Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Reason Why Music Isn't Popular At the Movies (Anymore)

As to the subject of the last entry: why are movies about music so unpopular?

It is strange because at one time, movies and music were joined at the hip.  Musicals were very popular throughout the first decades of sound film.  It was common, too, for 
music-stars to become movie-stars.  Arguably, the last of the classic-Hollywood film musicals was the Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews from 1965.  Since then, music and movies have gone their own way, at least in the United States.  

Into the Valley of the Obsolete...
Hollywood movies almost always include music, of course, be it a specially-composed score, or (as more commonly in recent times), contemporary or old-time pop songs.  Many music-hits gain public attention, in turn, as theme-songs to box-office smashes.  But the modern involvement of music with movies, doesn’t extend very often to the production of choreographed spectacles of the classic type.  The few such musicals that were produced after the ‘60s, have been very popular — as with Grease in 1978, or the adaptation of Chicago, during the early century.  A recent production of Les Miserables was also successful, critically and commercially.  

It isn’t a lack of demand for musicals that prevents them from being made.  It is that the suppliers — the requisite movie and musical movers-and-shakers — lack the will or imagination to make them.  

There are two reasons for this, I believe.  

Firstly, the predominant style of popular music after the mid-1960s - rock - doesn't lend itself to extended choreography.  Rock music is used very often in movies to involve the audience in the action onscreen.  But when rock music itself is the subject of a film, it somehow seems rather boring and pedestrian.  This must be the reason why no biographical film has been made of the most popular entertainers of the twentieth century: namely, the Beatles. The latter, of course, had the one really successful rock movie.  But A Hard Day’s Night, from 1964, focussed mainly on the lads’ hijinks-ridden attempt to evade hordes of Beatle-maniacs while travelling to a TV studio.  

Recent Hollywood rock movies have been unsuccessful.  One complete bomb of a years ago was a rock musical set in the classic mould, Rock of Ages.  It was despised to the point of ridicule (though I actually liked it).  It seemed to make plain to most people, why rock and movies are so incompatible.  

I couldn't resist
It could be said that Grease was a “rock” movie.  But its music actually owed more to an older song-and-dance tradition, overlain with the doowop and r’n’b genres of the 1950s.  This dance-hall and minstrel style lends itself more readily to spectacular choreography, because movement is based mainly in the feet.  Tellingly, dancers of this era were often called “hoofers.”  But rock’s rhythmic backbeat comes from the blues.  It inspires movement in the hips, rather than the feet.  It is thus rhythmically of little interest to other than people dancing to it.  Attempts to choreograph rock movement for the obvious benefit of the audience, end up seeming mawkish and artificial (as undeniably, they do in Rock of Ages).  Dancing doesn’t seem so in the classic Hollywood musical, based in an inherently more spectacular rhythmic orientation.  

Still, rock long ago ceded to other musical forms, the industry dominance it had from the late 1960s to the early 80s.  Still, performers in most other genres of American pop music, have similarly not been able to break into Hollywood.  The obvious example is Madonna, a chart topper for three decades, but never consistently successful at the box office.  This is in spite of the fact that choreography has been an essential part of the music-videos produced by Madonna and other pop-music queens since the 1980s.  

Perhaps it was the very ubiquity of dance on music-television at the height of its popularity, which made people unwilling to also see it at the movies.  However, neither Madonna nor any other music star of the MTV era has been successful for their comedic or dramatic roles.  Apart from the undoubted incompatibility of rock music with the motion-picture form, there seems to be the sense that modern movies are of a different sensibility from contemporary song-and-dance.  

No matter how well a pop singer acquits her- or himself in a given film (and Madonna received good reviews for her 1984 film debut, Desperately Seeking Susan), movie-audiences will not continually accept a singer in roles very far apart from an onstage persona, or so it would seem.  At the other end, the overt use of singing and dancing during the course of a movie narrative, seems intrusive and artificial. 

This disengagement of the movie and music industries at the artistic level at least, has thus a second reason: specialization of talent, as occurs when any line of business becomes larger and more complex.  Under the studio-system, movie companies were heavily involved in music-recording.  They invested in promising and pretty novices, so as to expose them to audiences cross-platform (as it would later be called, on stage, screen, record and broadcast).  

But as the studio-system disappeared in its classic form, and the supply of talent came to vastly outnumber the demand for their labour by television, film and music industries, would-be entertainers have had to specialize in their craft in a way that precludes them being any good at any but one type of entertainment.  The studio-system actress could become a good singer and dancer (or vice-versa), because training in these fields was paid for by her employers.  Contemporary performers simply don’t have access to these subsidies.  They must attempt to “make it”, or even make a living, selling what they are “naturally” good at.  It might be said that the imaginative psyche of present-day entertainers, that which allows them to break out of the bound of “real life” to create a role, a melody or a movement, has become so preoccupied upon a particular type of artistic endeavour, that the other forms of expression, once so closely associated, undergo atrophy. 

Even the exceptions that “prove” (which is to say, test) this rule, end up confirming the larger point about the disparate sensibilities of modern movies and music.  The Brooklyn-born Barbra Streisand enjoyed a lengthy career as a successful actress and singer.  Popular during from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s,  she could be considered the last of this classic-Hollywood type.  Originally reaching prominence on Broadway, she then became a pop star, breaking into movies with the musical Funny Girl in 1968.  

Yet after that, Streisand appeared in very few musicals.  She was popular and lauded in both comic and dramatic roles.  But her status as a music-star ran parallel to her career as a film actress (and later, a producer and director).  Talented, hardworking or ambitious enough to be proficient or exceptional in several types of entertainment, Streisand somehow knew that they couldn’t be mixed together easily or at all, to any success.  

He's Going to Need a Bigger Bed
This is confirmed by the career of another Broadway type who succeeded in movies: the late Bob Fosse, who died too young in 1987.  Fosse’s early Hollywood films were musicals, such as Cabaret from 1972 (which he didn't stage originally).  But he didn’t thereafter direct a Hollywood musical, in spite of staging the successful Chicago in 1975.  He made the excellent All That Jazz in ‘79, about a Broadway choreographer much like himself, but it had only two musical sequences (one an arrangement of the Everly Brothers' Bye, Bye Love.  This and other Fosse pictures were, in complete contrast to the high-flying tone typical of the Broadway musical, downbeat stories of tragedy and heartbreak as resulting from success.  Again, as with Streisand, Fosse’s very twin oeuvre reflects the different sensibilities of popular song, the musical and the movies.  

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