The Rules of the Musical

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Music has been a part of cinema as long as sound or longer if you consider the original idea of piano accompaniment. But what’s the difference between a film with music and a musical film?

When you think of musicals, you think of an actor singing in place of talking, usually in some extremely unrealistic, distracting way, which is why many haters grumble at the thought of sitting through the tortuous experience. However, not all musicals fit this mould. Some have diegetic sounds such as instruments and record-players on screen as do many non-musicals, whilst others have mysterious music playing from nowhere, which again is not limited to the musical genre.

The way in which we differentiate musicals from other films is not by the prevalence of music or even the type of music. It is by the way the film leads us to identify with the music. If you’re meant to leave the cinema singing, if you’re meant to enjoy the music you can hear, if the film makes you fall in love with its music or if without the music the film couldn’t exist, then you’ve probably watched a musical.

The way in which music has been used in cinema has evolved greatly since the talkies, from original classical compositions to lovingly chosen pre-established pop songs, from wonderfully crafted mood music only registering on the subconscious level to iconic  unforgettable moments of instantly recognisable sound. But the musical genre has changed surprisingly little and there are a few simple rules to make a musical masterpiece. Of course rules are meant to be broken…

Rule 1: Every musical needs good songs. Starting with an obvious one but it remains the biggest downfall of films in the genre. Of course it’s not easy to write several hit tunes but the music is the framework of musicals. A film of this genre lacking good tunes is like a horror missing a monster or a detective thriller without a plot. Now, I believe that style and cinematography turn a film into a masterpiece but without a framework that style falls apart.

Rule 2: Good songs do not make a good musical. So it’s certainly true that great music can sell a film all by itself. But if you believe film is a powerful art-form with its own unique abilities you’re going to want more than a story set to music. Most Disney films are essentially musicals which rely on catchy numbers and a simple plot. In the 1970’s Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice sold tickets to their stage shows by releasing a record, which produced hits before the show was ever seen. However, to become favourites of their respective fans, both animations and stage musicals need to offer something beyond chart-toppers. For grown-up films this is even more true. You can’t just film a good stage-show to make a good film.

Rule 3: Don’t stop and sing. Because of the nature of most popular songs, (referring to their standard length, the repetition of a chorus, a beginning, middle and end within one song and the crucial space for dancing) it is difficult not to cut the film up into songs linked by non-musical passages. This is how most early musicals were. The songs stood alone highlighting crucial moments of the plot but not advancing the plot any further. Now, there are more important things than plot and it is difficult to weave repeated lyrics into a progressing story arc, but nonetheless every song number in a music should add to the whole film, not pause it.

Rule 3: Decide how music works in the film and stick with it. It’s already been said that not all musicals feature actors singing unrealistically but most do feature singing of some description. Quite often the music accompaniment is unnatural whilst the actor can be seen making the vocal sound. This still works even if the film doesn’t explain the mystical ability of the fictional world. However, when it is not clear how the characters and music interact, confusion can hinder the flow of the film. For instance, it is common for characters to sing their inner feelings, temporarily freezing the plot, in order to express their current turmoil, but when another character suddenly responds as if that person was speaking out loud, it leads to confusion over the established rule.

Rule: Remember the other elements. The musical genre has more definitive elements than music, the main one being the choreography. Not all films will have a big dance number but the movement that accompanies a song makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the music.

Rule: Get behind the story. Musicals shouldn’t really take themselves seriously. It gets very difficult to appreciate the gravity of a subject when the actor is singing the words at you. But this does not stop musicals from tugging at the heart-strings or eliciting true emotion. They can tackle all sorts of emotive subjects and as with any film there should be more to contemplate when the final curtain falls. But musicals will struggle to be as hard-hitting or disturbing or provoking because they are so entertaining, they are lighthearted and paradoxically they are more absorbing. If a musical can create a long-lasting impact beyond a catchy song in your head and the memory of a wonderful dance number then it is truly a masterpiece.

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