Movie musicals in the Western tradition are defined by more than a mere presence of music. The music itself must perform a strict storytelling function. Often they are surreal in nature, with bizarre happenings that would never occur in the real world, such as background characters “spontaneously” breaking into perfectly choreographed dance routines. In fact, once upon a time, musicals weren’t defined by the presence of music at all.
In Hollywood, musicals and the silver screen have been constant companions since the silent era. Admittedly, it wasn’t always the perfect marriage. Certianly they weren’t as effective as the stage verisons they were adapted from. The most audiences could hope for in these early iterations was lyrics on screen, and if they were lucky (and the theatre pianist felt so inclined) they might hear melodies from the show sprinkled into the musical accompaniment. (Vogel, 2003)
With the release of the musical The Jazz Singer in 1927, onscreen characters could suddenly sing and talk. Released by Warner Borthers, it was the first feature length film to synchronise dialogue to picture. One year earlier, the same studio and director had released Don Juan (Crosland, 1926), setting the stage by synchronising music and sound for the first time in a feature film. (Young, 2011)
This marked a major turning point in Hollywood, one documented a few decades later in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s fictional musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain (Donen, Kelly, 1952). The tension of this story is around a silent film, which, after the release of The Jazz Singer, is forced to pivot mid-production to become a “talkie” and a musical. The studio scrambles to keep up with this tectonic change to the entertainment industry, and comical pandemonium ensues.
To specify that any musical from the 1950s is a comedy is perhaps a little redundant. In Hollywood’s studio era, the 1930s through 1950s, musicals were inexorably jovial. The form became synonymous with exuberant dance numbers, loveable characters, and the inescapable happy ending. This became particularly true during the 1930s depression (Vogel, 2003) and 1940s wartime. (Woll, 1983) The escapism and optimism of these films gave them a broad appeal.
So, too, were musicals beloved by the critics. In only the second year of the Academy Awards, two musicals were nominated for best picture, with the musical melodrama Broadway Melody ultimately triumphant over its more Vaudevillian musical counterpart The Hollywood Revue of 1929. The accolades continued, so that by the time Disney’s animated The Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture in 1991, it was the thirty-eighth musical to receive the honour. Of that thirty-eight, ten were from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and five from Warner Brothers. (Vogel, 2003) These two studios were undeniable powerhouses of the studio era musical, but with different approaches to the form.
Warner Brothers had long been known as the “studio with a social conscience” who “grabbed plots from the headlines of the daily papers.” (Woll, 1983, pg 42) By the 1930s, tight budgets and shrinking profits meant fewer musicals were being made at Warner. In 1940, none were made at all. But as (future president, then actor) Ronald Reagan’s character states in Warner Brothers’ 1943 Irving Berlin musical This is The Army, “a new war needs a new show.” (Curtiz, Blatt) So when the United States entered the Second World War after the events at Pearl Harbour in 1941, Warner Brothers promptly released two new musicals: Navy Blues and You’re in the Army Now. (Woll, 1983)
If Warner Brothers was the uncle with his nose in the newspaper, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the aunt who stubbornly wore a sparkly blouse to breakfast. MGM was more known for its extravagance than its socio-political relevance. Think Gene Kelly tap dancing in roller skates (Donen, Kelly, 1955) or Fred Astaire dancing upside down on the ceiling. (Donen, 1951) Their characters still went to war in the 1940s, but with a different tone. Below we can see Gene Kelly almost taking the Mickey (well, Jerry) in Anchors Aweigh as his character recounts “how I got my medal.” (Sidney, 1945)
Yet, even with their ten Oscars for best picture, “the MGM musical is today considered an outdated, niche commodity.” (Cohan, 2005, pg 1) So how does a filmic form with such huge success amongst the masses and the critics die? The answer, as if so often the case when questioning social change in the 21st Century, is the 1960s.
The Hollywood studio era had ended, and a new audience was forming. The baby boomers, once the first generation of teenagers, were growing up and entering colleges and the workforce. Those innocent days of drive-in cinemas and ice cream parlours were behind them, the Vietnam War and the threat of communism their new reality.
