I love movie musicals. Which isn’t to say I love them all. There’s many a bumpy mile between “An American in Paris” and “Beach Blanket Bingo”. One’s cordon bleu, the other a cow patty. But – in my book – when a musical gets it right – when it’s firing on all cylinders and glows with just the right mix of talent, ambition, affection and creative fireworks – there’s nothing that can touch it. After words have expressed all they can, music takes over to make a moment, a concept, a feeling soar. That's when enjoyment turns into euphoria.
Movie musicals flourished from the time films found their voice in the late 20’s till the mid-fifties. For that two and a half decades or so, the world’s state of mind, the nature of the studio system and the alignment of the stars (all kinds of stars) supported and promoted the public’s love affair with a seemingly endless string of them. Though music remained more integral to pop culture than ever after the mid-fifties, movie musicals were suddenly no longer deemed relevant, practical (as if practicality and the movie musical were ever born to be bed-mates) or cool. The movie studios, losing their audiences to television, went on cost-cutting purges, firing most of the creatives who made the musicals. A taste for ‘adult’ subjects gave audiences an (I think false) impression that musicals, because they seemed naive, were valueless. And of course the changing music scene placed rock’ n ’roll at center stage. The quick-buck operators that proliferated in that field used films to promote their records. But generally only the cheapest, shoddiest hot rod and poodle skirt vehicles. Hollywood became less and less interested in creating quality musicals. And in the process largely forgot how to make them. There was an attempt to resurrect the genre in the sixties, mainly with elephantine Broadway transfers. But hits were outnumbered by expensive disasters and by decade’s end, the genre seemed more or less doomed. After that – if not silence – we got decades in which a movie musical was a rare sighting. I think there were three great ones in the 70’s – “The Boy Friend”, “Godspell” and “Saturday Night Fever”. But only the last of them made money. “Grease”, which grossed a fortune, was never my cup of tea – to me it was just “Beach Blanket Bingo” on a bigger budget. The 80’s and 90’s produced only one classic, "Pennies from Heaven". Creative spurts from abroad, (notably “Starstruck” and “Strictly Ballroom”, both from Australia) were commendable – but hardly registered on mainstream radar. In the new millennium, we’ve made something of a return to the sixties trend. Movie musicals aren’t quite as rare now, but the ones we get are generally pre-tested, pre-digested retreads of proven (usually Broadway) properties. And - even the best of them (“Chicago” “Dreamgirls”, “Les Miserables” – tend to come off as expensive, well put together floats in search of a parade that’s already passed by.
But there was a part of the world where the movie musical had never died. On the teeming Indian sub-continent, it had been flourishing non-stop. India’s home to a plethora of languages and cultures. And every region seemed to have its own film industry. But the massive Hindi one was the giant. As a matter of fact, virtually all Hindi movies revolved around music and song. Most of the Indian population seemed to be movie-crazy – and movie music crazy. The fact that television took a lot longer to make inroads there helped assure the long-term existence of a large audience who attended movie theaters zealously. And the NRI’s (non-resident Indians) who emigrated abroad remained fiercely loyal to the films they loved. Large North American cities usually had small neighborhood theaters devoted to showing Indian movies. And though they were ardently patronized by NRI audiences, non-Indians in those cities were, for the most part, unaware they even existed. When videocassettes made their bow, NRI’s found a whole new way to keep up with the movies from back home.
I lived in Toronto, a city with a large Indian community. But these films had never quite caught my full attention. From the 60’s on, I worked in a large, world-class record shop . Because I spent decades looking after one particular room in that emporium, memories of it are part of my DNA. The building was demolished about a decade ago but I remain the world’s greatest expert on a room that no longer exists. The geography of that space still finds its way into my dreams at night. The international section was part of my purview. And I couldn’t help noticing the gaudily enticing covers on the Indian soundtrack LP’s we carried. They were imported direct from India – all, I think from EMI-Parlophone. Not huge sellers at our store – but worth stocking, because we had a small, loyal market for them. I remember chatting several times with a particular customer, an older Indian man who was bent on convincing me that Mukesh was a better singer than Mohammed Rafi. This would have been around 1970. And as, at that point, I hadn’t heard either, I wasn’t really equipped to reach much of a conclusion. Though I certainly was convinced that he believed it. Nor did I realize that in outlying, largely Indian neighborhoods, there were shops that specialized in these items and that’s where the real sales happened. I even remember buying one of our Indian LP’s out of curiosity. After all, I was already a soundtrack collector – and these were clearly movie musicals. The one I got was called “Humjoli”. And Mohammed Rafi was on it but not Mukesh. The sub-par sound quality and the strange (to my ears) wail of the female singers must have given me pause. And – in that pre-internet age – even if I’d been more interested, I wasn’t able to proceed with any meaningful investigation into what I might actually like better. Plus, of course, there were a million other uses for what little money I had. So I moved on. That was the end of my first flirtation with Indian film music . I’m pretty sure the term “Bollywood” hadn’t even been coined yet. Certainly, I’d never seen a Bollywood musical. That changed in 1997.
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