The Sound Of Film Musicals: How Songs Shaped Showbusiness On The Silver Screen

Film musicals, a true American art form, have celebrated freedom in the cinema, self-expression and the pursuit of dreams down life’s yellow brick road.

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Film musicals are one of the most quintessentially American art forms, and one that was eventually exported around the world. Westerns originated from dime novels about cowboys, but musicals developed in tandem with Hollywood itself. Over the past 90 years, this cinema genre has celebrated freedom, self-expression, and the pursuit of dreams down life’s yellow brick road.

The fortunes of film musicals – movies that include lots of song and dance by the main characters, rather than an interlude of singing – have ebbed and flowed down the decades. Their heyday was arguably the 30s, when stars such as Fred Astaire and Judy Garland sang and danced their way through numerous hit movies every year, along with the golden era of theatre-inspired film musicals in the 50s and 60s. Even in thin decades, such as the 90s, however, there have been musical film gems such as Evita.

Down the years, Hollywood musicals came to epitomize the very idea of light entertainment, and though films such as Singin’ In The Rain, The Sound Of Music or La La Land are undoubtedly escapist, they have provided cinema with some of its most iconic moments. Evidence that little changes in terms of taste is the fact that Lady Gaga starred in the fourth remake of A Star Is Born.

Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper - Shallow (from A Star Is Born) (Official Music Video)

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Music and film have always been inextricably linked. Rudolph Valentino was dancing the tango on film in 1921 (in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse), and, only five years later, one of the first Vitaphone short films, which starred John Barrymore, had a score played by a 107-piece New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

A year later came the first feature-length “talkie.” The Jazz Singer, made by Warner Bros in 1927 and featuring Al Jolson, had seven songs and a few lines of screen dialogue, but its impact was seismic. Hollywood knew that massive structural changes were needed to alter the way audiences watched film. Though patrons were used to seeing music in live drama (that was a core of the Vaudeville tradition), many screen theatres had to show The Jazz Singer as a silent film because the venues were not wired for sound. By 1928, when Jolson’s second film, The Singing Fool, was released, most cinemas were equipped with new sound systems. That “musical talkie” set a record for box-office takings that stood for 11 years, until it was overtaken by Gone With The Wind.

The pace of change was dramatic. By 1929, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayers Studios (MGM) had caught up, and its film The Broadway Melody won the first Oscar awarded to a musical film. In the next decade “the studios turned out musicals like sausages,” according to one noted film historian. This was in part down to the effects of The Great Depression. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, many New York theaters closed. Stage stars – including Fred and Adele Astaire, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Maurice Chevalier, and Marilyn Miller – followed Jolson to Hollywood. Lucrative contracts also tempted Broadway songwriters and librettists into the new medium. Broadway producers were easily persuaded to sell the film rights to their shows.

With the ability to put the same movie in hundreds of thousands of picture houses, Hollywood operated on an entirely different financial scale to Broadway. The writers followed the money, with many of the new film songs written by Tin Pan Alley greats such as Harry Warren. A good example of the changing landscape was that esteemed theater composer George M Cohen (who, aptly, was the man who wrote “Give My Regards To Broadway”) had songs in 40 films during the Depression and only six in stage shows.

For Hollywood, however, everything was new. There was no proven formula for success and no established methods for musical filmmaking. There were no sound engineers nor cinematographers who were experts with sound cameras. As well as bringing obstacles, this also offered an amazing creative opportunity to people who moved across from the theatre.

Busby Berkeley Finale | Varsity Show | Warner Archive

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In the 30s, there was a focus on dance. Los Angeles-born Busby Berkeley, who choreographed or directed 19 film musicals in the 30s, created the distinctive and sensual kaleidoscopic birds-eye view shots of dancers. Berkeley’s use of motion cameras, in films such as Forty-Second Street (1933), made the audience almost part of the choreography. He was groundbreaking in utilizing swooping cranes, filming from trenches below the stage, or placing cameras on special tracks to capture audacious shots. He was also imaginative. The props in his stylized “moving pictures” included neon violins, huge flowers, and waterfalls.

