Posted by Greg Ferrara on May 7, 2014
A new book, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960′s, by Matthew Kennedy, is one I anxiously await reading. It documents the roadshow movie musicals and how they brought the musical to its knees. For the curious, a roadshow movie musical is the kind made popular in the sixties, a musical of epic length, complete with overture and intermission. Think West Side Story or The Sound of Music. When they worked, as with those two, they were spectacular successes but when they failed, they wiped out the bank. They’re given the blame for the death of the musical in the late sixties and early seventies, after flops like Paint Your Wagon and Lost Horizon pounded the final nails into the coffin of Hollywood musicals where they lay dead until The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and, later, the Oscar winning Chicago brought them back. Except, I don’t think they ever died. In fact, I think the seventies is when they finally, really took off.
I know, I know, it’s crazy, but, really, it’s not. The musical genre has always had two basic forms: Diegetic musicals and non-diegetic musicals. Diegetic is where the music is intended to be heard as music within the film. In Cabaret, for instance, every song that is performed is heard by the characters in the movie as a song, performed on a stage. Non-diegetic is music that the characters in the movie can’t hear, like a musical score (we can assume that neither Marion nor Norman is hearing the strident strings shrieking in the background as he stabs her to death in Psycho). For the sake of musicals, it means that when Russ Tamblyn starts singing about being a Jet, the audience hears it as a song while the characters in the movie hear it as Russ Tamblyn talking about being a Jet. In other words, characters go spontaneously into song, with full musical accompaniment despite there being no orchestra present.
Now while the big, over-budgeted roadshow musicals definitely put the non-diagetic on life support, briefly, the diegetic musical really took off. The aforementioned Cabaret being one of the biggest and the best of the early seventies. There was a great story in Cabaret and great numbers but separate from each other in a way few musicals had experimented with before. The musical numbers in Cabaret are of a different world than the rest of the story of Cabaret and yet they comment on the action. The numbers act as a kind of chorus for the dramatic story playing before the audience’s eyes. This was the first sign, and a strong one at that, that musicals weren’t dead. They were, in fact, moving in completely new directions.
Another significant movement in music on film came with documentaries like Woodstock, Let it Be, and Gimme Shelter, documentaries that introduced the concept of the concert film. Sure, there had been revues before, but no one had put together a film of nothing but, say, a Duke Ellington concert in Paris, complete with backstage action. This was something new and would soon produce some strong entries including one of the finest of the seventies, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.
Also, you may have noticed the music featured in concert films tended towards rock music. Rock music, now fully intertwined into mainstream culture by the seventies, produced another new turn on the genre, the rock opera. Tommy was, is, and will probably always remain, the most famous of these and a personal favorite. Few movie musicals before the seventies had the nerve to sing from start to finish. Musicals like Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar sang every word of every sentence. There simply weren’t any dialogue scenes or breaks in the action. Like an opera, it was all music, all the time.
And music biographies took off in new ways, as well. No one could accuse Lisztomania of being formulaic biography of a great composer but the subjects of musical biographies now included more recent figures, like Buddy Holly. The Buddy Holly Story, released in 1978, told the story of the great rock singer/songwriter with great musical performances punctuating the drama.
Musicals even began to celebrate their own past with compilation documentaries like That’s Entertainment! and nostalgic, old fashioned style musicals like Grease. And then there were things like Phantom of the Paradise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Bugsy Malone, that took some of these standard, nostalgic forms and spun them in off-beat ways (and, no, Bugsy Malone wasn’t a slip up on my part, I think it’s actually pretty good, and weird).
By the end of the decade, my favorite movie musical of the decade finally came around. All That Jazz put them all together; standards, jazz, rock, dance, the influence on music videos, that all added up to a celebration and denigration of show biz, musicals, biopics, and self-reflection. Bob Fosse combined his own experiences on the stage with his experiences directing film (here he directly references his stewardship of Lenny), used diagetic, non-diagetic, life, afterlife, real, and surreal music and put all of it to work telling the story both as commentary and direct progression of plot. Personally, its glitziness and seventies excess make it even better for me. Had the same type of story been made in 69 or 89, instead of 79, it wouldn’t have been as good.
So I’m looking forward to reading Roadshow very much because the era of big bloated musicals in the sixties and early seventies does fascinate me and I’d love to read what Kennedy has to say. But don’t let anyone tell you that film musicals died after the sixties because they didn’t. They not only survived, they experienced more innovation and progression than they had since the Kelly/Donan era. In the 1970′s, movie musicals didn’t die, they broke free.
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