6 Reasons That The Musical Is The Most Underrated Movie Genre

500 days of summer 6 Reasons That The Musical Is The Most Underrated Movie Genre

I understand the hatred for romantic comedies. I really, truly do. There’s a certain formula to them that becomes tiresome, the underlying message behind so many of them tends to be obnoxiously and cynically shallow and often misogynistic, and anytime a movie successfully combines comedy and romance it seems to be somehow removed from our perception of the genre, probably unfairly. It’s as if the label is specifically meant to designate a certain type of movie, a label restricted to dreck.

Movie musicals are a different class of cinema, even though to an extent I can relate to its detractors as well. Musicals are uncool. They are almost proud of how uncool they are, regularly taking their style completely over the top. It’s a movie genre that has some of the strongest ties to the theater, and so many cinematic subtleties we’ve come to appreciate are either upstaged by the song and dance and spectacle, or absent altogether.

Coolness has been a dominating factor of the appeal of movies for the past generation or two, to the point where it’s hard to imagine those cheesy musicals from the 1960s ever being enjoyed by anyone with a functional mind. And I’m a big defender of coolness in film. But there are also limitations to what coolness can accomplish, and it’s in some of these areas that musicals can express feelings and ideas and entertain in ways that other genres can’t.

So on that note, here are 6 points to defend the movie musical as a special genre that deserves greater respect.

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1) Songs are able to express things that dialogue can’t

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Words that are sung contain a certain power, one that, like any other power, can be used for good or for ill, and sometimes some combination of the two.

Roger Ebert liked to write about this. In some cases, singing words can turn them from ridiculous nonsense to charming sentiment. The best uses of song in movies allow dialogue to have an amount of poetry that rivals the celebrated rhythm-based dialogue of people like Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin.

I think this is because in the same way the use of scored music in basically every movie we watch is designed to influence our emotional response to the images we’re seeing, movies that are even more deeply based on musical sensibilities tap our emotions in an even more affecting way. It makes the cinematic imperative for these films emotional truth, a source of feelings that resonate rather than sustaining ideas or impressions. I find contemporary musicals draw on this far more effectively—or else they’re just more geared towards audiences of my generation. I think of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd or something as seemingly slight as Hairspray as two unexpectedly affecting movies that I was initially resistant toward before being swept up in their contrasting tones.

Emotions tend to get treated with less respect in art than thoughts, but it’s just as important that movies skillfully make us feel as it is for them to provoke thought or inspire awe.

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2) Musicals create a unique space for a certain brand of absurdity and silliness

Blame Canada 540x360 6 Reasons That The Musical Is The Most Underrated Movie Genre

Comedy and music hold a special relationship. There’s a reason both Monty Python and the South Park guys, just two examples of some of the best satirical and idiosyncratic humor in modern history, were able to create incredible, award-winning stage musicals. Something about absurd humor prompts characters spontaneously breaking into song (think of the endings of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and This is the End, or Anchorman’s “Afternoon Delight” interlude), and vice versa.

I have plenty of things that I don’t like about Glee as a series, but like many others, I was intrigued by its potential to combine a weird sense of humor with scenes featuring musical numbers. When the show operated at its best, it opened up a kind of comedy unlike anything else on TV, and its embrace of oddness and advocacy of a big umbrella approach to culture—promoting the acceptance of jock, nerd and musician identities all at once—was admirable. It was just a shame they had to stretch out such long seasons due to network demands.

Another example of the kind of cinematic humor that is so daring that it’s a bit hard to grasp at first (or at all, for many) is the 2005 version of The Producers with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. They go all out with the noisy silliness on this one. Like many comedies though, it’s so much better when you watch it years later, I think. It’s so unashamed of itself that it strikes a unique tone, unlike any other movie I’ve seen.

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3) They revel in moments

Ferris Bueller 6 Reasons That The Musical Is The Most Underrated Movie Genre

Narrative films depend heavily on plot progression, reaching certain pivotal points in a story at specific times in a movie, which requires this fairly constant forward momentum, a busy-ness that prohibits them from stopping and really milking individual moments for much time at all. Every now and then there will be a Ferris Bueller that puts exceptional value in stopping and looking around once in a while, as it were, but really dwelling in a scene or a moment usually gives a non-musical film the designations of “poetic” or “avant garde,” which for some reason are meant to be pejorative.

