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Photo/Video: West Side Story
It seems like discussing the genre of the movie musical is almost taboo. From cinephiles to casual moviegoers, those that I’ve talked to either really love them or really hate them. Musicals have always been a steady genre in Hollywood, despite the lack of respect they receive from the industry, but now more than ever, they seem to be brazenly making a comeback, demanding the praise they deserve. From classics like ‘Grease,’ to remakes like Steven Spielberg’s upcoming ‘West Side Story,’ to original musicals like ‘La La Land,’ to Broadway productions adapted to the main screen, and even more, let’s take a deep dive into the genre of the movie musical.
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The Lack of Respect for Movie Musicals
Musicals are often caught between two worlds. Not live and staged enough to qualify for a Tony but not typically respected enough to win big at the Oscars, excluding those awarding achievements in film score, sound design, or individual songs. Arguably, two of the most prestigious award shows for excellence in film making are the Golden Globes and the Oscars, the Oscars being preeminent and in their own tier. Unlike the Oscars, the Golden Globes separate their film awards by genre, and in an attempt to limit the amount of awards they give out each year, have linked two genres together, naming the award: Best Original Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Although, not all musicals are comedies; far from it. So what happens to a movie like ‘Les Miserable,’ ‘Notorious,’ or ‘Bohemian Rhapsody?’ Well, at least for the ladder’s sake, the title of the award must not be too strict, as in 2019, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ won Best Motion Picture – Drama. It is clear that they do not have it all figured out.
In 2017, five films from the preceding year were nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes: ‘20th Century Women,’ ‘Deadpool,’ ‘Florence Foster Jenkins,’ ‘La La Land,’ and ‘Sing Street.’ Three of these films were comedies, one was a musical and comedy, and the other was quite simply a musical. Nevertheless, ‘La La Land,’ which I would personally not consider a comedy, took home the award. Isn’t this unfair to the comedy movies in the same category? On the other hand, the drama genre does not get the same treatment, for some reason, it’s been deemed as being deserving of its own award. Clearly, this is not the right way to treat musicals, or comedies for that matter.
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Conversely, the Academy Awards simply does not include musicals in any separated or distinct capacity, choosing a secondary genre with which each film fits and awarding it thusly, forgoing the overall musical achievements they may make. Perhaps, producers and studios realized that it is needlessly difficult for them to win the top Oscar if they choose to make a musical. Awards are not the best indicator of a good story, but they are a common goal for most filmmakers. As a musical come award season, they would be going up against more traditional explorations in cinema with regards to the genre represented in each category; so why should investors and creators sink so much time and money into content that won’t receive cordial acclaim?
Most recently, ‘La La Land’ won Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical at the 2017 Golden Globes, and Rami Malek won Best Actor in a Leading Role for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at the 2019 Academy Awards, and that could make it seem like there is no dearth of respect when it comes to movie musicals being celebrated by award shows. Although, in actuality, there have only actually been ten movie musicals that have won the Best Picture Oscar throughout the history of cinema. The most recent being the Hollywood adaptation of ‘Chicago,’ released in 2002. Because of this statistic, it makes sense that if the suits of Hollywood want to go for gold, they may not opt for musicals.
A Comeback in Various Forms
Although musicals might not find success in terms of receiving the utmost awards, they are largely popular and enjoyed by audiences. Big budgeted musicals are usually centered around being the movie of whatever season they come out in, as their over-the-top stylized form makes for an ever-fun viewing experience, most commonly marketed as family-friendly. Although, not all of them are like this.
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Musicals do not have to feature original music to be considered as one, in fact, most live-action musicals that have been released recently are either Broadway adaptations, remakes, or are reinventing and challenging the very form of what a musical is. In an attempt to bring more musicals to the big screen, Hollywood has greenlit movie adaptations of Broadway musicals, like the upcoming ‘In The Heights’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ and I will count ‘Hamilton’ because it was a stage production filmed and edited to fit the form of a movie.
