Why We Love the Movie Musical

singin in the rain

I loved musicals as a kid, that much was obvious. In fact, I actually spent an entire holiday watching our entire musical collection again and again; literally it was Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I  [insert pretty much every other singing- dancing -Technicolor extravaganza] and… repeat. (I believe this ‘loop’ phase still generates a shudder from various family members).

However, I wasn’t quite able to put a finger on exactly why I loved the genre so much.  Although frankly in no better position to answer this imponderable question than I was at at the age of 5, I nevertheless will delve into my own (along with so many other seemingly sane moviegoers) infallible fascination with the movie musical in an attempt to do just that.

A Brief History

It was, arguably, the movie musical that ushered in the golden age of Hollywood films. Although at first treated with a disdainful suspicion, synchronised sound became an instant success through films like The Jazz Singer and The Broadway Melody. As well as cementing Hollywood’s position as a cultural and technological leader of the industry, it was these first films that introduced audiences to the musical feature. Warner’s The Desert Song, largely filmed in glorious Technicolor, followed soon after. A flurry of “all talking, all-singing, all-dancing” musicals  consequently thundered through the late 20s/early 30s.

Maybe it was just too much of a sugary good thing, or perhaps the Depression-ravaged public had finally given up on the perpetually buoyant romanticism; what is clear though is that the popularity of the musical plummeted by the mid 30s, and by extension, the Technicolor process with which it had quickly become associated.

Ironically, it was the rise of television that brought about the second wave of movie musical madness. To combat the newfangled black and white medium, studio bosses sought to make bigger, better pictures to coax the public back into movie theatres. There were biblical epics, foreign adventures, and, most significantly, many of the spectacular colour musicals that still spring to mind today.

Anatomy of a Movie Musical

With the 60s came an explosion of new cinematic and cultural tastes. In fact, th decade has since become synonymous with political and cultural revolution; needless to say, the 1960s contrasted completely with the inherent conservatism of the traditional musical form.  Quickly, musicals came to be viewed as outdated and old-fashioned, mere shadows (albeit terribly colourful shadows) of an era long-gone. However, a great affection for the genre still undoubtedly remains. The question, very simply, is why.

Aesthetically, I suppose, they are wildly pleasing. The lush tones of Technicolor perfectly reflect the unbelievable extravagance of most musicals. Life is magnified under the process, and consequently we step into a world of fanciful imagination. I think it is this crucial characteristic, a complete disregard for reality, which is the key to the musical’s enduring appeal.

the wizard of oz

To me, these places of never-ending singing and dancing, (which, when you think about it, is actually rather puzzling) trigger more than a suspension of disbelief. For a fan of the genre, each time that he or she steps into the cinema, the fan effectively leaps into an alternate universe with an unbreakable exuberance. We love them so much simply because the world of the musical is one which fully indulges our universal dreams; a world where goodness is a given and life will someday lead us somewhere better.

To finish, I thought I would briefly mention a favourite moment of mine from the world of musical film: the opening scene of The Sound of Music. The thought of this scene brings a smile to my face as I write now. Fairly standard favourite among moviegoers perhaps, but then again, a gorgeous song, sung by Julie Andrews twirling on a hilltop in a delightful abandonment; what’s not to love?

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8 Comments

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  1. I also enjoy the musicals from classic Hollywood. The songwriters were so talented back then. What I can simply say about the music back then is that it made sense. It also had a melody and was backed up by great bands. Sadly I must say somehow in the last 30 or 35 years we have lost that musical touch in our society.

    If you ever get a chance Rachel and have haven’t seen it, I recommend the DVD: The Great American Songbook hosted by Michael Feinstein. It is a little over 3 hours and it encompasses all the great songwriters and their wonderful songs from the 20th century. It is loaded with clips from all the great Hollywood Musicals from the past. The time will just fly by if your a musicals fan.

    My list of favorite musicals is endless from Top Hat, Shall We Dance, 42ND Street, Footlight Parade, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat(Irene Dunne), Words And Music, South Pacific, Good News, State Fair, Sun Valley Serenade, Orchestra Wives, West Sisde Story, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, my list is quite endless. I could go on and on. The ones you mentioned are quite wonderful also.

    1. There really are so many fantastic musicals out there still waiting to be discovered!

      I have seen a few musical documentaries in the past, and all have been such interesting insights into the workings of a movie musical as well as the era in general. I now look forward to checking out your recommendation —it sounds fantastic!

  2. I think for me, I like musicals because they bring the emotions of the characters to the forefront. In a musical, an actor is able to express things that the character otherwise just wouldn’t say. It does away with some of the inability of dialogue to capture emotion by replacing it with music. Try to imagine removing the songs in musicals and replacing them with dialogue and think about how flat and uninteresting the characters would become. How would you film “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof without the song, and how would we be able to relate to Tevye as well with only dialogue to express his feelings.

    1. Very true. I think that is exactly what makes musicals so appealing to us. Song and dance enable the characters to break through barriers, to express something which only something so abstract and so unique like music can truly convey.

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