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The musical film is a film genre in which several songs sung by the characters are interwoven into the narrative. The songs are used to advance the plot or develop the film's characters, but some musical films (e.g.Down Argentine Way) simply plop the songs in as unrelated "specialties" - as with Carmen Miranda's numbers. A subgenre of the musical film is the musical comedy, which includes a strong element of humour as well as the usual music, dancing and storyline.

The musical film was a natural development of the stage musical. Typically, the biggest difference between film and stage musicals is the use of lavish background scenery which would be impractical in a theater. Musical films characteristically contain elements reminiscent of theater; performers often treat their song and dance numbers as if there is a live audience watching. In a sense, the viewer becomes the deictic audience, as the performer looks directly into the camera and performs to it.

Musical films in the Western world

Musical films of the classical sound era

The 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s are considered to be the golden age of the musical film, when the genre's popularity was at its height in the Western world.

The first musicals

Musical short films were made by Lee De Forest in 1923-24, followed by thousands of Vitaphone shorts (1926-30), many featuring bands, vocalists and dancers. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927 by Warner Brothers, was not only the first movie with synchronized dialogue, but the first feature film that was also a musical, featuring Al Jolson singing "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face;" "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," and "My Mammy." In 1928, Warner Brothers followed this up with the first all-talking feature, Lights of New York which included a musical sequence in a night club. The enthusiasm of audiences was so great that in less than a year all the major studios were making sound pictures exclusively. The Broadway Melody (1929) was a smash hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1929. There was a rush by the studios to hire talent from the stage to star in lavishly filmed versions of Broadway hits.

Warner Brothers produced the first screen operetta, The Desert Song in 1929. They spared no expense and photographed a large percentage of the film in Technicolor. This was followed by the first all color all talking musical feature which was entitled On with the Show (1929). The most popular film of 1929 was in fact the second all-color all-talking feature which was entitled Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). This film broke all box office records and remained the highest grossing film ever produced until 1939. Suddenly the market became saturated with musicals, revues and operettas.

The following all-color musicals were produced in 1929 and 1930 alone: The Show of Shows (1929), Sally (1929),The Vagabond King (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Bright Lights (1930), Golden Dawn (1930), Hold Everything (1930), The Rogue Song (1930), Song of the Flame (1930), Song of the West (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Under A Texas Moon (1930), Bride of the Regiment (1930), Whoopee! (1930), The King of Jazz (1930), Viennese Nights (1930), Kiss Me Again (1930).In addition, there were scores of musical features released with color sequences. By late 1930, audiences had been oversaturated with musicals and studios were forced to cut the music from films that were then being released. For example, Life of the Party (1930) was originally produced as an all-color all-talking musical comedy. Before it was released, however, the songs were cut out. The same thing happened to Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931) and Manhattan Parade (1932) both of which had been filmed entirely in Technicolor. The public had quickly come to associate color with musicals and thus the decline in their popularity also resulted in a decline in the use of color.

Busby Berkeley

The taste in musicals revived again in 1933 when director Busby Berkeley began to enhance the traditional dance number with ideas drawn from the drill precision he had experienced as a soldier during the First World War. In films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Berkeley choreographed a number of films in his unique style. Berkeley's numbers typically begin on a stage but gradually transcend the limitations of theatrical space: his ingenious routines, involving human bodies forming patterns like a kaleidoscope, could never fit onto a real stage and the intended perspective is viewing from straight above.

Musical stars

Musical stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among the most popular and highly respected personalities in Hollywood during the classical era; the Fred and Ginger pairing was particularly successful, resulting in a number of classic films, such as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance .

Many dramatic actors gladly participated in musicals as a way to break away from their typical typecasting. For instance, the multi-talented James Cagney had originally risen to fame as a stage singer and dancer, but his repeated casting in "tough guy" roles and gangster movies gave him few chances to display these talents. Cagney's Oscar-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) allowed him to sing and dance, and he considered it to be one of his finest moments.

Many comedies (and a few dramas) included their own musical numbers. The Marx Brothers' movies included a musical number in nearly every film, allowing the Brothers to highlight their musical talents. Their final film, entitled Love Happy (1949), featured Vera Ellen, considered to be the best dancer among her colleagues and professionals in the half century.