Musicals continued to receive critical acclaim. In 1968 the Charles Dickens adaptation Oliver! received eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. (Vogel, 2003) The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965) was another standout of the decade in terms of cultural impact. But audience reception had shifted. Whilst musicals willing to deal with darker Dickensian themes or depict Nazi occupied Austria succeeded, appetite for lighted-hearted frivolity had wained. Unlike previous generations, this new audience seemed less inclined to tackle the hardships of the decade with surrealistic optimistic escapism. Vogel observed in the 1990s that “movie-musical fans gave the last of their periodic goodbyes to the genre in the late sixties, and that one seems to be sticking. Musicals continue to reappear, but on what seems to be a trial basis.” (2003, pg 4-5)
Today, the same seems true. The occasional box office success such as La La Land (Chazelle, 2016) or The Greatest Showman (Gracey, 2017) brings renewed interest, but never lasting change. Broadway productions such as Hamilton have done much for the modern stage musical, but the movie musical often remains to be seen as shallow, silly, simple.
But a new phenomena is emerging, musicals that aren’t musicals. After all, a musical is defined by more than a mere presence of music. Yes, the characters sing and dance, but they do so in worlds steeped in realism, where the songs perform very different storytelling functions. These are films that explore the use of music in movies in a new way, and for a new audience. Often they are stories more concerned with the stop-start awkwardness of songwriting, than with the dramatic flair of an MGM musical. These modern non-musicals have a certain rebellious candidness about them, and they invariably end up being about musicians.
These ideas are nothing new, however. Even during the Hollywood studio era, some filmmakers struggled with the form. The established language of surrealism in musicals made for a certain level of creative license, “yet, despite this freedom to break into song and dance, the Astaire and Rogers films were always hindered by excessive plot devices that attempted to rationalise such acts. Fred was invariably cast as a dancer or a bandleader.” (Woll, 1983, pg 25) Mark Sandrich, who directed five Astaire and Rogers films for RKO Radio Pictures, was known for his personal vendetta against unmotivated dance numbers. He preferred instead to explain away mellifluous behaviour with clear story-driven reason, (Woll, 1983) something that had been present in The Jazz Singer but subsequently lost to the art form, as studios got swept up in the allure of technological developments, and the bigger and better musical numbers that this afforded.
Hollywood musicals continued to be inconsistent with which beliefs they were asking audiences to suspend. In The Sound of Music, (Wise, 1965) “Do Re Mi” is a musical number with which Maria teaches the Von Trapp children how to sing, a simple plot device for the climax of the film, when the newly formed Von Trapp Family Singers sing at a local concert as part of their scheme to flee Austria. In Rogers & Hammerstein’s original stage version, the children don’t sing until they’ve been taught how. In the film, however, the order of songs is changed, such that eldest child Liesl sings a duet with romantic interest Rolf before “Do Re Mi.” It would seem in-story logic mattered less to Hollywood than to Broadway.
Across the pond, though, a handful of filmmakers were trialling different solutions to the complexities of surrealism. All Night Long (Dearden, 1962) was a modern retelling of Othello, set in the London jazz scene. Starring Richard Attenborough, it co-starred several of the most prominent jazz musicians of the time, such as Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus. Their musical performances are the diegetic soundtrack to the Shakespearean drama, taking centre stage for much of the movie. The film has all but faded into obscurity, but is proof of an early attempt at musical realism and a more dramatic subject matter.
When it came time to make the first Beatles movie in the 1960s, in the tradition of the Elvis jukebox musicals of the 1950s, director Richard Lester took a similarly thoughtful approach. A Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964) is an absurdist comedy grounded in the reality of daily life for The Beatles, who play themselves in the film. Despite the absurd comedy, Lester made a conscious effort to establish a film language in which spontaneous outbursts of song were not disingenuous with the satirical world The Beatles inhabit in the film; in the opening scene, the fab four are suddenly and inexplicably running alongside a train they were just on. The logic here is clear, nothing in the script is impervious to the mysterious forces that let musical characters sing unprovoked. By making the surrealism consistent, Lester somehow achieves a contrapuntal sense of realism.
This push and pull between surrealism and in-story musical performance, between audience expectations and filmmaker frustrations, between form and function, is the heritage that this curation of films is born out of. In them we see glimpses of the social conscience of Warner, the in-story motivation of Sandrich, and the pioneering heart of The Jazz Singer. They’re just, well, not musicals.
