If you are one of those people who doesn’t care for movie musicals, it’s time to face the facts: You have bad taste. I don’t make the rules; this is an undeniable fact. You are depriving yourself of one of the largest sources of joy produced by any art form. Don’t let your cold, hard, cynical mindset keep you from being engrossed by the beauty, emotion and sincerity of musicals. Search your feelings; you know it to be true. The movie musical is the single greatest film genre.
Being the best film genre doesn’t keep the musical from criticism. In fact, there are a great number of high profile bombs — both at the box office and on artistic merit — that one can highlight to dismiss the entire genre. And who could blame you for not liking movie musicals if the only ones you’ve ever seen are “Cats” and “Dear Evan Hansen?” But the high variance in quality of the genre that allows films to be that abysmal also means there are a great number of masterpieces — some of which should rightfully be considered among the greatest films ever made.
Movie musicals are great because they capture the unique ability of film as a medium — to showcase movement across space and time. Theatre does this to an extent, of course. That’s where the musical first came to be. But on film, the traditional Broadway musical can be stretched to its limits. There is a dynamism that can be created with camera movement and editing that can’t be replicated on the stage, giving movie musicals such joyful, endearing energy.
The musical genre has been a staple of the medium since the origins of sound in films. In fact, the first feature film with synchronized dialogue was the 1927 Al Jolson-led musical “The Jazz Singer.” The success of that film kicked off both the sound era and a Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals that would last until the 1960s. Here, filmmakers used the movie musical to push the boundaries of what the medium could do at the time. From the wildly inventive choreography of Busby Berkeley to the beauty and grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance sequences, the scope afforded by the medium of film allowed the musical to move beyond the theater and come into its own on the silver screen.
As Technicolor took over, musicals remained some of the most popular films coming out of Hollywood. With their heartfelt sincerity perfectly suited to the vibrant colors of technicolor film, the opportunity for artistic expression was greatly expanded in this next era. Who cares if it isn’t realistic for people to burst out in song or that the numbers don’t add anything to the plot or characters; how can you not be moved by the overwhelming beauty from the colors, costumes and sets in something like the “Broadway Melody” sequence in “Singin’ in the Rain”? As the scale of Hollywood films increased, musicals became one of the go-to genres for big-budget releases in the ’50s and early ’60s. This led to a number of great critical and commercial successes — like Best Picture winners “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” — but it also led to a number of flops that nearly destroyed the entire genre, like “Doctor Dolittle” and “Hello, Dolly!”
Though the production of the traditional movie musical waned in the wake of a number of box office bombs and the emergence of the New Hollywood movement in the late ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers were still able to use the musical genre to create subversive works of art. From the campy cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the critical self-reflection of Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” musicals were evolving in a completely necessary way that could only be brought on by a genre on the brink of extinction. The structure of movie musicals was even seeping into films that would be traditionally considered straight dramas, as in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” which uses its country music performances as a way for the characters in its massive ensemble cast to express what they are feeling.
Even into the ’90s, as movie musicals became mainly associated with animated films due to the success of the Disney Renaissance, filmmakers were still using hallmarks of movie musicals in their non-musical films. Take, for example, a stellar dance sequence toward the beginning of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” The scene feels very reminiscent of the “Dance at the Gym” sequence in the original “West Side Story.” It’s overly stylized and choreographed in a way that no real person would dance at a gym or club, but that doesn’t matter. That stylization perfectly captures the youthful vibrance in the communities and times that both sequences are showcasing. An energy of controlled chaos runs through each scene that creates a palpable tension and a euphoric release when everything is executed to perfection.
The recent track record of movie musicals hasn’t been great, both due to a lack of new additions to the genre and a seeming lack of understanding of what makes them amazing in the first place. But when a great one comes along, it can take the world by storm. “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash”) send-up of classic Hollywood musicals of the ’50s, was a sensation when it was released in 2016. Grossing almost $450 million at the box office and garnering plenty of critical acclaim — it currently has a Metascore of 94 and was Best Picture winner for a couple of minutes — the film showed how much power the genre can hold over audiences when firing on all cylinders.
The best film genre is in dire straits right now. Not only are movie musicals hardly being made, but the ones that are, with few exceptions, are usually hacky, uninspired adaptations of popular Broadway shows made by studios in search of a quick profit. Even a number of great ones from last year were unfortunately hit financially by the pandemic either forcing them to be released on streaming or electing to remain in theaters at a time when many people were not ready to go back to the movies. This could be catastrophic, as a number of high-profile failures in a row would likely mean another dearth of musicals as happened in the ’70s. But the history of the medium shows the genre’s potential for greatness. It can be big, beautiful and boundary-pushing. It’s everything that modern, mainstream films aren’t, and it may be time to bring them back.
Film Beat Editor Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.