The only rival to Warner Bros’ Berkeley films in the 30s was the RKO cycle of films featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – and that pair became superstars. The chemistry of the main performers is often the key to a musical’s success. That’s what happened with Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; or Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, right up to Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

Some of the film musicals from the 30s remain classics, as an audience’s desire for escapism was sated with top-class entertainment; in Top Hat (1935), Astaire and Rogers are at the peak of their form. The movie includes a host of show-stopping Irving Berlin songs (“Cheek To Cheek,” “Isn’t This A Lovely Day?”), lavish sets and a witty plot that make it an unalloyed joy. Incidentally, the songs that tugged at the emotions of viewers were known in the industry as “charm songs.”

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At the end of the decade came one of the best-loved musicals in cinema history: the Technicolor The Wizard of Oz (1939), ruby shoes and all. Teenager Judy Garland was a mesmerizing Dorothy in a warm fantasy that affirms the value of home. The film has an innocent charm, and also, in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” – with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg – one of the greatest of all movie songs.

“It’s been in me so long. I just have to let it out”

Film musicals such as The Wizard of Oz had nothing to do with realism, and the makers felt no need to explain the source of the music as the various outlandish characters perform the songs. As Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion says just before breaking into a song, “It’s been so in me so long. I just have to let it out.”

The film sums up one of the great delights of a musical – and, conversely, perhaps explains why it is also one of the most reviled film genres – that it is a place of transcendence, where time stands still and the everyday disappears in a whirl of music. Examples of this range from the chorines dancing on the wings of an airplane in Flying Down To Rio (1933), up to the bravura opening highway sequence in La La Land. Gene Kelly’s remark in Singin’ In The Rain – that he’s “gotta dance” – could sum up the whole of musical film history.

The onset of war did nothing to dampen the appetite for film musicals, and Garland remained a key figure in the medium. She followed … Oz with Babes On Broadway, Ziegfeld Girl (both 1941), and Meet Me In St Louis (1944). One Garland film of the 40s had more commercial impact than its artistic value perhaps merited: Till The Clouds Roll By, a

1946 biopic about the life of composer Jerome Kern, starring Robert Walker, was one of the first motion pictures to have a soundtrack album issued along with the film.

The album, featuring songs by Garland, Dinah Shore, and Tony Martin, was produced by MGM records and originally released as a collection of four 78rpm records. When the soundtrack was subsequently released as an LP, its success helped initiate the Hollywood practice of releasing a soundtrack album as a film’s ancillary product.

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A powerful Hollywood figure at the time was Arthur Freed. Once a skilled lyricist who had then been an associate producer on The Wizard Of Oz, Freed enjoyed a big success that same year with Babes In Arms. His self-styled “Freed Unit” at MGM was a team of master actors, writers, directors, choreographers, composers, and set designers. They created more than 40 of the great film musicals of the 40s and 50s, including Annie Get Your Gun (1950), An American In Paris (1951), Show Boat (1951), and Gigi (1951). MGM didn’t have it all their own way, though, as RKO’s Oklahoma! was one of the standout films of the decade.

Freed was responsible for bringing a new musical star from Broadway to Hollywood in the war years: the charismatic and graceful Irish-American Gene Kelly. As a dancer, Kelly brought a freshness and balletic-like vitality to a number of films, including A Place In The Sun (1951), a musical, based on the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, that won five Oscars.

MGM’s masterpiece, though, was Singin’ In The Rain (1952), regarded as one of the greatest film musicals of all time. Whereas Astaire was all about sophistication and style, Kelly was all down-to-earth charm. His umbrella-wielding, puddle-stomping solo dance to the title song of the movie is one of the most breath-taking moments in cinema history.

Singing in the Rain - Singin' in the Rain (6/8) Movie CLIP (1952) HD

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The songs – including “Make ’Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” are sublime, in a film that captured the chaotic transition between silent films and the coming of the talkies. And who can forget the unforgettable exuberance of the opening bars of “Good Morning,” as Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor perform a dance routine that involves an upended sofa?

