Musicals on the big screen

Article published on Sept. 5, 2007
Article published on Sept. 5, 2007
'Whatever happened to people launching into song for no reason?' 'They stopped doing it: it was ridiculous'

I can’t recall which film this snippet is from. For a while now cinema has had a mature, forgetful audience, passively entering its twilight years. Recently, Europe has seen moves to rescue the musical, a classic alternative to standard Hollywood fodder.

Generation of retired audiences

There are, it is often said, no new stories: instead there is a crisis of creativity in scriptwriting. Today’s audience, who has no idea about cinema's first tentative steps, is entertained by any of the current mediocre cinematic offerings advertised in the cinema foyer. Few people know the history of cinema, the origins of its genres and its evolution up to today. Few people recognise a good script or a well-told story with just the right measure of simple techniques skillfully applied. Cinema no longer has room for snappy choreography or haunting melodies: colours and songs are, these days, just for kids. The spectacle of the older all-singing, all-dancing musicals has been replaced with special effects – stunning, sure, but not moving in the way we were moved by the sheer effort of the old-school actors, backed by orchestras as they sang, danced and interpreted characters with no help from any CGI super technology. The audience for musicals has retired, and with it has gone the capacity for surprise and innocence.

Education for the feelings

The cinema-goer born at the start of the last century learnt to cry like A Jazz Singer: with a babe-in-arms, the business realised that it had the chance to become a model mother. Thus the old silent-movie star-system passed away in the face of a little monster which grew fat on new formulas. While the first Broadway Melodies (1929) sounded in the air, he was christened Oscar, and his art fed on the dollar, following any path that would lead to greater profit.

He wandered through the thirties as any child might, Swinging (1936) on the arms of Uncle Fred and Auntie Ginger, as those eternal tunes got fixed in his memory. It was this duo who taught him his first Dance (1937) steps and how to dress up (1935), and took him to exotic places (1933) on the wings of a song.

But it was his friends who introduced this young American to High Society (1956) and the delights of Paris (1951) and Singing In The Rain (1952) - or any other kind of weather, for that matter.

Adolescence put an end to childhood, as sex and violence captured all his attention. His first love was Juliet – and Romeo – although it was a doomed romance (1961). He learnt about Rock and roll in the Jailhouse (1957), and his first visit to a Cabaret (1972) banished innocent memories of his nanny (1964), as he was accompanied on the road to maturity by Sound Of Music (1965). The big studios fixed film genres in one time and place, and the American public then grew old on a diet of technological improvement: challenging a brylcreemed audience, sure of its own style and distant from everything else, to think became less of a priority: it wanted its thrills in gothic manner (1975) or to feverishly dance every Saturday Night (1977) away. Meanwhile, a genre sank beneath the pressure of capitalism which, little by little, gained countries and lost art.

From Big Spectacle to mere passing time

The child is now an old man: he no longer sniffles with the old jazz singer, but rather hums a requiem while he Dances In The Darkness (2000), feeling around for a moth-eaten cushion, made in Chicago (1975) perhaps, or India, on which to rest his clumsy, fat old frame. He knows, now, that fame is a reflection of a reality that entertains, and though it is full of sound and fury, it signifies nothing. Musical films are now resigned to being kids’ stuff; instead of the songs of old, once-anthems, there are now ringtones for your mobile.

It always used to be about enjoying other realities, being amused by other lives. Our audiovisual education, maturer now and closer to decay, demands something more real, less naïve. Theatre has fallen to the onslaught of immediacy and music, as many other things, only serves as background. The concept of a spectacle is no longer the same. When we speak now of 'showbusiness', what do we mean? Simply filling up time? There’s no time for applause, for outpourings of emotion as in the past, only vegging out. German philosopher Walter Benjamin said 'society has become a show of itself.' Our society no longer sings; people barely whistle in the streets. Drama and mediocre comedy is the genre we now live.

In-text photo: Saturday Night Fever (Photo: ©pesnopeya/ Flickr)