What is it I love about musicals? It’s almost easier to ask anybody, what is it you like about music? There is something about the movie musical that rubs people the wrong way, though I’ve yet to hear a particularly worthwhile case for their dismissal and dislike for a genre that for me is one of the most purely cinematic. For me, at it’s best, the musical is an outward expression of emotions. It’s obvious and artificial because it’s cemented in fantasy and abstract our introverted thoughts and emotions to the outside. Much like a Beatle’s love ballad like “I want to hold your hand” or “Something”, it’s not a matter of how direct the lyrics are meant to be, but the skill to which they are presented and explored. The only difference is, the songs of a musical are worked in a plot, and the juggling act extends beyond just the musicality but into choreography, visuals and context. Perhaps that’s why it’s so divisive, there is so much that can go wrong… but in my experience, when they hit it just right, it’s unforgettable.
My father, a man of great intelligence and an amateur cinephile himself is one of those people who doesn’t like the musical. There are exceptions though, as he considers both Oliver! (1968) and The Commitments (1991) among his favourite films. He especially does not like the older, apparently more upbeat entries in the genre. He doesn’t like the artificiality of people breaking into song, it’s unnatural for him, and he can never emerce himself in that world. Though this is in my mind an almost valid understanding of why someone doesn’t like it, it’s not justification for disliking the film… if that makes sense. I think it’s the approach to musicals that trips more people than anything else, they approach it as truth, instead of fantasy. Most people (not my father, who hates George Lucas), who dislike the musical have no problem with Star Wars… yet, it’s just as if not more ridiculous and detached from reality than something like The Wizard of Oz or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I’ve never understood film as truth or reality, it’s more of a reflection of imagination and the mind. Even those that seem closest to life are really just an abstraction.
Of course, this is just talking about one singular kind of musical. There are many musicals that don’t have spontaneous “let’s burst into song” moments. In my experience, they’re often more serious in nature, or deal in some way with the stage. This category includes films like Cabaret, The Red Shoes and most of the Berkeley musicals. Still maintaining the use of song and dance as an expression of what cannot and is not said, there is a greater sense of the character’s own physical detachment from their mental state. They’re only different than the first musical, no better, no worse. I also find them generally to be much more accessible as they are not quite as fantastic, and for someone unfamiliar with musicals, it’s a better stepping board into the genre.
Why do I love musicals? For all the things I mentioned and more. The direct and immediate exploration of emotion especially I find touching. I grew up on musicals and the language of song and dance came naturally to my young mind, though I have to admit, I have no talent for either. This ought to be a fruitful and exciting month, I can’t wait to discover some new films.