I always find it interesting that movie musicals, for as many people there are that love them, there’s just as many that absolutely hate them. And, I’ve never really understood that hatred. I don’t know if it’s because some of the first films that I saw were movie musicals (I’m looking at you, Disney), but whatever it is, I do love them.
I love them so much that I even took a class in college completely about movie musicals and their history. And, that’s the part I love about them. It’s their history.
You see, when you look at film history within the United States, in general, you can trace what was happening during the time period the film was made. For example, in the 1950s there were a lot of monster movies released, along with films that centered on paranoia. This directly reflects the nuclear bomb scare that was frightening the country and the paranoia directly reflects the United States fear of Communism. You can also trace this stuff solely with movie musicals. And, that’s one of the things that I love about them.
Start from the beginning, with 1927s The Jazz Singer. Synching sound with
film had just made its way to Hollywood. The Jazz Singer was the first “talkie” to be released. And they hit the ground running, making it a musical. It was the first to have a synchronized music score and have moments of actual singing.
Throughout the 1930s and into the first half of the 1940s, movie musicals were very much about
patriotism and moral. At this time, the United States was going through The Great Depression. These films were meant to cheer people up, bring them joy, and pull them away from reality for a little while. Some of the movie musicals released at this time were Yankee Doodle Dandy (which you can see my opinion on that film here), and The Wizard of Oz.
The latter half of the 1940s and through the 1950s, we have the Freed Unit. Arthur Freed was hired by MGM, and he transformed the musical format, integrating the musical numbers into everyday life, as opposed to the old formula, where musical numbers tended to take place on a stage within the film. The 1950s are also known as The Golden Age of Television. So, to compete, movie musicals had to be big. They had to be showstoppers.
In the first half of the 1960s, those big budget movie musicals were still doing well. There were a lot of stage musicals being adapted into film like, The Sound of Music, Hello Dolly!, Funny Girl, Bye Bye Birdie, and State Fair. However, when Doctor Dolittle didn’t do as well as hoped, Hollywood executives realized that a change had come within film: New Hollywood had arrived.
The movie musicals of the 1970s incorporated the sexual exploration and drug use that was so prevalent within the counterculture (who, at this point, had their hands in Hollywood quite deep). Movie musicals weren’t
made nearly as often as they had been, but they were still being made. Cabaret, Godspell, The Rocky Horror Picture Show were all made during this era.
From the 1980s through to the 2000s, movie musicals begin to die off. Yes, they are there, and most of them are animated, but the focus had shifted back into studio driven films and “teen flicks” (God bless John Hughes). The movie musicals that were made in the 1980s and 1990s relied heavily on the popularity of musicals on Broadway and the West End.
Movie musicals would not make a resurgence, really, until Moulin Rouge in 2001 and Chicago and 8 Mile in 2002. (And yes, I do consider 8 Mile a movie musical. It is completely driven by its music.) These musicals, and the ones that followed like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables all have a darker tone to them, which I think reflects what’s been happening in our society throughout the last two decades.
Movie musicals can be fun and silly to watch, like Rock of Ages or Hairspray, or even Mamma Mia! (Even if Pierce Brosnan did almost ruin it with his singing). But,they can also be thought provoking and dark and evoke real emotion, like Godspell, and Across the Universe and Little Shop of Horrors(yes. I know that last one is a lot of fun and silliness, but the Director’s Cut ending is so goddamn heartbreaking.)
And that’s why I love them so much.