The curse of the musical interlude
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Strike down the band...
It's not that I hate songs in movies; My Fair Lady is usually a nose ahead of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the top slot in my all-time favourite films. It's not even that I hate musical interludes in movies per se, as they can provide a fascinating insight into character, or introduce a new character in a spectacular and meaningful way...
But for every musical interlude as memorable as Jessica Rabbit beguiling down-at-heel tec Bob Hoskins with 'Why Don't You Do Right?' in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), there are hundreds, if not thousands, of songs that are cynically slotted into movies to sell records, 'cover all bases' or just generally pause the plot. These are the musical interludes that follow the original 1930s principle of musical interludes: something for everyone.
It's a democratic idea, to be sure, but it's the kind of thinking that means no-one can totally enjoy such a movie in its entirety. Being linear experiences, movies aren't buffets from which you can pick the bits you want - they're four-course meals where you have to finish all your broccoli. For some, the 'song' is the only good bit; for those like me, the 'song' is usually the broccoli.
It's no coincidence that the very first full-length motion picture with synchronised sound - 1927' s The Jazz Singer - set the template for the 'musical interlude'. Until the advent of sound, the 'theatrical' paradigm of motion pictures was limited to the most visual essences of drama and comedy; the rich stream of 'book' and revue musicals, which had brought live musical narratives out of the elite world of opera and captured the public's imagination and money since The Black Crook in 1866, remained untapped. Hollywood was ravening for synchronised movie-music, and it set upon the opportunity with the table manners of a starved dog.
Neither is it a coincidence that the hugely popular revue musical The Ziegfield Follies, which had run in some form since 1909, took a four-year break from 1927-31 to regroup and adapt to the phenomenon of 'talkies', which was developing both the stylised cinematic 'book musical' and the almost plot-free Busby Berkeley musical extravaganza which would peak with Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933.
Gold Diggers was based on a 1919 stage play which had already been made into a silent film, but now revelled in the spectacular stylisations of Berkeley's love of glitz, girls and glamour...
The irony of the term 'talkies' is how much the talk/music ratio favoured the music. At least 'We're In The Money' was a half-decent tune, but the Hollywood Musical factory had to keep churning out product - whether the songs were any good or not - to satiate public appetite, leading to increasingly flimsy conceits for shoe-horning music into movies in the absence of the huge budgets that the likes of Busby Berkeley could command.
The 1934 outing Murder At The Vanities spliced together the popular Broadway revue Earl Carroll's Vanities with a murder-mystery - not without some box-office success. This inspired various European imitators of the 'murder in the theatre' theme, wherein a detective must solve a killing while the show - or its rehearsal - continues...
This is arguably where the rot set in. It's perhaps at this point where diverse audiences with very different tastes and interests began being served up 'two-for-one' fare. Hollywood's reductionist demographic mind-set figured that the guys would wait out the music to get to the bullets, and the gals would willingly filter out the derring-do and dastardly deeds to get to the songs.
There are plenty of songs in Murder At The Vanities, but by now Hollywood was already heading for the 'single-song musical interlude' which would be dropped into movies for decades to come like syrup on a hot dog - mainly because the provision of at least one song provided a broad demographic appeal in the trailers that preceded the main feature.
It hardly ever worked, artistically. But when it worked, it really worked. Dooley Wilson's rendition of 'As Time Goes By' for Casablanca provides a haunting song with a meaningful placement in the 1942 classic, giving the viewer some insight into the emotional barricade that Humphrey Bogart's apparently hard-boiled character has placed between himself, the memory of lost love, and even the belief that love is a meaningful pursuit instead of a blind-alley.
Casablanca makes music meaningful not once, but twice, with the famous scene where a musical battle develops between the Nazis' German patriotic song 'Die Wacht am Rhein' and 'La Marseillaise' in Rick's bar.
But these are venerated exceptions that prove the rule. By now the 'one song per movie' stricture was entrenching itself in Hollywood's output. Sometimes the songs were both bad and out-of-context, and sometimes, as with Che sarà, sarà in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), they were good but over-rated in terms of their ability to counterpoint the narrative of the movie.