The 50s film musicals were also vehicles for the star actors and actresses who had powerful singing styles. Doris Day was at her absolute best as the whip-crackin’, gun-totin’ frontierswoman in Calamity Jane (1953), while in the same year Marilyn Monroe was strutting her stuff in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The decade also saw superb adaptations of a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, including Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), The King And I (1956), and South Pacific (1958). The latter’s soundtrack proved to be a stunning success: the album was No.1 in both the US and UK, where it stayed for a record-breaking 115 weeks.

Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin' (From "Oklahoma!" Soundtrack)

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Sometimes jazz musicians would star in the films – such as Louis Armstrong in High Society (1956), or Nat King Cole in St Louis Blues a couple of years later – bringing an authenticity and glamour to the projects. However, the big transformation in this decade was that cinema became one of the main mediums in helping rock’n’roll make its breakthrough and create a new culture. Just as rock’n’roll broke down the hegemony of The Great American Songbook, rock musicals displaced the classic film musicals.

The King and his wiggling hips

All the early popular stars of rock made appearances in various movies, including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran. Musical performances were also presented in a different way. Gone were some of the stagey show dances. In their place came Berry and his notorious “duck walk”, which was captured on film in Go, Johnny, Go!). In addition, the use of rock music in soundtracks could trigger a record-buying craze, something that happened when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was used over the credits in the social issues movie The Blackboard Jungle.

There was no bigger rock movie star, though, than Elvis Presley. The screen loved The King and his wiggling hips. He made 31 films between 1956 and 1971, and even though many of them were formulaic and forgettable – boy-meets-girl stories laced with hit songs – they were an absolute cash cow for the studios. Presley’s films are estimated to have earned more than two billion pounds. Their dubious artistic value frustrated the singer himself but the best, such as Jailhouse Rock (1957), capture the magnetism of the young music star.

The 50s were not all about Presley movies, adaptations of theatre musicals or rock music vehicles; there had also been a variety of excellent music-based animated Disney movies, including The Lady And the Tramp (1955) – with all those brilliant Peggy Lee songs – and Sleeping Beauty (1959). There were still ambitious and creative film musicals, too, such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Jacques Demy’s beguiling sung-through operetta was based around Catherine Deneuve’s role as a shop assistant who gets pregnant.

The sound of music

Though this pattern of film musicals survived into the early 60s – when the movie version of West Side Story (1961) found screen success by keeping the music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim largely unchanged from the Broadway production – the studio system was going into decline. Public weariness with big-budget film musicals meant that they were few and far between in the 60s.

When they were on the mark, though, they still did spectacularly well, as with The Sound Of Music (1965) and Oliver! (1968), both of which were adapted from Broadway hits. Sometimes a cinema adaptation rivaled the stage version in the public’s imagination, as when Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for reprising her role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968).

One of the key changes in film musicals in the 60s came via The Beatles, who provided a dream-like version of the decade through their films. They also enjoyed incredible success with concurrently released soundtracks, with the superb songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In their first film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), director Richard Lester cleverly captured the insouciant wit and charm of the four musicians in what was almost an early example of an extended pop video, as The Beatles explore the absurdity of their global fame as they travel to Swinging 60s London. There was a similar anarchic freedom with Help! (1965). This was followed by the surreal and psychedelic Magical Mystery Tour (1967), the animated comedy Yellow Submarine (1968) and the 1970 documentary Let It Be, with the famous improvised rooftop concert.

The Beatles - Don't Let Me Down

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Though Let It Be was not the first music film documentary, it was one of the most popular. But this genre has its own distinguished history, ranging from fantastic concert films such as The Band’s The Last Waltz to Phil Joanou’s achingly beautiful documentary U2: Rattle And Hum. There have also been momentous documentaries on Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, The Clash, Glen Campbell and Tom Petty, right up to Amy Winehouse in 2015. Some of them have, as with Martin Scorsese and The Last Waltz and Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary, Made Of Stone, have been made by acclaimed directors who were not renowned for musical films.

The Beatles set a new standard for rock and pop film musicals, and the format of their first two films has been periodically updated in the half century since, for movies such as Prince’s Purple Rain and Spice Girls: The Movie. In the 21st Century, Eminem’s 8 Mile and 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ did for hip-hop what the former movies did for Prince, and Posh Spice and co.

