Monday 21 August 2017

Film: The musical makes an unlikely comeback

Double act: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway
Double act: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway

Paul Whitington

In a pretty decent year for quality films, a clear favourite has already emerged in the awards race. Damien Chazelle's La La Land stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as a pair of young performers who are hoping to make their mark in the Californian entertainment business when they meet by chance and fall in love. It opens here on January 13.

Chazelle's film has received universal praise from US critics, and been hotly tipped to win Best Director and Best Film at next year's Oscars, as well as earning seven Golden Globe nominations this week. And what's really remarkable about all this is that La La Land is a musical.

Back in Hollywood's golden age, the musical was king. To audiences reared on vaudeville and light opera, the notions of actors breaking spontaneously into song and leaping about in ecstasies of love or despair seemed perfectly natural, and directors like Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli didn't have to worry about making their musicals seem credible.

These days, irony and cynicism have made flights of musical fantasy deeply problematic. And there's another modern impediment: in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, most actors could sing and a lot of them could dance, but those days are well and truly gone - can anyone name a latter-day version of Jimmy Cagney? These days the only musicals we tend to see are either Disney animations or movies based on Broadway shows with songs we already know.

La La Land had none of those advantages, which makes Chazelle's achievement all the more impressive. His film, and its songs, are entirely original, and deliberately evoke the musical's golden age with numbers and arrangements that seem charmingly amateurish next to the classics that inspired them. It is, in other words, a musical for our time, full of self-doubt and confusion but also charged with a streak of stubborn optimism.

But what are those great films that La La Land evokes? What are the greatest musicals, and what was the secret of their success?

Theatrical musicals must have seemed a natural fit for the new medium of cinema, but early film-makers initially struggled to successfully transpose them. With their elaborate sets and vast ensembles of singers and dancers, musicals tended to be more expensive to make, and were in any case bound to be limited in their appeal before the arrival of sound. The earliest musicals were shorts, synchronised to recorded musical tracks, but The Jazz Singer changed everything.

The 1927 Al Jolson vehicle was the first so-called 'talking picture', and effectively ended the careers of many great silent stars. It also revealed for the first time the true cinematic potential of the musical genre, as audiences were moved and delighted by Jolson's electric singing performances. Colour film would help, too, and in the 1930s became synonymous with the genre.

Warner Brothers had a huge hit in 1929 with The Desert Song, a lavish production set in French Morocco and based on a Broadway show. The same year, Warner released the first all-colour musical, On with the Show! and the studio struck gold again the same year with Gold Diggers of Broadway, which became the biggest hit of 1929.

More than a hundred musicals were released by Hollywood in 1930, saturating the market and testing the patience of cinema-goers, who quickly became tired of their cheesy, repetitive formulas. After a mini-slump, the genre was revived in style by Busby Berkeley, a director and choreographer whose massed, regimented routines were influenced by his time as a field artillery lieutenant during the Great War.

He cut his teeth on Broadway, but cinema allowed him to create elaborate, kaleidoscopic set pieces involving hundreds of showgirls that unfolded like flowers and were shot from above. Berkeley had big hits with films like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, but it could be argued that the great era of the musicals began not with him, but with Fred Astaire, and RKO Studios.

A vaudeville hoofer from Omaha, Nebraska, Astaire was the first big musical star. He grew up dancing with his sister in a family stage act, and his transition to Hollywood was not smooth. Legend has it that when he first did a screen test for RKO, the report dismissively read "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little". He turned out to have a likeable light singing voice, lots of charm, and his peerless dancing would speak for itself.

He and Ginger Rogers were down the bill a bit when first teamed together in the 1933 Dolores del Rio musical Flying Down to Rio, but when dancing together seemed to somehow complete each other. They went on to star in nine movies together at RKO, including The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat and Swing Time. These films tended to chart lives of impossible glamour, and were escapist fodder for audiences hard hit by the Great Depression. At one point, Rogers was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, and she and Astaire brought screen dance to new heights. Given total creative control of the dance sequences, Astaire insisted on a stationary camera that would follow the performers through entire numbers, stating that "either the camera will dance, or I will". Light, loose-limbed, impossibly graceful, he seemed to glide where others hoofed, and for over a decade he was the undisputed king of the Hollywood musical.