Directors have always had to work within the constraints of whatever 'check-list' of movie requisites their producers and funders decree, but the best of them, as in Casablanca, turned an obligation into a benefit. Another ingenious example of integrating the 'obligatory song' into a movie's plot occurs in Michael Anderson's The Dam Busters (1955) - but at the expense of historical accuracy...
Wing Commander Guy Gibson (played by Richard Todd) did not in fact invent the spotlight altimeter for the 'bouncing bomb' runs against the dams of the Ruhr, nor was it invented in such glamorous circumstances (Benjamin Lockspeiser of the Ministry of Aircraft Production responded to Gibson's request for a solution to the problem of fixed-altitude low-flying by adapting a method that had already been in use by RAF Coastal Command for quite a while), but at least it gave Michael Anderson a chance to make his own musical interlude more than a mere cinematic valium.
By the time William Friedkin's gritty thriller The French Connection came out in 1971, the dark and oppressive tone of the 1970s was setting in; but even so, there's still a musical cameo by then-unknown girl-trio The Three Degrees. The 'obligatory song' was hard to kill, and every time it seemed to disappear, it would bounce back again like a roach unimpressed with your attempts to swat it. When Xanadu (1980) pretty much killed the movie musical for decades, the 'movie song' started to become more prominent as a marketing item, usually without accompanying visuals of the artist or band that generated it, as with Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away' (Top Gun, 1986), Joe Cocker's 'Up Where We Belong' (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982), and Christopher Cross's 'Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)' in Arthur (1981).
The attempt to get a hit single for a film pre-dated the eighties, as with Burt Bacharach's 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head' in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and 'The Morning After' from The Poseidon Adventure (1972), but sometimes lyric-free outings such as 'Duelling Banjos' in Deliverance (1972), and Meco's take on John Williams' theme for Star Wars (1977) proved to be left-field hits, along with 'hybrid' songs such as the lyrically-enhanced 'Where Do I Begin?', derived from the instrumental theme to Love Story (1970), given words by Carl Sigman and popularised by Andy Williams.
Robert Zemeckis's Back To The Future (1985) shamelessly revived the musical interlude when time-travelling Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) decided to introduce his parents' high school to rock 'n roll several years ahead of schedule with a Hendrix-like rendition of Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode'. Popular 80s band ZZ Top kept up the franchise's musical quotient with a personal appearance in Back To The Future Part III (1990), as an old West folk band replete with the group's own spinning guitar motif.
You never know exactly from which quarter the musical interlude is going to make a new assault on the public, and if very few would have suspected avant garde director David Lynch of doing his damnedest to re-popularise the 'impromptu song', it can only be because they've never seen the 'radiator woman' performing her disturbing turn in Lynch's semi-student entreé Eraserhead (1976).
There are very few Lynch movies which don't try and interpose a musical interlude. Even Dune (1984) is no exception; the extended network version - which Lynch disowned - features Patrick Stewart's Gurney knocking out a tune for House Atreides (it's pretty bad, by the way). Lynch's work is obsessed with music and particularly with performed music. The Twin Peaks TV series featured popular songs performed on-camera by Julee Cruise, in the wake of Chris Isaak's similar success with hit single 'Wicked Game' for Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990), following on from his inclusion on the soundtrack of Blue Velvet (1986).
There has been some respite for me from the curse of the musical interlude throughout the noughties - but at a price.The re-emergence of the successful movie musical in films like Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), and Mamma Mia (2008) ultimately led us to the reality-TV nightmare of audition shows and Fame-style fictional shows like Glee. And now I must live in a world where the High School Musical franchise exists. On the plus side, the popularity of these shows and movies has given the 'am-dram tune' somewhere dedicated to go, without it interrupting most of the new films that I watch. I know it can't last; when the musical dies again, history tells me that movies will once more be providing me with a musical 'kettle break' - and probably not of the standard of 'As Time Goes By'.
My only parting word to any producer who is contemplating breaking a plot up with a bit of a song and dance, is to consider that you're not the first movie genius to think this is a good idea...
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