If Music Be The Food Of Love....
There are obvious historical and political explanations for the decline of the western. But how on earth did Hollywood let the musical fall out of fashion? I mean, it's not like music itself ever went out of style. One of the happier characteristics of the human race is our propensity for banging objects together to make a joyful sound - and shaking our own bits and pieces in response.
Even geeky white boys feel the urge to do this - you only have to look at Jon Heder's exhilarating display at the climax of Napoleon Dynamite to understand it's his (and the movie's) raison d'etre. Or as Gene Kelly put it, "Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!"
These days Hollywood wisdom says it's impossible to lose money making horror movies. That's because they tap into primal responses the core adolescent audience feel impelled to investigate. But that should go double for musicals. Music has universal appeal, across gender, ethnicity, and age. By rights it should be Hollywood's staple form - as it is in Bollywood, where song and dance is integral to every kind of drama.
Remember, the first sound movie was a musical (The Jazz Singer, 1927), and Hollywood was churning out 70 a year by 1930. To be sure the genre had its ups and downs over the next four decades, but after every trough it came back with renewed vigor: with On the Town and Singin' in the Rain in the early 1950s; The Sound of Music and West Side Story in the 60s; Grease and Saturday Night Fever in the 70s.
There have been a few notable musicals in more recent times (Footloose; Dirty Dancing; Purple Rain; Chicago; 8 Mile) but even on a good year you rarely get more than two or three - which isn't a healthy situation if you fancy yourself this generation's Fred Astaire or Judy Garland.
In the last couple of months we've had The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Rent, and this week the South African Berlin festival winner U-Carmen e-Khayalitsha - and they're starting to trail Dreamgirls for December. All of which should signify a bumper year, but judging by box office returns so far these pictures are not reaching out to an audience beyond the faithful.
What's strange about this situation is how the movies seem to be out of step with the rest of popular culture. By which I don't just mean pop, rock, hip hop etc, but the West End and Broadway, where musicals have been a hot ticket throughout the last two decades; and of course television, where the endless talent show that is Pop Idol (and the multi-headed beasts it spawned) continues to attract millions of viewers, in Britain, North America, Europe, Asia, Australasia and even Africa.
Whatever you think of it, that show - satirised in American Dreamz this week - catches the imagination of young people in a way that Hollywood should be capitalising on. With the best will in the world, The Phantom of the Opera and Rent just don't cut it - not least because the excitement their stage versions generated has dissipated over the decade(s) it's taken to bring them to the screen. In the case of Rent, the movie arrives two years after the show was devastatingly lampooned in Team America's anthemic 'Everyone Has AIDS'.
Andrew Lloyd Webber may have been right about Judas Iscariot, but his lugubrious gospel of rock operatics has cast a disastrous shadow over movie musicals for ten or 20 years. Many of our most original and talented young filmmakers have produced amazing four-minute musicals in the pop video format (I'm thinking of Michel Gondry's work with Bjork and The White Stripes; Spike Jonze; David Fincher; Jonathan Glazer; Mark Romanek). Yet when they move into feature films they run away from the genre as if their careers depended on it - which may well be the case actually.
So it is that the best musicals in recent times haven't been musicals at all: they've been animated family films like Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast; animated adult films like South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police; comedies, like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Almost Famous; spoofs, like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind; art films, like Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and Kill Bill; or they've been non-fiction films, like Rize, No Direction Home and the forthcoming Neil Young: Heart of Gold.
It's some disgrace that there really hasn't been a black hip hop musical worthy of the name, but in the meantime fans of the genre are learning to take their pleasures as best they can and wherever they may.
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