy.

• It's interesting to think of the way movie musicals have fallen out of favor with audiences and filmmakers. Part of it could be nothing more than the inevitability of changing tastes: movie musicals have been around since sound was synced to image in The Jazz Singer, so crowds just might want something different. But I have to believe part of what makes them harder to make and sell now might be their lack of irony, cynicism, and emotional distance from the audience. You cannot burst into song about how much you love someone and still expect to be cool and aloof. There's an emotional risk for the character and the storyteller. (Who hasn't felt several stories high just being on the street where their love lives?) One of the most successful recent musicals, 2002's Chicago, actually staged many of the songs within a cabaret imagined by one of the main characters, making the songs a hybrid of narrative style and character construct. "These things aren't really happening," the movie says, "they're just in someone's head." And while doing that does allow for some characterization in the movie — the heroine is delusional, and the fictional nightclub we keep seeing underscores her separation from the real world — it also robs us, the viewer, of the specific and magical blend of reality and fantasy that movie musicals can provide.

• Musicals also give us a chance to examine and revel in the beauty and grace of physical movement. Of course all movies are about bodies in their way. Action movies are rooted in physicality, though they're increasingly digitized and plastic; romances employ the physical form for sexual allure or dramatic tension. But musicals let us watch people move the way they almost never do in real life, and certainly not in everyday situations. The litheness of their legs and trunks, the strength in their arms as they carry each other, the use of their bodies as expressive vessels: there's a magnificence to it that's almost primal. Singing and dancing lets the characters go to a place beyond regular words, and it lets us go with them to experience their joy and pain, and to remember the moments in our own lives when we felt like that. The characters' bodies intercede for them when words fail.