The starting point for this list was simple, what have I already seen? Other films had been on my watch list for a while (or been recommended to me by the almighty streaming algorithms), which I duly went ahead and watched to see if they fit the tee. There were a few rules, to help narrow down this selection down to films that truly represented the rebellious candid spirit of these non-musical musicals.
1. No rock operas – Whilst these would fit in with the rest of the list in terms of musical style, this curation is more about realism than music.
2. No jukebox musicals – I wanted films that primarily showcased original songs, to show how songwriting can still be a storytelling tool, but in a new way from the traditional musical model.
3. No biopics – These could technically be considered a sub-genre of jukebox musicals, but regardless I was more interested in fiction.
4. No animation – The Disney musical is a whole other kettle of fish.
The Pitch Perfect franchise was an early consideration, until Rule 2 was decided upon. Those films aren’t musicals, but the very nature of a story about glee club singers means it’s a soundtrack of rearranged chart topping pop songs.
“Play jaja ding dong” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story fo Fire Saga was want to pop into my head unannounced throughout this selection process. And whilst the film perfectly fulfils the criteria I set out for this list, the tone was wrong. It didn’t fit with the candidness of what I was wanting to explore.
This is a small film with big heart. Shot in a mockumentary style, Once is the story of two singer-songwriters simply named Guy (Glen Hansard) and Girl (Marketa Irglova). He has a broken heart, she a broken vacuum cleaner, and a will-they-won’t-they storyline unfolds.
The two first meet when Guy is busking, and singing of lost love in what could almost be described as an ‘I want song.’ This is an essential element of any traditional musical, where each characters’ desires are established. Sondheim’s Into the Woods is perhaps the clearest example of this, with “I wish to go to the festival / And the ball / I wish my cow would give us some milk.” (Marshall, 2014) But ultimately, it is the dialogue after the song in Once which does the leg work of exposition. Guy singing about his wants is a natural expression of the work of a songwriter.
Hansard and Irglova won an Academy Award for Best Song (Oscars, 2008).
Once is now a Tony Award winning Broadway musical (Healy, 2012), but in its original filmic form this story is nothing but charming realism.
Inside Llewyn Davis
(Coen, Coen, 2013)
Set in 1960s New York, this Coen Brothers film is a dry comedy of the fictional Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac), as he struggles to earn a living as a folk musician in Greenwich Village. Like any good folk artists’ repetoire, this film scatters the ocassional folk standard amongst the original songs. Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons wrote much of the new musical material, but Isaacs himself sings all of Llewyn’s own songs live on set.
The film is even structured like a folk song, returning to the first verse at the end, offering a new perspective the second time around on Llewyn’s quip that “If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song.”
A Beautiful Life
Starring real life musical artist Christopher as the brooding fisherman Elliot, this Danish film explores a small story in a small coastal town. By chance, Elliot is discovered by the wife a deceased rockstar, who along with her daughter (Inga Ibsdotter Lilleeas) promises to rocket him to stardom. But life in a small town is never that simple.
Where a traditional musical might use reprises to repeat its best material, this film uses Elliot’s first single as a refrain that grows from just a hummed melody, through to a festival sing-along. Lyrics are inspired by dialogue, as the audience gets to watch the piece slowly come together. The song asks the same question that this film does, “if you have nothing to die for, what are you even alive for?” against a backdrop of the lifestyle realities of fame, and the ripple affects a musical career can have on family.
From the director of Once comes another love letter to the power of music to offer solace in difficult circumstances. Reluctant singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightly) crosses paths with a drunken and done-for music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo). The two strike an unlikely friendhsip, and begin to record music all over New york city.
Its only moment of surrealism is an invitation into drunk Dan’s mind. Strangers don’t break out into a dance and a sing-song. Instead, as Knightley sings a song alone on stage at a pub open mic night, the other instruments scattered about the place come to life. We see them play the song as Dan hears it in his head, with a full band arrangement.
The young progressive Cassie (Sofia Carson) finds herself married to the young conservative soldier Luke (Nicholas Galitzine), in this American romance drama from Netflix.
