What is it about Musicals?

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.

7 responses to “What is it about Musicals?

  1. Do people dislike musicals? I don’t think so. I think people like your father are opposed to the general idea of a musical–people randomly breaking out into song–but the musicals themselves are rarely so objectionable (and if people only started watching them, I think their dislike would dispate quickly). Otherwise, there seem to me a neverending line of classic stories that are given music and are suddenly popular. What is the recent film Chicago? A film version of a musical of a previous stage and film version… And now they have the 8 1/2 musical. What I object to is this need to inject songs into already fine narratives. Yet it is continually being done; and people hate musicals?

    LOVE the Brigadoon banner. I don’t remember the color being that awesomely sharp when I watched it.

  2. I know many people who dislike it, and I agree with you. Most people dislike them on general assumptions and maybe watching one or two films.

    Thanks, I might have fixed the colour… I honestly don’t remember. I haven’t seen Brigadoon yet.

  3. “Do people dislike musicals? I don’t think so.”

    nonsense, Mango. I know what I dislike, and musicals are one of those things. They make me cringe, actually, especially the older ones. The only ones I can tolerate and even like, actually, are parodies like the South Park movie or a movie like A Hard Day’s Night, where the music and the breaking into song somehow seems much more natural or…diegetic? In that movie it seemed like whenever the Beatles broke into song it was for a reason, whether they were having an impromptu rehearsal on the train or having their big concert at the end, or when Can’t Buy Me Love was in the background as they frolicked in the field. Music was just there to establish mood and mindset, or used realistically since, ya know, singing was kind of The Beatles’ day job. It’s when the more traditional musicals and their characters just break into song and essentially break that fourth wall of reality…singing for the sake of singing…that gets to me.

    Except for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Those creepy -as-hell Oompa Loompas can sing their little ditties of death all day and I’d be entertained 🙂

  4. “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.”


    I don’t have a preemptive hate for musicals, and I enjoy many of the musicals I watched. But, having said that, I fell asleep watching some of the ‘best of musicals’ ones. Like, Singing in the Rain. West Side Story. And I love watching dance shows! I don’t know what it is – in general, they don’t have the continuous hold on me, as a genre, even if I don’t categorize it as ‘the genre I don’t like’. And it’s not because of the reasons you mentioned above. You know I love fun, disruptions, and superficiality!

    I do think serious cinephiles tend to look for meaning in films, so may be they don’t think there’s much to the musicals? Also, may be they’re horrible dancers/singers/introverts and don’t relate? I’m just guessing.


    And your father is himself a cinephile? So you were born into it then? Grrrr. Pfft.

  5. Understandable Aurelle, I think there is at least a handful of musicals for everyone. It’s really impossible to tell, music in itself is so subjective that it becomes extremely difficult to get something right for a large number of people.

    I love dance shows too 😀 Though I haven’t been paying enough attention to So you Think you Can Dance, Canada… at least not as much as the American version. I don’t like West Side Story much either if that maes you feel a little better.

    About the point on cinephiles, perhaps that plays into it. I also think there is an inherent disregard for genre films in general (excepting perhaps Film Noir), and films that are more in tune with what is perceived to be the taste of women (though this is a generalization, that women like musicals more than men…) since most cinephiles, at least the ones in charge are men. Explains why masters like Douglas Sirk took so long to catch on.

    More or less, I don’t think he ever invested himself in the same way I did but cinema interested him throughout his life. He took several university courses on Italian cinema too. I’m sorry Aurelle! *huggles*

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