The Freed Unit

During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, a production unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer headed by Arthur Freed made the transition from old-fashioned musical films, whose formula had become repetitive, to something new. (However, they also produced Technicolor remakes of such musicals as Show Boat, which had previously been filmed in the 1930s.) In 1939, Freed was hired as associate prodlents as director Vincente Minnelli to the world of film. Starting in 1944 with Meet Me in St. Louis, the Freed Unit worked somewhat independently of its own studio to produce some of the most popular and well-known examples of the genre. The products of this unit include Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953). This era allowed the greatest talents in movie musical history to flourish, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney, Vera-Ellen, Jane Powell, Howard Keel, and Kathryn Grayson. Fred Astaire was also coaxed out of retirement for Easter Parade and made a permanent comeback.

The post-classical musical films

The 1960s musical

Over the last thirty-five years or so, the musical film has declined in popularity, although with the success of the films West Side Story, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music, there was a resurgence in the 1960s. One reason for the decline in interest in musical films was the change in culture to rock n' roll and the freedom and youth associated with it. Elvis Presley made a few movies that have been equated with the old musicals in terms of form. Most of the musical films of the 50s and 60s, for example Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, were straightforward adaptations or restagings of successful stage productions. The most successful musical of the 1960s created specifically for film was Mary Poppins, one of Disney's biggest hits.

Despite the success of a few musicals, Hollywood failed to capitalise on these by producing a series of enormous musical flops in the late 1960s and early 1970s which appeared to seriously misjudge public taste. These included Camelot, Hello Dolly!, Sweet Charity, Doctor Dolittle, Star!, Darling Lili, Paint Your Wagon, Song of Norway, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Man of La Mancha, Lost Horizon and Mame. Collectively and individually these failures crippled several of the major studios. By the early 1970s it was felt that the film musical had had its day.

The musical film today

With the traditional musical seen as box-office poison, by the mid-1970s filmmakers avoided the genre in favor of using music by popular rock or pop bands as background music, in the hope of selling a soundtrack album to fans. Even so, there were exceptions to this rule, notably the 1978 film version of Grease, filmed in the traditional style, albeit using a different musical genre. Once again, however, a follow-up (Grease 2) bombed at the box-office, as did a calamitous attempt to resurrect the old-style musical in Can't Stop the Music (a vehicle for The Village People) which was released in 1980. Instead, films about actors, dancers or singers have been made as successful modern-style musical films, with the music as a diegetic part of the storyline. Many animated movies - predominately Disney animated features - also include traditional musical numbers; some of these movies later became live stage productions, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

In the early 2000s, the musical film began to rise in popularity once more, with new works such as Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe,and Enchanted; film adaptations of stage shows, such as Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Dreamgirls, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Sweeney Todd and Mamma Mia!; and even film versions of stage shows that were themselves based on non-musical films, such as The Producers, Hairspray and Reefer Madness. Under the mainstream radar, there have been acclaimed independent musical films, such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Dancer in the Dark; and foreign musical films, such as 8 femmes, The Other Side of the Bed and Yes Nurse, No Nurse. In 2004, the New York Musical Theatre Festival presented a week-long festival of modern movie musicals that included 10 independent features made since 1996, as well as several programs of short movie musicals.

Indian musical films

An exception to the decline of the musical film is Indian cinema, especially the Bollywood film industry based in Mumbaimarker (formerly Bombay), where the majority of films have been and still are musicals. Thanks to the incumbent Bollywood formula of the "song and dance" routine, and the lack of an independent Indian popular music scene until the late nineties, the Indian film and popular music industries have been intertwined since virtually the beginning of film production in the country. Some top playback singers are celebrities in India due to the demand for so-called filmi singles and albums. This trend continues even to date, although there has always been a Parallel Cinema movement where Indian art films often have no songs, such as Matrubhoomi, 15, Park Avenue, and Bengali films by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen for example. Many of the newer mainstream Bollywood films are also breaking the mold by not including any songs, such as Company and Black for example.


In the 2000s, Bollywood musicals played an instrumental role in the revival of the Western musical genre. Baz Luhrmann stated that his successful musical film Moulin Rouge! (2001) was directly inspired by Bollywood musicals. The film thus pays homage to India, incorporating an Indian-themed play based on the ancient Sanskrit drama The Little Clay Cart and a Bollywood-style dance sequence with a song from the film China Gate. The Guru and The 40-Year-Old Virgin also feature Indian-style song-and-dance sequences; A. R. Rahman, an Indian film composer, was recruited for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams; a musical version of Hum Aapke Hain Koun has played in London's West End; the Bollywood musical Lagaan (2001) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; two other Bollywood films Devdas (2002) and Rang De Basanti (2006) were nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film; and Danny Boyle's Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008) also features a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number during the film's end credits.

Lists of musical films


See also

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