8 Mile - Ending Rap Battles (BEST QUALITY, 1080p)

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Film musicals went through a tough time in the late 60s and early 70s. Though some showed that there was pots of money to be made – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for example – some big-budget movies around the time of the last Beatles film were box office flops. Paint Your Wagon, Finian’s Rainbow and Doctor Doolittle served as warnings for the industry. In addition, the poor quality of some – Andrew L Stone’s Song Of Norway and Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love were regarded as embarrassing failures – added to a sense of fatigue with the genre. Moreover, the values some old-fashioned Broadway musicals seemed to trumpet were regarded as incongruous at a time when second-wave feminism was growing and the backdrop was one of assassinations, the Vietnam War, and race riots.

Musical films were still made in the 70s, but the successes – Fiddler On The Roof, Cabaret, That’s Entertainment (the top-grossing MGM musical of all time) and Grease (which was riding the wave of a period of nostalgia for the 50s) – were the exception not the rule.

In the 80s, some films produced huge-selling singles and soundtracks, such as Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer and the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, with music by Los Lobos. But it was certainly not a consistent nor vintage decade for musicals. There were memorable films with music in them – the witty Blues Brothers, the blockbusters Footloose (1984) and Dirty Dancing, Clint Eastwood’s Bird, about jazz legend Charlie Parker, Amadeus, The Little Shop Of Horrors, The Commitments, with its dazzling Southern soul soundtrack – but if musicals were to bring in serious money, a new approach was needed.

The Little Mermaid - Under the Sea (from The Little Mermaid) (Official Video)

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By the start of the 90s, the characters most likely to burst into song were animated creations. Disney was responsible for one of the more successful modern-day musical movements: animated song-based blockbusters. Disney films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were released in quick succession, amassing a vast fanbase. The formula was strong. There were engaging stories, quirky characters, and songs that were neatly stitched into the plot. The Little Mermaid even tipped a nod to the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, with the choreographed song Under The Sea. The film won two Oscars and earned nearly $100 million.

Of all Disney’s great films of the era, perhaps none can match the musical appeal of The Lion King. Elton John helped compose the soundtrack after being asked to lend a hand by his friend, the lyricist Tim Rice. John said the experience of working on the movie and helping write iconic songs such as “Hakuna Matata,” “The Circle Of Life” and the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” “changed the course of my career and my life.” John joined a select band of popular music stars to have won Oscars for music, a roll call that includes Randy Newman, Prince, Lennon and McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Annie Lennox.

Cast of The Lion King - Can You Feel The Love Tonight (from "The Lion King")

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Though Disney ruled, live-action film musicals were not dead. Arnold Glimcher’s The Mambo Kings celebrated Latin American music, while Sister Act provided a box office hit for Whoopi Goldberg. Perhaps the most memorable musical film from that decade was director Alan Parker’s Evita (1996), which was adapted from the 1976 stage version and original concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

Parker, whose back catalog included Bugsy Malone, a charming musical remake – with a cast of children – of a Jimmy Cagney gangster movie, and The Wall with Pink Floyd, was given a $60 million budget for Evita. Lead star Madonna put heart and soul into her performance and the film ended up winning an Oscar for best original song for “You Must Love Me.”

Like Evita, the pattern throughout most of Hollywood’s musical history has been for shows to be translated into films. But there has been a trend in recent years for big-budget film musicals to be turned into stage shows, with the likes of Shrek The Musical, for example. However, The Lion King remains the blueprint of a successful film-to-stage transfer. The use of puppetry and African masks allowed the theatre version to mark out its own creative terrain, while still using all the popular songs from the films. By 2017, The Lion King stage musical had been running continuously for 20 years around the world, in more than 20 countries, earning more than a billion dollars.

The more offbeat examples of film-to-theatre productions include School Of Rock. Silence! The Musical (a spoof on The Silence Of the Lambs) and Monty Python’s Spamalot (inspired by Monty Python And The Holy Grail). Universal Movies has a subdivision called Universal Pictures Stage Productions whose job is to turn the studio’s intellectual properties into Broadway material. Among its adaptations are Cry Baby, Billy Elliot (once again featuring songs by Elton John), and, most famously, the transmutation of The Wizard Of Oz (the film rather than the original novel) into the global hit Wicked.

