Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Types of Musicals

Before I dive into Berkeley proper, I think I have to say something about musicals in general. There are, I think, three main types of musicals* - defining them by how the music is integrated into the rest of the film.

1) Music as expression of emotion: This is what most musicals seem to do. Characters will break into song in the middle of a scene, in the place of "normal", representational interaction. This is usually a means of expression the ineffable - when the emotion gets to be too much, they start to sing or dance. Sometimes these performances are rationalized as performances - or combined with performances, on stage, etc. - this happens in most Fred Astaire films - he is usually a professional dancer - but one who, when he meets that right girl, will break into a spontaneous bit of hoofing. This is what people tend to think of when they think of musicals - especially when they are inclined to make fun of musicals. It requires some suspension of disbelief, as we are expected to accept the fact that people start singing and dancing in the course of their daily lives. But it is a very powerful way of expressing emotion, especially - well, love, joy, desire, sex - it works as an intensification of the emotions, a realization of emotions in movement and sound. And hell, most of us, when we are happy, are inclined to do a jig or croon a bit... aren't you?

2) Performance-based musicals: this is the premise of the backstage musical - that the musical performances in the film (as film) are also performances in the story in the film. People in these films do not start singing when they start falling in love - they sing because they are on stage, or rehearsing, or to impress someone with their singing or dancing. In these films, music remains subordinated to the representationalism of the film - the musical numbers are always naturalized in the story. Films that are not always taken as musicals do this - Marlene Dietrich's films - Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus - do this. She never sings to express her inner being as such - she sings because she is a professional singer. Obviously, the songs can be expressive of what she really feels - but they are still presented as performances in a realistic (in this sense at least) story. Documentaries also do this, of course - as do mockumentaries, and musicals about rock bands, biopics, and the like.

3) The Singing Detective style musical: this type of musical number is not very common in the 30s. Here, the musical numbers are presented as imaginary. That is - in the performance-based musicals, the music is shown as a more or less realistic performance in a diegetically consistent world. In "expressive" musicals, characters start singing in places they would not in "realistic" films - their singing and dancing is not presented as a performance in the film - but as an extension of their normal behavior. It is, however, completely, literally real, in the world of the film. This third type of musical, on the other hand - represented by films like The Singing Detective, The Hole, etc. - depicts the musical numbers as imaginary - it creates a second order of reality, a fantasy world. In The Singing Detective, the characters don’t literally get out of bed and start crooning - they only imagine it. I'm not sure what the original of this is - but it has a clear precursor in the “ballet sequences” in some of Gene Kelly’s films. They are set apart from the main diegetic world of the films (which in most cases does include "expressive" singing and dancing, and usually performances to boot) - either as explicit dream sequences, or as deliberately non-diegetic inserts.... This kind of musical is much more common now, in the 80s-00s, then it was in the classic days, and it occurs in a much purer form now. Kelly's films, even if you consider the ballets to be the ancestor of this kind of film, always contained conventional performances, of both types. Films like The Singing Detective do not - the music is always fantasy. They also tend to make these kinds of musical numbers functions of their characters' psychology as well - rather than as formal devices, dropped in by the director, say, to comment on the material, or just for the hell of it.

These types are interesting to Berkeley for a couple reasons. First - the 33 films are strictly backstage musicals - characters do not start dancing or singing to express their emotions - they always perform. (There may be a couple exceptions but I don’t remember any.) Now, these performances often carry the same function as the other kind - but they are still naturalized. Take Dick Powell singing to Ruby Keeler in Golddiggers of 1933 - he’s obviously pitching woo to her, but he does it in a completely diegetically plausible context. He is demonstrating his latest song, which happens to be about her. Second - though the singing and performances are always naturalized in the film - always presented as performances - the actual dance numbers are completely impossible. This is one of the things that makes those films so striking, formally. It gives them (among other things) some of the affect of the third type of musical number - it creates another world, existing purely in the film. This effect is particularly strong in numbers like "42nd Street" or "Lullaby on Broadway" - these pieces create imaginary worlds, that only refer to anything in the film outside them obliquely, maybe symbolically - they are self-contained, and primarily self-referential.

Next up - turning to the films themselves, and seeing what we can find there.

*Actually, that's silly - there are a lot more than three - what about, oh,
Umbrellas of Cherbourg? Forgive me for oversimplifying... The three are the ones useful for talking about Busby Berkeley.

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