Even ‘My Fair Lady’ was a stage adaptation; it is a system of synergy that has proven successful for the connection of the worlds that are theatre and motion pictures. Furthermore, musicals aren’t excluded from the money-hungry safety net projects that are big-budget remakes. These include filmed live productions of classics like ‘Grease’ and ‘Hairspray,’ to full remakes like, also ‘Hairspray’ and the upcoming ‘West Side Story.’ As Hollywood has recently figured out, it’s much less risky to remake a movie with fresh actors and technology that tells a story that already has a built-in fan base; that is why original movie musicals like ‘La La Land’ or ‘The Greatest Showman’ are treasures to be savored and cherished.
Although, recently a new player arrived that walked the line of movie musicals before, not using original music, but also not a remake or adaptation: ‘Pitch Perfect.’ Taking inspiration from the hit television series ‘Glee,’ there is no reason why it would not be considered a musical; it very much is. Although, if you look at the groundwork set by those in the same genre before it, it doesn’t follow the same rules.
In this trilogy, when the collegiate acapella group breaks out into song, the audience has heard them all before, as they are real-life pop songs. Although, in the film, they have been recontextualized to not only fit, but further the plot and story arcs. For example, their patented riff-offs dole out expositional romantic entanglement and antagonist vs protagonist plotlines while serving fun and inventive mashups to the songs they know we’ve enjoyed. That is truly a genius reimagining of what a movie musical is and can be. ‘Pitch Perfect,’ though, is not the only recent film to attempt to redefine what this genre can offer.
Dissecting the Definition of a Movie Musical
Musicals tend to have loose definitions in terms of how an audience will define them. Does a soundtrack-lead movie, a film whose driving force revolves around the music it shares in a diegetic manner, constitute a musical? For ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ these movies are propelled and guided by the soundtrack. They prioritize music to the same degree as image, and, to me, that’s what the musical does: it takes advantage of the effect that songs can have on an audience. This is something that films often neglect. So as we already established, for a movie to be considered a musical, it doesn’t need to feature original music, and in a music-heavy movie such as these, the actions and intentions of the protagonist and antagonist are directed and explained through the songs that are played. That is what a musical was originally intended to do: find a beautiful new method of revealing exposition that is not through dialogue.
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Throughout the movie ‘Baby Driver,’ the diegetic music that is played is explaining, or sometimes foreshadowing, the actions and feelings that the characters are going through in that very moment. For example, in one scene, our main protagonist, Baby, looks to the backseat at one of his associates singing along to the lyrics “nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide.” So, how many degrees away from each other are singing along and plain old singing? Even though the real song is in the background, the message of said song is coming from the person singing along. In the next scene, we find out that Baby really does not have anywhere to run to and nowhere to hide, as we see his love interest and hear more lyrics from a new song, clearly from her perspective: “when something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.” That is beautiful, musical style storytelling — in my opinion.
Now, it is up to you to self-define what you may consider a musical. Hopefully, if you are one who is averse to them, my declaration of ‘Baby Driver’ as a musical, does not deter you from watching it, because it is a masterpiece. Personally, I wish that people didn’t see musicals as genres only for kids and saw them as substantive works of art, and I wish that the entertainment industry and their awards gave them more respect. I fully understand that those two play hand in hand: respect has to come from either side before it gets funnelled over to the other. Some of the most beautiful, sad, funny, and complex stories that I have seen have been musicals; even in terms of musical comedy like in Bo Burnham’s new musical comedy special on Netflix, ‘Bo Burnham: Inside.’ I think in order to fully appreciate a movie musical, an open mind is necessary, because they are always one degree away from reality, a degree towards something more fantastic than the world we are in; one filled with vibrant, melodic music. I hope that you give one a shot, and, by the way, you know it’s good when you can’t get the music out of your head!
By Samuel James Parven
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Samuel James Parven is an avid fan of all things entertainment and pop culture, who shines in reviewing the hidden gems of Hollywood. Samuel is fascinated by the direct correlation between media and culture. If art imitates life and vice versa, Samuel focuses on highlighting the ways that the entertainment industry and their consumers alike can improve our interpersonal world through the content with which we engage. With the aligned values of Hollywood Insider to focus on positivity and growth, Samuel is a passionate writer hoping to pen his takes on how to add more substance and inclusivity to the industry we love so much.