Movie Musicals and Why You (should) Love Them

Blog By: Ben Boquist

For years I’ve been a closet musical fan. In high school I kept two CD books in my car. One had cool acceptable music, indie bands, a Brit pop mix and some good old classic rock.

The other was always hidden in the glove box. It was full of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim albums; sprinkled with a few Disney soundtracks. I knew, and probably still know, every word to every song on these albums.

But the overreaching sentiment of our time (and certainly of my peers in the suburban Midwest) is that musicals were cheesy, campy and effeminate.

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve merged the two CD books. Because musicals are reclaiming their place at the center of pop culture.

They’ve been gaining popularity for some time, starting with Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002). Since then there’s been a big budget musical nearly every year.

From Justin to Kelly (2003)
Phantom of the Opera(2004)
Rent (2005)
Dream Girls (2006)
Hairspray (2007)
Sweeney Todd (2007)
Across the Universe (2007)
Mamma Mia! (2008)
Fame (2009)

And now with popular shows like Glee, it’s officially become cool (or at least quirky) for movie characters to break out into song again.

What is it about musicals we like so much?

They’re surreal. In Shakespeare’s day, it was accepted for characters to break out into soliloquies and talk about their feelings. Nowadays, that’s just not done. Musical numbers pause the action and let us inside the heads of the characters. Friends of mine who scoff at musicals like to remind me that “Nobody does that!”

“Who breaks into spontaneous song?” they say. “It’s so unrealistic.”

Which is, I think, why people watch them. In real life, actually, this happens all the time – just never outside our heads.

But mostly, musicals work because music is a powerful storytelling tool. In all movies, filmmakers use music to tell the audience how to respond to the images they’re seeing. Musicals just take this to the next level. Sweeney Todd, for example (which Tim Burton adapted from stage to film in 2007) wouldn’t be as eerie without Stephen Sondheim’s haunting, dissonant score.
Likewise John Waters’ broadly comic ’60s musical Hairspray (also from 2007) wouldn’t be as fun without its bouncy motown tunes.

It’s also worth mentioning that the genre is changing. Both of the examples I mentioned above were adapted from long-running Broadway shows. But there is a new, less derivative kind of movie musical.

The Oscar-winning Once (also from 2007, Great year!) is a small story. There are no big dance numbers and no chorus. Moreover, none of the dialogue is sung. All of the songs are explained within the story as performances. The few exceptions are edited in montages. The result is a musical that even my most anti-musical friends enjoy.

That’s the other thing about musicals. They’re as diverse as music itself. There are musical comedies, musical horror films, musical art films, etc. etc. etc.

SO… blustered by the knowledge of all that musical movies can be and are, I am no longer ashamed to sing Phantom of the Opera at the top of my lungs in LA traffic.

If you already love them, be proud about it! If you don’t (or think you don’t) dig a little deeper. Because musicals are here to stay!


5 comments on “Movie Musicals and Why You (should) Love Them

  1. Matthew Miles says:

    Yeah buddy!

  2. Great post Ben, and well observed. I would also argue that High School Musical begs mention in this conversation (even if I think it’s banal). Pre-Glee, it was the first filmed musical phenomenon of the past decade to make a significant cultural impact.

    You’ll also be amused to know note that Once, which began as a movie about music, is now officially a Broadway musical opening in the spring

  3. filmfunds says:

    Thanks guys! Lisa, I didn’t know about the Once Broadway show! That’s awesome! I am very amused indeed 🙂

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  5. […] Much of the language is tricky, the pacing is slow by modern standards and the acting style feels theatrical for those used to the realism of film. Usually that means I see plays alone. But now, thanks to […]

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