Cassie is a budding musician who writes original songs for her pop rock band, struggling to make ends meet as a waitress whilst making time for her musical career while he is on active duty. The marriage begins as a pragmatic one, but as the two begin to understand each other’s worldviews and see into each other’s lives, the red and blue bleed purple.
And, well, along the way there are some great pop rock tunes!
A Star is Born
For his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper adapted (and starred in) Hollywood’s favourite master and apprentice story. First released in 1937, this film was remade in 1954 with Judy Garland, in 1976 with Barbra Streisand, and now again with Lady Gaga.
Whilst the story may be old, the songs are new and energetic. This is film that refuses to leave the stage once the music has started, and relishes every moment of it.
I Used to be Famous
Boy band has-been Vince (Ed Skrein) is trying and failing to get a solo career off the ground long after the stardom of his teenage years. While busking on the streets, Vince meets Stevie (Leo Long), a local autistic kid with talent as a drummer. The two strike a heartwarming friendship, form a duo, and start playing the local pub circuit. There’s is a crunching sound, featuring pots and pans for drums, and a synth keyboard befitting Vince’s past glories in the previous century.
One thing that hasn’t been explored in this curatorial is the particulars of the form as a musical genre. Typically orchestral, the genre has its own harmony, rhythms and tonalities that pre-date even the silent era of filmmaking. Whilst the music itself wasn’t relevant to the selection process, it does beg relevance s regards the audience for this list. Not all music lovers love musicals.
These films are perfect for music lovers who would rather their movies with a strong flavour of folk, rock, pop, or any combination of the three.
Avaz, M. (Director). (2032). A Beautiful Life [Film]. Netflix
Carney, J. (Director). (2007). Once [Film]. Searchlight Pictures
Carney, J. (Director). (2014). Begin Again [Film]. The Weinstein Company
Chazelle, D. (Director). (2016). La La Land [Film]. Summit Entertainment
Coen, E., Coen, J. (Directors). (2013). Inside Llewyn Davis [Film]. StudioCanal
Cohan, S. (2005). Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical. Durham and London, UK: Duke University Press
Cooper, B. (Director). (2018). A Star is Born [Film]. Warner Brothers
Crosland, A. (Director). (1926). Don Juan [Film]. Warner Brothers
Crosland, A. (Director). (1927). The Jazz Singer [Film]. Warner Brothers
Curtiz, M., Blatt, E. (Directors). (1943). This is the Army [Film]. Warner Brothers
Dearden, B. (Director). (1962). All Night Long [Film]. Rank Organisation
Donen, S., Kelly, G. (Directors). (1952). Singin’ in the Rain [Film]. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Donen, S., Kelly, G. (Directors). (1955). It’s Always Fair Weather [Film]. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Gracey, M. (Director). (2017). The Greatest Showman [Film]. 20th Century Studios
Healy, P. (2012, June 11). ‘Once’ Basks in Glow of 8 Tony Awards. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/11/theater/theaterspecial/musical-once-receives-8-tony-awards.html
Lester, R. (Director). (1964). A Hard Day’s Night [Film]. United Artists
Marshall, R. (Director). (2014). Into the Woods [Film]. Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
O’Toole, L. (2021, December). Glen Hansard: “It’s a powerful thing to lose your mother… That’s the place you came from, literally. That’s your first home, and it’s gone”. Hot Press. https://www.hotpress.com/opinion/glen-hansard-its-a-powerful-thing-to-lose-your-mother-22888808
Oscars. (2008, February 29). Falling Slowly winning Best Original Song Oscar [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx8yLvb0gZM
Rosenbaum, E. (Director). (2022). Purple Hearts [Film]. Netflix
Sidney, G. (Director). (1945). Anchors Aweigh [Film]. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Sternberg, E. (Director). (2022). I Used to be Famous [Film]. Forty Foot Pictures
Vogel, F. (2003). Hollywood Musicals Nominated for Best Picture. North Carolina, USA: McFarland & Company Inc.
Well, A. (1983). The Hollywood Musical Goes to War. Chicago, USA: Nelson-Hall Inc.
Wise, R. (Director). (1965). The Sound of Music [Film]. 20th Century Fox studios
Young, P. (2011). Synchronised Sound Comes to Cinema. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470671153.wbhaf019