By Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play Contributor
You might know that a remake of 1984′s Footloose, directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow), opens today. I’ve been intrigued by the advance coverage that casually describes the original movie as “a musical,” because by classical Hollywood definitions, it really isn’t one. It’s a youth drama that happens to contain a lot of music, and the music is always “justified” in some way. Nobody just opens up their mouth and starts singing or dancing to the accompaniment of an off-screen orchestra or band; the songs either issue from an on-screen source, or else they’re treated as the background track for a montage.
Musicals didn’t used to be like this. Sure, there were exceptions — George Cukor’s remake of A Star Is Born is a big one — but for the most part, the creators of earlier musicals didn’t feel the need to explain where music was coming from. It just appeared, like a shooting star or a rainbow. Then at a some point the ratio got flipped, and most musicals featured “justified” music; the ones that did not seemed highly unusual, perhaps stubbornly nostalgic. The tipping point might have been Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version of Cabaret, a music-saturated Weimar drama that explains the origin of every song that its characters perform or otherwise experience. (True, a couple of moments involving Joel Grey’s faintly mystical emcee character blur the line, but every other element in the film is clearly set in “reality.”) Cabaret wasn’t the first film to handle music this way, but its high profile (and its best director Oscar win for Fosse) made it hugely influential. When I look back over the history of the form, it does seem like a dividing line. There’s before Cabaret and there’s after. Or if you prefer, pre-”C” and post-”C.” So for purposes of this slide show, I’m defining everything post-Cabaret as a modern musical. The year 1972 is my cutoff point; nothing made before that time was considered for inclusion.
You can view the rest of Matt’s slide show here at Salon.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and the founder of Press Play.