Friday, May 15, 2009

Music & the Movies

So Sean and I have an ongoing discussion about what constitutes a "Musical" and what is just a "Movie with Music." It is my firm contention that not only are movies like "Footloose" and "Flashdance" which heavily feature original musical sequences not musicals (as they were often categorized in the 80s when traditional musicals died), but I go so far as to say that many films about a non-fictional group or performer (Walk the Line, A Hard Day's Night) which feature their music in full musical sequences don't count either.

Here are my basic rules:

A "Musical" must feature music written specifically for that project.

Musical sequences must be performed by the characters, preferably in character.

There should be at least one big dance sequence.

Songs should serve to further the plot and/or character development.

Sean loves to try to trip me up citing certain movies and asking whether or not they would count. Ray? Nope. Help? Close, but no cigar. What about Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Dreamgirls? They're about performers! Yes, but some songs are sung in character and all songs are about the plot/characters.

Every now and again he stymies me. Truthfully, some movies are tougher to argue for or against. Some are very much on the line. I don't consider Ray a musical, but do I consider Yankee Doodle Dandy one? Probably. It's tough. Is it just because George M. Cohan's music is more traditional and therefore more befitting a musical? Or is it because many of the recreations of his performances are theatrical presentations instead of a singer singing into a microphone in a nightclub? My carefully chosen rules don't always work. Sometimes for me it comes down to what feels like a musical and what doesn't.

Some of my favorite musicals:

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - dated, but adorable

Singing in the Rain - Pure, unadulterated joy

My Fair Lady - A movie I never cared for a t first, but continues to grow on me more & more (but it's not a romance!)

Dreamgirls/ Chicago - all hail to re-birth of the movie musical!

Some of my favorite "movies with music:"

Once - simple & sweet, with a tremendous soundtrack

Almost Famous - Cameron Crowe & Martin Scorsese are probably two of the best directors for knowing how to use music.

A Hard Day's Night - Come on, it's the Beatles! How can you top that?

The Commitments - Perhaps one of the best soundtracks ever created for a film.


  1. I don't know, I think there is serious cause to put Hedwig firmly in the musical catagory

  2. Okay that last comment was actually me, I didn't realize I was signed in as my boss (oops)

  3. I say that a musical is a movie that features full songs performed throughout the film. Not clips or montages. And the actors have to be at least portrayed as singing. Yes, I accept lip-synching. Without that, where would Marni Nixon be?

  4. So here's some clarification on musicals. Initially, musicals were more about showcasing the songs, rather than fully incoporating book and score to tell a story. This is why earlier shows, have had several new book and score incarnations. Things changed in 1943 when Oklahoma came onto the scene and established the idea that the songs should enhance the plot and character development. And that's your criteria right there. Essentially,the score should also be written with the idea of being a companion to the book. Films about singers, with realistic music performance scenes are bio-pics not musicals. Ray, Coal-Miner's Daughter, Walk the Line feature performances, but done in the manner of illustrating the historic moments not, appropriated to further tell the subject's story, as is done in Beyond the Sea and De-Lovely. Dreamgirls and Hedwig were written as stage shows which the score written to specifically tell the story and reveal more about the characters within the show's book. The stage version of Dreamgirls, actually features more non-performance character songs, but were cut in the film.

    The new trend now in musicals is to take previously written music and utilize to tell a musical story. Mouling Rouge, Mamma Mia and Across the Universe are examples of this as they utilized the songs to reveal more about the characters and to develop the plot.

    So I feel the 'rules' established are pretty spot on. I do tend to fall into the camp the Yankee Doodle is not so much a musical and more a bio-pic. But it does have a small loop-hole as it was done in the pre-Oklahoma era and could be argued that it was following the 'showcase' aspect.