In today’s film industry, genre is a bit tricky. Audiences have seen so many films in so many genres that filmmakers have had to adapt and combine genres in order to keep audiences interested, to showcase new ideas. It can be hard to define exactly what genre a film is or even define what genre has had the most impact on today’s films.
We can, however, look at a specific genre to see how it has changed throughout time and how its influence has transcended genre. I argue that the musical film genre (yes, musicals!) has had an incredible impact on the film industry, even outside of Hollywood.
When film first started becoming popular in the 1900s, musicals were often the first forms of art to be translated on the big screen. Filmed versions of operas and stage musicals were often shown on screen, accompanied by a live orchestra, in order to bring this form of “high culture” to the masses, known then as “low culture.” Musicals helped to make film accessible for the common folk rather than the people who could afford to see these live productions. As film began moving towards more original productions with the help of synchronized sound, they still added elements of musicals into the narrative so that the audience would be able to familiarize themselves with a proper original film. Film became a familiar and popular medium because of these early musicals and achieved technical success through the use of synchronized sound.
The musical film genre boomed from the 1930s through the 1950s. The musical films in these decades were often glamorous and over the top, showcasing extremely elaborate set pieces, and typically were happier films to placate audiences after World War II. The songs were more upbeat and featured brighter, happier colors. During this time, these musicals were usually made and released by MGM – known for their elaborate musical films such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The films created stars out of their main actors, like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, and helped to create the idea of the “star system” that remains in place in Hollywood today. These film stars helped create box office successes so studios began drafting the stars into contracts to create films around them and cement these future successes – similar to how filmmakers and actors today enter into studio deals for “first looks” and film franchises.
Outside of Hollywood, musicals in other countries also rose in popularity. In 1960s France, filmmaker Jacques Demy rose to fame with his musical films, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Similar to his Hollywood counterparts, Demy’s film often used brighter color palettes with lots of yellows, pinks, and greens dotting his scenes. However, Demy was also influenced by the French New Wave movement currently sweeping France and infused his musicals with a sense of more gritty realism. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg looked at the lost possibility of love due to class and the Algerian War and The Young Girls of Rochefort focused on the desire to leave a hometown. The films were not entirely optimistic like usual Hollywood musicals and instead showed a more realistic portrayal of life. Over in India, during this same time, musical romance films became extremely popular. Though in the years after the genre seemed to lessen in popularity, the country’s cinema became known as “Bollywood” and continued to include large scale musical numbers and set pieces in more and more of its films, coining this term of mish-mash genre films as “masala films.”
If you look at the various musicals throughout the years, there are some common elements throughout, the most prominent being the giant, elaborate set pieces that showcase a variety of extras and actors dancing and singing. Cameras had to be strategically placed in order to capture all angles of the dancers. Editing had to be precise in order to connect the singing and dancing, in case the actors were lip syncing instead of singing live. Being able to shoot, film, and edit these large scale numbers precisely seemed to have a large effect on future action films, specifically in fight scenes. Like the musical numbers, fight scenes are highly choreographed and require precise editing in order to create the illusion of people actually getting hurt in the fights. The cameras need to be angled strategically if the fights were large, just like dance numbers. If you look at many action scenes, like the team up fight scene in The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon, 2012), there seems to be an almost musical-like quality to the way that the scene is edited, flowing from one character and action to another as if in a large dance number.
In today’s film industry, musicals as a film genre aren’t as popular as they once were. Be it because of the more high-octane action films that have dominated the box office or the stereotype of “musicals are aimed towards a female audience and singing is boring,” the genre has seen fewer and fewer released films. Many films are animated films, usually from Disney, that seem to follow a very basic formula of how to set up a story using songs and vusually adapted from literature. Many are just adaptations of Broadway stage musicals, almost reverting back to film’s early days. And these adaptations vary in success, from the various Academy Award nominations for Les Miserables (dir. Tom Hooper, 2012) and the audience pleaser of Mamma Mia! (dir. Phyllida Lloyd) to box office bomb of Cats (dir. Tom Hooper, 2019). More and more, musicals have become vehicles for “biopics” of famous artists or try to use the music of famous musicians in order to attract the built-in audience of fans. Films like Bohemian Rhapsody (dir. Bryan Singer, 2018) and Rocketman (dir. Dexter Fletcher, 2019) used the music of their respective subjects to create a biography around their subjects, whereas Mamma Mia! and Across the Universe (dir. Julie Taymor, 2007) There are, however, some original musical films that have been released! The most well-known of these new musicals is La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016) which aimed to memorialize the golden age of Hollywood musicals and its usual jazzy sort of music, with a bit of gritty realism influence from Jacques Demy’s films.
Though musical films aren’t as abundant as they were in the 1950s, their influence on films today is unparalleled. Musicals helped to popularize synchronized sound which changed the way that we watch film today and helped to make film accessible to a wide variety of audiences. They created the idea of “film stars.” They influenced the way that large scale scenes are shot. Their influence reaches around the world. And though many musicals today are just adapted stage musicals, they still use these same influences today.