What Makes a Musical?

Time for another brief post this week as I prepare to open the Stallone Diary once again and examine the Comedies.

Yes, it’s going to hurt.

But before all that, I want to talk a bit about the musical because a co-worker suggested that Staying Alive fit the movie musical mold. The movie has lots of dancing, what with it being about dancers, it has character singing songs. Okay, it has Cynthia Rhodes and Frank Stallone singing songs on a stage to a crowd waiting for their hot wings, but it is singing. There’s also several musical montages, but this is all documented in my original Best of Yakmala/Stallone Diary entry for that film.

Despite all the “musicality” of the film, I don’t think it really counts as a musical. Certainly not in the way we think of movie musicals. Perfected by MGM in the 30s and 40s, the musical is a peculiar genre. It takes stagecraft and spins a camera around it. Stage musicals are bound by their theatrically. They are something presented to you, the audience, with a clear line of demarcation. In a movie musical, the camera demands the word exist around it and the people function less on a stage and more in an agreed upon reality.

At the time of the great MGM musicals, there was also a sub-genre that I call the musical extravaganza. These films featured musical performances that were more or less disconnected from the drama unfolding in the talking parts. Columbia and Fox made tons of these to showcase the singing talents they had under contract. What sets these films apart from the movie musical we’ve come to expect is simple difference in the format: plot happens when no one is singing. In the MGM movie musical, plot and character are conveyed through song.

The does not happen in Staying Alive with the possible exception of one Cynthia Rhodes song that’s so painfully on the nose that it looks like a mistake.

But is it possible that I’m wrong? Is a movie musical more fluid and adaptable than the format perfected by MGM? Consider the musicals of the 70s and 80s. I know, that’s not fun, but hear me out. Fox nearly went bankrupt when a string of musicals like Star! and Doctor Doolittle failed in the marketplace. These movies are fairly light and fluffy and despite the unrest in the American psyche at the time, none proved to be the right sort of escapist material audiences wanted. Also, to look at them now, they all become a little too bright and saccharine for a favorable reappraisal.

And then there’s Annie, which, along with Grease II, pretty much wrecked the musical as a staple of Hollywood output for two decades. Yes, I am aware of Little Shop of Horrors and a few other one-offs, but it wasn’t until the success of Chicago in 2002 that the genre became dependable again.

So what went wrong? It’s hard for me to tell as I’m not the biggest fan of the musical format. There are handful I love — 1776, Singin’ in the Rain, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — but for the most part, I find it harder to access a story when it’s sung to me. I don’t really like the Who’s Tommy either, but I love Quadrophenia because it barely has a plot. I will venture that my problem with conveying story through song became an issue for movie goers in the 80s. Or it could just have been a lack of good material.

All that said, I find the way the movie musical waned a fascinating topic. Clearly, genre fare replaced it for a time, but people still go and see Broadway shows, so it wasn’t a wholesale implosion of the form.

Maybe it was just Tony Manero’s greased up body and performance as the Tomahawk Warrior.


For another Best Of Yakmala film, take a look at Justin’s review of In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. Or for another format that bedevils a member of The Satellite Show, look at David’s rumination on “The Newsroom.”

About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
This entry was posted in Projected Pixels and Emulsion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Makes a Musical?

  1. Pingback: “Anything too Stupid to be Said is Sung” | The Satellite Show

  2. Pingback: The All-Singing All-Dancing Crap of the World | The Satellite Show

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