Lots of the more deliberate pacing of slow cinema takes advantage of the poetry of scenes and moments, but no other genre accomplishes this in the way musicals do. The entire premise of the show-stopping number, where the show or story literally stops so that characters can sing about what’s going on with them in a particular moment, depends on the interest in what’s been called the vertical development of character (or just spectacle), as opposed to the horizontal development of plot. Again, this is a change of pace from most movies, which is also strange because while cinema is special in the way it can deliver precisely timed plot flow, it can also provide the most precise form of moving audio-visual expression. Musicals are able to harness that potential energy into scenes that allow viewers to stop and enjoy the sights and sounds of the spectacle before them.

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4) They can be free from ironic detachment

Mamma Mia 6 Reasons That The Musical Is The Most Underrated Movie Genre

Part of coolness is maintaining the perspective that one is above the fray. Nick Carraway ends up looking like the cool one in The Great Gatsby because he is amidst the scene he’s describing but also not really part of it. Sarcasm and irony have dominated cultural coolness since the 1990s, with sentimentality typically requiring a wink of self-awareness alongside it so that the audience is made mindful of the fact that the people behind what they’re watching know exactly how sappy they’re being.

There are also comedic characters that we laugh at precisely because they have no self-awareness, such as Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute in The Office. They’re clowns because they don’t realize they’re being funny, and Jim Halpert is the cool guy because he gets to look at the camera and share a smirk with us, establishing himself as separate from the others in the office.

Musicals, though, have a unique way of regularly depicting characters who are unabashedly ridiculous in a positive way. Part of this is done through the stagey style of the performances, with the actors going earnestly over the top and not caring about what an audience might think of them. They’re singing and dancing as if nobody’s watching, and while that may not attract the type of respect someone who distances themselves from the weirdness we’re observing, there’s a certain respect for guys like Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! just belting out tunes without giving a single f**k.

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5) They’re generally positive, but when they’re not they can be awesome too

Sweeney Todd2 6 Reasons That The Musical Is The Most Underrated Movie Genre

So many popular movies, from the action blockbusters to the prestige pictures at the end of the year, are such downers. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact it’s an essential source of catharsis that keeps us coming back, and many dark films end in some semblance of light, and that’s terrific for them. Variety is also nice though, and happy movies are some kind of a treasure after seeing Captain Phillips and Prisoners and All is Lost in succession. I know that movies rely on conflict but sometimes that conflict can be portrayed in ways that don’t threaten you enough to dampen your smile at the sight of Alan Alda in Everyone Says I Love You.

One of the best examples of the manic and naïve positivity that musicals can bask in is Moulin Rouge, specifically the hopelessly romantic fool played by Ewan McGregor. It’s a movie that’s chaotic in every way: compositionally, philosophically, sonically, and formally, but its madness, I dare say, belongs in the same echelon of madness occupied by the likes of Apocalypse Now. It’s just that this madman was inspired by musicals rather than the Vietnam War.

And yet there is also the rare case like Sweeney Todd that somehow manages to pull off the darkness of its content without sacrificing gorgeous song and occasional grotesque revelry. Then again, it’s the type of material that Tim Burton was born to direct.

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6) It’s probably fair to label them as “feminine” but I’m sorry, that’s a good thing

Hairspray 6 Reasons That The Musical Is The Most Underrated Movie Genre

Look. Women have been essentially asked to appreciate or at least tolerate the ubiquity of hypermasculinity in movies forever. They’ve been super good sports about it, considering how patently absurd and oftentimes excruciating those Fast & Furious and Transformers movies have been. But in the same way those types of movies have their redeeming qualities that keep us coming back to them like Rob Ford to crack, musicals is cinematic crack with an extra spoonful of estrogen. I’m just saying, it’s good to diversify.

Surely you can think of some examples of musicals you’ve liked. Even simple TV shows like Flight of the Conchords can act as a gateway drug to coming to appreciate the way songs can be used in screen-based storytelling. If you can get into the weird humor and frankly incredible songwriting of Bret McKenzie, then maybe you can get into John C. Reilly in Walk Hard, and move on to John C. Reilly’s fantastic turn in Chicago.

I find genre classification to be increasingly meaningless, or at least less rigid, as postmodern sensibilities push movies to be more and more reactive to conventions and mores that have defined these labels for the past century. As much as people say they have an aversion to any horror film, or western, or romcom, or any other arbitrary distinction, there are almost always exceptions to their stated tastes. And if not, all it takes is one expectation-defying movie to open the mind to a genre just a little bit. To me, that says that it’s more about the talent in front of and behind the camera than the generic tag stamped on a movie’s IMDb page. And therefore, even the most remotely open-minded movie watcher may hate The Music Man or Oklahoma or Rock of Ages but may find that Hairspray, Sweeney Todd or the upcoming Into the Woods taps into a part of them that they didn’t realize was dying to be let out and dance.

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