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.