Saturday, November 08, 2008

What Would "Back" Look Like?

There was an argument that would happen from time to time with me and SR about whether or not the film musical was 'back.' He was for, I was against. It seemed to me that it was a short trend that would last no longer than occasional bursts of westerns (remember the summers of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill that followed the success of Unforgiven? Then a whole lot of nothing except the occasional 3:10 to Yuma.)

But westerns are still being made, if occasionally. And so are musicals. Big budget musical films have continued to be produced year after year, tracking back to Chicago to this year's Mamma Mia!. Certainly they have been made with greater frequency than westerns.

But does that constitute 'back?' Does 'back' merely mean that they exist separate of isolated 'me too' trends in movie releases, or does it have to compare to the heyday of the film musical, the thirty year run where the film musical was king?

I have to admit that my criteria for denying that it was back was nested partly in that it was too early to tell, and partly in what a high watermark that musicals have left.

But now I have to conclude that this is an unfair standard. Part of what drove the film musical was the old studio system. Packaged stars and a near factory approach to film making as well as a more thoroughly integrated system meant that theaters could literally be flooded with musicals year in and year out. Most of the assessments of the musical cite the rise of rock and roll and changing sensibilities as the death of the musical, but it seems that it would be no coincidence that the decline of the musical coincides with the decline of the studio system.

Certainly the dissolving of things like the Hayes Code would change thing, changing the landscape of films from all having a more or less vanilla morality to them to grittier movies like The Man With the Golden Arm and The Bicycle Thief, that helped break the code down. Certainly there would still be room for a South Pacific in such a world, but room still had to be made.

The truth is that no single type of film could ever achieve the complete dominance the film musical used to have. The only real 'type' of film that can compare would be the blockbuster, since movie studios use these films as 'tentpoles' to support riskier projects, losses, and regular old studio maintenance.

But the thing is, these can come in any flavor, and certainly have come in the guise of musicals such as Chicago, Dreamgirls, Moulin Rouge!, Mamma Mia!. But there have been losers as well, in Phantom of the Opera, Rent, and The Producers. In fact, it seems for every major success of a movie musical there is a two laying at their feet.

However, they're still being made. For near release there is Repo! The Genetic Opera, Dark Streets, and Christmas on Mars. Unlike Dreamgirls or Chicago, none of these are based on a stage musical. Each actually attempts a new take on the musical, Dark Streets a smokey jazz fantasy/thriller, Repo! A Genetic Opera a sci fi musical from the producers of Saw, and Christmas on Mars essentially a rock band film in the vein of The Wall or Tommy, but this time for The Flaming Lips.

Honestly, none of these are likely to make much of a splash at the box office. But the thing is, they're still getting made. Not to mention upcoming releases of Jeckyll & Hyde, Aida, Jesus Christ Superstar (I was as surprised as you are), Footloose and Wicked. It's been six years since Chicago, seven since Moulin Rouge!, and almost two decades since Beauty and the Beast and Nightmare Before Christmas arguably opened the door for the modern film musical.

If I bury this in enough quasi-film paper nonsense I can quietly admit, yes, the film musical is 'back.' But it's a diminished back, a back that does not come even close to restoring its prominence. It's not a back that can rely on the Great White Way. It is a back that still carries a higher than normal risk-it doesn't have a 'place' in the calender like the spring romances, the summer action films, or the fall prestige films. And it is a tenuous back. And has been well into my denials.

But that doesn't mean that I'm going to admit that the fantasy film is back. It would have to have had a 'there' to be back from...


  1. Gotta add Next and Across the Universe, both at least a little successful, to the list of recent musicals. Also, there seems to be a major Disney franchise that rhymes with Shmigh Schmool Loozical that promises to tempt a whole new slew of studio execs to take the musical gamble.

  2. I was purposefully avoiding mentioning High School Musical, then you went and did it.

    The Teen Musical is going to be a cow milked dry in short order, between Hannah Montana and however they try to spin off High School Musical now that the little singing scamps have graduated.

    Next is an interesting example because no one did want to talk a chance on that one, and I would argue that if they had it would not have been as much of a success as it was. Also, in the family of film musicals that are out, it's almost a dinosaur in that it's a 'back stage' musical that still bothers with 'motivating' the singing of the characters, something Across the Universe did not bother with, nor the ones that are out or coming out right now.

    As I alluded to in the 300 post, I have come around to the magical reality singing over the motivated singing, in for a penny in for a pound, so to speak.

    I haven't seen Next, though. I'm even less up on my musical viewing than I am my first person films or meta action heroes...

  3. Seems to me that the musical started its modern comeback in animated films, especially once Disney started its winning streak with "The Little Mermaid." Fortunately, other studios haven't felt the need to continue that trend recently.

    But as far as modern musicals go, I'd say my most recent favorite--and I don't watch many--is "Reefer Madness: The Musical," which also started as a Broadway show and was then translated into film.

  4. Reefer Madness is a sore spot for me, because I found out about it after getting the bright idea to do a stage version of the movie, spending eight hours from coming up with the idea deciding that this would make my stage career, to googling for a transcript and discovering that not only am I behind the ball, but they were making a movie out of the musical. My stage career rose and fell between the times I was not on the internet.

    Absolutely credit would largely have to go to Disney's return to making animated musicals, but Disney itself was prodded into it by Don Bluth and "An American Tail" which was wildly successful. (along with less successful films like Anastasia and Rock-a-Doodle) Then there was The Road to El Dorado and Prince of Egypt from Dreamworks. Thumbillina, the Swan Princess. I don't think it's that no one else followed Disney, it's just that they've been as epically forgettable as the Post Katzenberg Disney musicals (who himself could not re-strike gold with Dreamworks).

    Though its true, I can't find very many recent ones, even from Disney.