Born in Pittsburgh to Irish-American parents, Eugene Curran Kelly learnt his trade, like Astaire, on the vaudeville circuit, but had an altogether more aggressive, muscular and overtly sexual dancing style. He made his big break alongside Frank Sinatra in Anchors Away, a frothy musical about sailors on leave in Hollywood. It was made by MGM, a studio that, in the decade after World War Two, would be responsible for producing the greatest musicals of all.

Arthur Freed led the charge. A former lyricist and associate of the Marx Brothers, this sometimes controversial character certainly had an eye for talent. In 1939, after working on The Wizard of Oz, he was put in charge of his own unit at MGM, which he decided to devote to making musicals. Freed brought Broadway heavyweights like Vincente Minnelli, Betty Comden, June Allyson and Zero Mostel to MGM to help create some truly special films, starring talents as luminous as Kelly, Sinatra, Red Skelton, Howard Keel, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller and Lena Horne.

Where previous musicals had tended to be dramatically stiff, and formulaic, Freed's MGM films combined songs and routines of breathtaking energy and complexity with humour, fine acting and proper, grown-up story-lines. Meet Me in St Louis, On the Town, The Band Wagon and the sublime American in Paris proved conclusively that the musical was no longer the vulgar little brother of so-called serious drama. Freed even managed to persuade a reluctant Astaire to come to MGM to star opposite Judy Garland in arguably his greatest film, Easter Parade. And then there is Singin' in the Rain, for many the greatest musical ever made (see panel). The verve and colour and infectious self-confidence of these peerless musicals seemed to perfectly express the rising optimism of post-war America.

But the musical's creative zenith also proved to be the beginning of its slow decline. Rising costs, and the growth of rock and pop, forced the genre to retrench though the 1960s, avoiding creative risks in favour of safer bets like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, as well as projects based on stage shows - West Side Story, Oliver, Fiddler on the Roof.

Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972) provided one last moment of bracing originality, with Liza Minnelli shining as a bohemian nightclub singer in Weimar Berlin. But the genre seemed to lose its fizz altogether in the 1970s, apart from the odd ingenious stage show crossover like Grease, and in the 1980s the musical as a means of storytelling fell from favour altogether. The 2000s did witness a fitful comeback, with Rob Marshall's Chicago winning six Oscars in 2003. But it took no chances, was shamelessly retro, and based on a tried-and-tested Broadway show. The best musicals of recent years, like Dreamgirls, Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, were also based on stage shows, suggesting that producers were apparently unwilling to take a punt on an original musical.

Damien Chazelle seems to have broken that mould with La La Land to create a boldly distinctive new musical, but it remains to be seen if any other film-makers will follow his example.

A HILARIOUS SATIRE ON FAME

Not only is Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain probably the best musical ever made, it's also a hilarious satire on the whims of fame and the madness of the Hollywood studio system. Kelly is Don Lockwood, a silent film star who's made his name appearing in a hit series of romantic melodramas with a haughty glamour-puss called Lena Lamont (played by the excellent Jean Hagen). Behind the scenes she's a shrill megalomaniac, but the studio insists on promoting the idea that she and Don are in love.

Then, The Jazz Singer happens, and when the studio rush to turn the latest Lockwood/Lamont film into a musical talkie they hit a problem - Lena's dreadful voice. Don has met a showgirl called Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and he and the studio boss persuade her to dub Lena's voice and sing for her.

But when Cathy and Don fall in love, Lena is furious and decides to seek revenge. Donald O'Connor plays Don's faithful friend Cosmo, and the pair's dance routines together are breathtaking, particularly a gloriously choreographed early scene in which they lampoon their vaudeville roots. But the routine everyone remembers is Kelly's elegant, umbrella-wielding shuffle along a rain-soaked city street.

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