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Now and Then: The Long, Slow Death of the Movie Musical

Now and Then: The Long, Slow Death of the Movie Musical

It’s been 60 years since the musical’s prime — when Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, those sorcerers of sound, joined forces on “Singin’ in the Rain” — so you’ll forgive me if this week’s theatrical screenings in honor of the anniversary feel less like a celebration than an obituary. The musical is dead at 83, from complications of creative neglect.

Musicals are still being made, after a fashion. Trust me, I know: I was a high school student with a taste for Astaire and Rogers at the time “Chicago” (Rob Marshall, 2002) arrived, hailed in some quarters as the rebirth of the genre. It turned out to be a film that makes mince meat of the frame, a sharp-elbow-in-the-eye of strange angles, quick cuts, sequins, and subterfuge. A movie that can’t be resuscitated by Queen Latifah’s glorious take on Big Mama Morton may in fact have been dead on arrival.

Since then, I’ve made a point of seeing nearly every release that even smacks of old Hollywood possibilities (“Hairspray,” “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Sweeney Todd,” just to name a few), like a pilgrim standing before the gable of Santiago de Compostela, praying for a miracle. None arrived — the only knockout musical I’ve seen in the past decade was the swooning, low-fi “Once” (John Carney, 2006), in which song is so fundamental to the world its characters inhabit that it doesn’t feel like a musical at all, until you realize that most of what you know about how they feel came through on a three-chord melody.

Truman Capote may have thought that “more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” but he never saw “Nine.” And here, I think, you’ll begin to see a trend. With the exception of “Once,” each of the recent musicals mentioned above lacks the key element of the genre — nerve. Mostly unable to muster up the creative energy to make musicals relevant, they dream up a nostalgic past of Dickensian London, 1950s Americana, Fellini’s circuses, Motown girl groups, or ABBA. Yet they feel obliged to hedge their bets with sweaty, klieg-lit close-ups and epileptic editing, making just one more version of the comic book superhero: a torso, a leg, and a grimace shoved into a lycra bodysuit or period costume. Musicals once balanced reality and fantasy; now the best they can come up with are dreams.

The exception that proves the rule is Jennifer Hudson’s gut-punching rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” from “Dreamgirls” (video below). It has the cyclonic force of a close-up, drawing you deeper and deeper into the eye of her storm, but a significant portion of it is a wide shot that captures her from calf to head — a sense of how much power the body can muster, amplified by the mirrors behind her. This is, of course, what the great musicals of yore did so well. In the masterly “Swing Time” (video below), Astaire and Rogers make the overexertion of the modern musical seem a farce, floating harmoniously, effortlessly, across the floor. You wouldn’t know their feet were even touching it if not for the click of the tap shoes; their scenes have a mesmeric, fleet quality, a kind of occult magic.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), Vincente Minnelli’s lush take on the dawn of the American century, cut through with sorrow, has since surpassed “Singin’ in the Rain” in my mind as the best film musical. But Kelly and Donen’s classic, now in its golden years, was my first love: a Technicolor bloom of slapstick and wit, balletic pratfalls and catchy tunes, it remains what I wish musicals could still be, bright and bold but still somehow convincing, bleeding in and out of song as though slipping on a raincoat. Who hasn’t screened it one evening and woken up the next day smiling, humming that indelible sound?

Good mornin’, good mornin’!
We talked the whole night through,
Good mornin’, good mornin’ to you!  

There is a fantasy here (I mean, what nutcase could possibly be so excited that early in the morning?), but it’s woven from aspiration rather than memory: a dream all right, but a dream of the future, less was than will be. “Singin’ in the Rain” doesn’t cheat the game by putting all of the musical emotion in staged performance, because it understands the instinctive joy of singing in the shower, whistling along to the radio, testing out a few notes before the mirror. This is what I meant by “nerve.” The old musicals had the courage of their convictions, and the sure-footedness to float. The new, pugilistic musicals, in losing that grace, have lost their voice, and their pulse. The musical is dead. Long live the musical. Whichever it is, I won’t give up the ghost.  

In honor of the 60th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events are holding nationwide screenings Thursday, July 12 at 7:00 p.m. local time, with special matinees in select theaters at 2:00 p.m.

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