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Musical film

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Musical film

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The musical film is a film genre in which several songs sung by the characters are interwoven into the narrative. The songs are usually used to advance the plot or develop the film's characters. A subgenre of the musical is the musical comedy, which includes a strong element of humour as well as the usual music, dancing and storyline.

The musical film was a natural development of the stage musical. Typically, the biggest difference between film and stage musicals is the use of lavish background scenery which would be impractical in a theater. Musical films characteristically contain elements reminiscent of theater; performers often treat their song and dance numbers as if there is a live audience watching. In a sense, the viewer becomes the diegetic audience, as the performer looks directly into the camera and performs to it.

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History of the musical

The musical is the genre associated with the transition from silent film to sound film. The concept of "talking pictures" had been considered a risky investment by the major Hollywood studios until the Warner Bros. studio took the leap and produced The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson. Jolson's singing in the picture forever changed the medium of film, and it jolted Hollywood into the era of sound. As Hollywood adapted to sound films, musicals were an important part of Hollywood's movie output, ranking alongside Westerns, dramas, and comedies.

Musicals of the classical sound era

The 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s are often considered the golden age of the musical, when the genre's popularity was at its height.

Busby Berkeley

During the 1930s, director Busby Berkeley began to enhance the traditional dance number with ideas drawn from the drill precision he had experienced as a soldier during the First World War. In films such as 42nd Street (1933), Berkeley choreographed a number of films in his unique style. Berkeley's numbers typically begin on a stage but gradually transcend the limitations of theatrical space: his ingenious routines, involving human bodies forming patterns like a kaleidoscope, could never fit onto a real stage and the intended perspective is viewing from straight above. Berkeley's use of the female body as an erotic spectacle is regarded by many feminists today as exploitation.

Musical stars

Musical stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among the most popular and highly respected personalities in Hollywood during the classical era; the Fred and Ginger pairing was particularly successful, resulting in a number of classic films, such as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Carefree (1938).

Many dramatic actors gladly participated in musicals as a way to break away from their typical typecasting. For instance, the multi-talented James Cagney had originally risen to fame as a stage singer and dancer, but his repeated casting in "tough guy" roles and gangster movies gave him few chances to display these talents. Cagney's Oscar-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) allowed him to sing and dance, and he considered it to be one of his finest moments.

Many comedies (and a few dramas) included their own musical numbers. The Marx Brothers' movies included a musical number in nearly every film, allowing the Brothers to highlight their musical talents.

The Freed Unit

During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, a production unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer headed by Arthur Freed made the transition from old-fashioned musicals, whose formula had become repetitive, to something new. In 1939, Freed was hired as associate producer of The Wizard of Oz, and rescued the film's signature song, Over the Rainbow, from the editor's scissors. Recruiting his own workers, mostly from Broadway and the New York stage, Freed was responsible for bringing such talents as director Vincente Minnelli to the world of film. Starting in 1944 with Meet Me in St. Louis, the Freed Unit worked independently of its own studio to produce some of the most popular and well-known examples of the genre. The products of this unit include Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953). This era allowed the greatest talents in movie musical history to flourish, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney, Jane Powell, Howard Keel, and Kathryn Grayson. Fred Astaire was also coaxed out of retirement for Easter Parade and made a permanent comeback.

The post-classical musical

The 1950s musical

Since the 1950s, the musical has declined in popularity. One reason was the change in culture to rock n' roll and the freedom and youth associated with it. Elvis Presley made a few movies that have been equated with the old musicals in terms of form. Most of the musical films of the 50s and 60s, e.g. Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, were straightforward adaptations or restagings of successful stage productions.

The musical today

The trend in modern filmmaking after the 1960s has been to avoid "musicals" as such, in favour of using music by popular rock or pop bands as 'background music' in the hope of selling a soundtrack album to fans. There are exceptions to this rule, however, and films about actors, dancers or singers have been made as successful modern-style musicals, with the music as an intrinsic part of the storyline. The other exception to the rule is the children's animated movie, which almost always include traditional musical numbers, some of which, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, have later become live stage productions. In the early 2000s however, the musical film has begun to rise in popularity once more, with new works such as Moulin Rouge!, or film remakes of stage shows, such as Chicago, Rent, and The Producers, with the last two featuring many of the original Broadway cast members.

Another exception to the decline of the musical is Bollywood, the Indian film industry, where the vast majority of films have been and still are musicals. Thanks to the incumbent Bollywood formula of the often garish and unrealistic "song and dance" routine, and the lack of an independent Indian popular music scene until the late nineties, the Indian film and popular music industries have been intertwined since virtually the beginning of film production in the country. Some top playback singers are celebrities in India due to the demand for so-called filmi singles and albums. This trend continues even to date, although a few of the newer Bollywood films (usually in the English language or art genres) are breaking the mold by releasing films with no songs (such as Black, Matrubhoomi and 15, Park Avenue).


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