Billy Elliot The Musical | Official London Trailer

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Also running as a thread through films for nearly a century – musicals and dramas alike – has been the quality of the soundtrack. Film music was born out of classical music, so the two are bound to have a strong family likeness. One of the titans of early film music was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The composer was responsible for the score for the 1938 movie The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Korngold, who was described as a “musical genius” by Gustav Maler, was not alone in being nurtured in the great centers of European classical music such as Vienna, and these composers brought their rich symphonic heritage with them to Hollywood.

Classical music has infused the work of many of the great modern film composers, such as John Williams, the man responsible for numerous gems such as Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the Star Wars themes, and also underrated delights such as the music for Far And Away. Williams also worked on the music for Saving Private Ryan. When Spielberg showed him Schindler’s List, Williams said, “You need a better composer than I am for this film.” Spielberg replied, “I know. But they are all dead.”

Other leading score composers for Hollywood include Alexandre Desplat, Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry), Ennio Morricone (renowned for his Spaghetti Western soundtracks) and John Barry (Out Of Africa; James Bond soundtracks, including an iconic performance of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme”). The 60-year-old Hans Zimmer showed, with his collaborative work on 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, that he is still as masterful as ever. The German composer’s astonishing back catalog includes his score for The Lion King as well as the Pirates Of The Caribbean series and Gladiator.

In addition, some popular musicians have become almost as respected for film work as for their commercial albums (Ry Cooder being a good example). Sometimes film soundtracks give welcome exposure to country and folk artists who are not well known to the general public. Into this category would fall musicians such as Julie Fowlis (who sang “Into the Open Air” for Brave) or Finbar Furey (“New York Girls” on the Gangs Of New York soundtrack) or The Cox Family, whose “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)” is such a delight in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But these are three examples from thousands. And sometimes established performers create something special by re-interpreting a song, such as CeeLo Green with “Kung Fu Fighting” for Kung Fu Panda.

Film musicals in the 21st Century

So where do film musicals stand in the 21st Century? It might have seemed for a time that live-action musicals were nearly as endangered a film species as westerns, but there are still superb ones being made. Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002) both made the American Film Institute’s recent list of the 25 greatest movie musicals, while Richard Linklater’s 2003 comedy School Of Rock was the highest-grossing musical comedy of all time until it was overtaken by Pitch Perfect 2 in 2015.

The success of other recent film musicals, including Rent (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Les Misérables (2012) – in which actors such as Hugh Jackman performed their songs live – have demonstrated that there is still an appetite among digital-age audiences for captivating musicals. Mama Mia!, for example, received mixed reviews but still took more than $600 million at the box office in 2008.

Though film musicals were an art form created in America, they have taken on a life of their own all round the world – even if that was just the Soviet musical propaganda films under Stalin. One of the hubs of musical film has been Bollywood – where about 90 percent of all films are musicals – which played an instrumental role in the recent revival of film musicals in America.

Director Baz Luhrmann said that Moulin Rouge! was directly influenced by Indian cinema. Luhrmann said: “I like the movies of the 30s and the 40s, which have a contract with the audience. I was also very influenced by Bollywood movies, or Hindi movies. Cinema where the audience participates in a movie. Where they know they’re watching a movie at all times.”

La La Land (2016 Movie) Official Trailer – 'Dreamers'

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There were 100 musical films made in 1930 alone. In 2016, there were four live-action musicals released in the US. The one that stood out, of course, was Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. Chazelle, who was born in 1985, said it was revelatory to see Astaire and Rogers cheek-to-cheek in Top Hat. He recalled: “That was the initial thing where I woke up and went, “Oh my God, I’ve been sleeping on a gold mine.’”

La La Land won seven Golden Globes and six Oscars and took $445 million at the box office. Perhaps it will spark another revival of the musical film. La La Land lyricist Benj Pasek says that the current generation “grew up with the resurgence of Disney animation… and are primed for musical content.”

Who knows what will come in the 2020s? Maybe, to paraphrase Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, we just ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

Looking for more? Discover the best film scores of all time.

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